Surprising as it may seem, the wave of comment following the death of former Iwerne Chairman and serial abuser John Smyth very nearly wasn’t the worse news for the Church Of England last week. The fact that it wasn’t is all down to good police officers knowing their job and doing it well. Let me explain.
Regular readers of this blog may recall the story of ‘Dave’ – a victim of sex abuse by multiple clergy including Peter Ball. Before anyone thinks of sceptically commenting on that, please don’t: it is not that uncommon, and Dave has jury verdicts against both clerical abusers to verify his story. The past few months have been utterly traumatic for him, and the Church of England hasn’t hitherto been terribly supportive, as my earlier piece about him explained.
Dave has been working with 13 other abuse victims to help the church improve its safeguarding performance, and, applying the maxim that the Lord helps those who help themselves, they undertook a survey of all CofE dioceses to see how well they were performing in the application of the basic recommendations sensibly promoted by the National Safeguarding Team. Victims surveyed over 600 churches and websites to see whether the recommended posters were displayed in prominent and accessible places so that any church member who had concerns knew what to do and who to tell.
Being especially concerned with children, they knew from NSPCC research that most young people today secure their information from the internet, so they paid particular attention to church websites to ensure that young visitors would be well served with links both within the church, to diocesan safeguarding advisors, and to Childline.
So far so good.
The problem began when they compiled a table of results, with Lincoln and Salisbury coming out top. It was plainly based on a small but not insignificant sample, but well done to them – do kick on. Salisbury’s poster included a Q code which could be scanned taking one straight to the website – good innovative use of technology.
Our digital initiative ‘A Church Near You‘ apparently had not included the links, but that is now in hand. We are making progress.
The problem was that others responded less well. When one of the worst performing dioceses was notified of the results by email, instead of accepting the challenge to ‘up their game’ the Diocesan Safeguarding Advisor (DSA) immediately went on the defensive. A phone call was put through to the NST where, unfortunately, the person who had knowledge of the survey was on holiday, and the person who took the call had no knowledge of the initiative.
Hearing this, the DSA emailed incumbents around the Diocese that there was a hoax survey doing the rounds, and advising incumbents to give the perpetrator short shrift if they got in touch. This was shared with the DSA of another lower performing diocese ( I stress, on a relatively small survey).
Now pause and ask yourself how such a negative and defensive response might play out with a fragile victim of multiple clergy abuses and institutional scepticism from the very first day he raised his abuse with the church.
In the last three months Dave has attended the IICSA inquiry as an admitted Core Complainant. This means that he is regarded as a high status asset to the Inquiry. He attended a preliminary hearing of his second abuser where that abuser saw fit to come and sit next to him in the public gallery whilst waiting to be called. He attended the final hearing when the abuser pleaded guilty to 17 counts on the indictment. After IICSA had heard about Peter Ball, the Independent Police Complaints Commission decided that the original investigation into Ball conducted by Gloucester Police needed revisiting, so Dave’s local police force was asked to re-open its investigation into that original inquiry, necessarily requiring the re-interviewing of Dave who is still undergoing therapy, having only comparatively recently begun it, because the church offered help impractically far from his home and he now gets that therapy only thanks to the support of an anonymous well-wisher. The CofE currently funds none of this.
This has placed an enormous strain on Dave. Even beginning therapy opens a can of worms for most victims, even before one navigates other factors. When Dave learnt that a diocese was labelling him a hoaxer, and he was yet again persona non grata to the church, it was all too much for him, and he was overwhelmed. He was part way through taking 400 paracetamol tablets when, thank God, the local police Victim Support Officers knocked on the door following a request by the re-interviewing officers who were professional enough to realise that he was a vulnerable person who might need (and deserve) some TLC. Dave was taken to hospital and spoke to me the following day to tell me what had happened.
The Church of England nearly had a death on its hands because a diocesan safeguarding officer was too thin-skinned to take criticism in a constructive form. This typifies the old approach, and why the Archbishop of Canterbury correctly identified at IICSA the need for an end to the culture of deference. It needs to change urgently. The proper response to criticism or complaints about safeguarding needs to begin with the words: “Thank you for telling us…”
On hearing the story, before I began drafting this piece, I wrote to members of my Deanery and friends in my Diocese. Our performance was not disastrous, but nothing to brag about. Everyone who replied was positive, and grateful to be reminded that a chain is only as good as its weakest link. I was especially gratified by the response by one incumbent who took the trouble to write even though he was on holiday: “I wanted to thank you for your note and would ask you to pass on my thanks to the groups you have been working with. This is my first incumbency and I have set safeguarding as a priority for the church since I arrived here at the end of April when I commissioned a safeguarding audit of the church (see attached). I will ask that a clear notice is put on the website this weekend if at all possible.”
He attached a detailed schedule of rolling action which he planned to implement over the coming months: it was thorough, comprehensive and well-structured. When I reported to Dave the responses I had received, and this one in particular, he was very pleased and reassured. After the bad response, it gave him cause for hope. What was also striking was that this response coincidentally came from the church where he had been baptised as an infant. Hope was renewed in the same place.
I ought to say, for my own part, that this response from a first-time incumbent really gives one heart. I did not embarrass the poorly performing dioceses, so I will not embarrass the new incumbent (but Rev’d Nathan Ward knows who it is!). One would like to think that nobody who fails to follow Rev’d Nathan’s example will make it to the top in future years: our newly trained cohort of priests will almost certainly have a better grasp of these matters than the majority of those in leadership roles in the CofE and Iwerne/Titus Trust over the past 50 years.
It would be easy to kick the NST in this story for its lack of sharing information during holiday time, but we ought to leaven that with recognition that the work that led to Rev’d Nathan being so well trained and motivated was surely rooted in the policy and training initiatives put together by the NST over the last three years. There are things they have got seriously wrong but others they have got very right, and I should say so when the opportunity arises. Good practice is rarely accidental: someone has to devise it.
But this goes hand-in-hand with the right attitudes of those who learn.
I had hoped to close this piece here on a positive, upbeat note. But appalling attitudes remain abroad. Since I began writing, Dave received the following from a CofE clergyman:
…why do survivors such as you keep hounding the church over safeguarding? I have had enough of the vexatious torrent of abuse over how we handle safeguarding. I wish that survivors would crawl back from under the stone that they came from. Safeguarding is the churchs responsibility. Not the survivors. They probably enjoyed their abuse.
And we wonder why the young are not beating a path to our doors.