Sarah Mullally Bishop of London the buck stops here
Church of England

Fr Alan Griffin (RIP): the buck stops with Bishop Sarah Mullally

Upon taking office as 33rd President of the United States, Harry S. Truman famously placed a sign on his desk to remind himself of the awesome responsibility which the Office of President carries. ‘The Buck Stops Here’ was a clear and concise expression of principle, but above all it was a profoundly moral statement, accepting the onerous burden of the Office with no attempt at buck-passing deflection. Whatever his political failings, Truman did the world a favour by providing a fine example of the importance of accountability and the acceptance of responsibility.

Early in my legal career, a wise and kindly registrar gave me advice in similar terms: “I never accept from a solicitor the excuse ‘I delegated’,” he advised me, and I have always remembered it and applied it in my dealings with court clients and staff. It not only has the merit of conveying complicity, but it engenders confidence all round. This is especially important in the case of an organisation: if staff members know you will not throw them under a bus at the first sign of trouble, they are more likely to confess error and avert disaster before it becomes unavoidable. Integrity at the top is essential in all walks of life.

We are fairly used to politicians walking away from the morality of that dimension of leadership. Too often we find ministers holding on long after the general public know that they should have departed, and the tradition of the honourable resignation is almost extinct. One of the last people to be worthy of respect on this account was Labour Education Secretary Estelle Morris, who famously judged herself to be “not up to the job”, and so she resigned. I have always admired her, and regret that more have not followed her honourable example.

There is a similar problem within the Church of England. What exactly do we mean when we say that our Bishops are responsible for their dioceses? The question arises frequently in the Safeguarding context, and His Grace’s recent post asks all the right questions in a plain and direct way when he considered the Bishop of London’s response to the death of Fr Alan Griffin.

The Diocesan Statement is long on hand-wringing and good intent, but painfully short on acceptance of real responsibility.

It is not an entirely straightforward problem. While many victims/survivors and accused clergy would like to see these matters outsourced entirely from the in-house management of Diocesan Bishops, others say that the Church of England must be closely involved in the management and disciplining of clergy for whom they hold pastoral and legal responsibility. It seem that the latter view prevails and will continue to do so. Perhaps that’s the right answer, but surely not if the consequence is that the buck continues to be passed and ultimately stops nowhere?

I am indebted to a clergy colleague who drew my attention to the fact that what we currently have across multiple layers of the Church of England a culture of evolved helplessness. It suits the Church that its arcane and devolved structures keep the buck constantly in motion until everyone loses interest after we have a ‘learned-lessons review’ which is not publicly available and nobody reads. And so nobody gets called to account, and nobody walks form the crease.

The Archbishop of Canterbury has often pointed out that he is not a pope, and he is right. Despite a common assumption, his writ does not run unchallenged even within his Province let alone across the whole Church. If you state that the CofE is “Episcopally led and Synodically governed”, Church House will correct you. The House of Bishops may look as if they are neither leading nor being governing, but in fact each bishop is his or her own authority. General Synod members may appear to have power and influence, but we frequently find that the questions to which we seek straight answers are ruled ‘out of order’ and that there is no full accountability in the exercise of power. This is all before we have the Bishops deferring to their Diocesan Safeguarding Advisors in safeguarding matters, and then to the National Safeguarding Team – all overseen by the National Safeguarding Steering Group.

I think my clergy friend has put his finger on the problem. This complexity is not accidental. The accretion of layers have served to distance office-holders from responsibility and accountability so that His Grace is absolutely right to boil down the systemic miasma in the case of Fr Alan Griffin to these simple questions:

Is nobody to blame? Is corporate “deep regret and sorrow” sufficient when a priest kills himself because he could not cope with an investigation into his conduct, the detail of and the source for which he had never been told?

Who should have told him? Isn’t at least that person to blame? Who passed to the Roman Catholic Church the unsubstantiated allegations of child abuse? Isn’t that person to blame? Whose job was it to gather evidence and seek verification? Isn’t that person to blame? Is nobody really going to take responsibility?”

These are key questions for the next General Synod to grapple with, and those seeking election to it ought to make their positions clear on how they will approach the continuing scandal of a lack of responsibility and accountability.

It seems to me that in an institution which aspires to lead the nation in high standards of public morality, the integrity of leadership should be of prime consideration. If one has been part of a House of Bishops that has allowed responsibility and structures to become so diffuse and ineffectual that His Grace’s simple questions cannot be answered in a straightforward way, there must surely come a point at which a Bishop examines what has happened, and if nobody else ought to take responsibility for the institutional failings, they reach a very simple conclusion.

“If nobody else will takes responsibility, then I shall. The buck stops here.”

That may sound harsh. The Bishop may have had no direct involvement or even knowledge of the failing, and, moreover he or she may have so much more to contribute from their wide variety of talents. But can we really escape from our stated institutional position, which is that the responsibility for Safeguarding within a diocese lies with its bishop? As presently formulated what else can this mean?

If the reality is that accountability runs only to the extent of instituting a ‘learned-lessons review’, should we not just say so plainly, and accept the derision that would inevitably follow? “The Bishop must hold a learned-lessons review” isn’t much of a policy; in fact, it is decidedly bathetic, but if that is the reality of our view of accountability maybe we should just say so.

And lest you think that a learned-lessons review is a suitable response, has anyone heard what is happening about the failings of Bishop Steven Croft in the matter of Matthew Ineson? Is there to be any announcement of how that review is progressing? A man died there, too. He may have been an abuser, but at present Matt Ineson, his victim, seems to be the only one wanting a full investigation as to how the Church of England failed them both – or how certain bishops or a certain bishop failed them both.

So that is two bishops with suicides hanging round their necks, and not much accountability at all. Perhaps another learned-lessons review?