church of england safeguarding
Church of England

‘General Synod has no confidence in the Church of England’s capacity to regulate its own safeguarding culture’

The laicisation of former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick by the Roman Catholic Church was one more step on the long journey towards cleansing that institution of sexual abuse, much of it at the highest of levels. McCarrick had been Archbishop of Washington and a key figure in both national and church politics.

The ousting of such a figure does not happen easily, even when rumours of improper activities reach the higher echelons of the Church, and on Sunday, Roman Catholic priest, writer and Consulting Editor of the Catholic Herald broke ranks and named the problem:

One should not underestimate either the difficulty for (or the integrity of) such a priest making such a statement. The Roman Catholic priesthood, for good or ill, is a more orderly and disciplined cadre that its Anglican counterpart, and the willingness to name ‘the elephant in the room’ is as unexpected as it is to be welcomed. The righteous anger of the press and laity is likely to continue as further potential miscreants fall under suspicion.

As the General Synod of the Church of England gathers at Church House today, one wonders how many of its representatives will be similarly courageous in challenging those responsible for the ongoing inadequacies of our safeguarding regime. If so, they will have to add ingenuity and a thick skin to their armoury to make significant progress on this occasion, for the odds are stacked against any meaningful engagement with the problems during the current sessions.

You might have thought that a church anxious to restore its reputation would be keen to talk, to speak of positive achievements and plans, or of victims engaged and justice delivered. But you will not find much on the agenda to quicken the spirit of purposeful reform. There is not much room to ask, to challenge, or to call on those overused terms (but less practised virtues of) transparency and accountability.

Of course, several of our core functions will be discharged, and important internal legislation will be debated and passed. We shall be discussing evangelism at length, though whether a nation is yet ready to forgive and listen to a church still out of touch with many of those it has abused and alienated is a good question. It is a question we may not get round to considering.

We shall, of course, be discussing climate change, and shall be ending our deliberations with the most anodyne of motions on the nation’s divisions: the Established Church is to be exhorted to pray for those in authority, for the poor and marginalised, and for reconciliation. One cannot help but observe that half of those in our country who truly care already know that we do this regularly, and they probably think we don’t really need to debate that. The other half assumes that we do it anyway, and the rest really won’t notice and don’t care.

Meanwhile, there is a great deal of debate to be had concerning our manifold sins and wickedness where victims are concerned; ongoing sins of commission and omission. Whether that is as a result of cronyism or corporatism is a matter for debate – which in this case we shall not have.

The public are interested in what those victims say as a pre-condition of listening to us on other subjects. The Bible is strong on justice and lifting the broken – especially those we helped break in the first place – and they might just notice that our victims will not be present and their questions will not be voiced much in the Chamber. But even on the margins, they are not silent and will not go quietly or unheard.

Since Safeguarding reared its head in polite Church society, we have not had a dedicated, full and widespread debate on what exactly the problem is. We have not had a fundamental, open and wide-ranging debate on whether the root cause of past and present failure is. Are we talking about individual failing, prior indifference, lack of knowledge, poor structures, inadequate training, naivety, bad leadership or a combination thereof? One could speculate at length both historically and today, and yet surely diagnosis ought always to precede treatment. The Church of England never began with that debate and still hasn’t really had it. Apparently, finding a suitably-worded motion was problematic.

Perhaps ‘General Synod has no confidence in the Church of England’s capacity to regulate its own safeguarding culture’ might stimulate the necessary discussion.

There might be many core problems identified. For myself, I would identify three fundamental weaknesses:

First, we are constantly compromised by conflicts of interest within our leaders who simultaneously wish to be pastors to the complainants, good employers to the accused, careful managers of investigation, impartial judges of the evidence, and preservers of the reputation of the institution. This just cannot be done, but letting go of control manifestly comes very hard to an institution that perceives itself as an expression of God’s will on earth.

Second, we have an instinctive distrust of letting go of central power, which you might think odd in an institution which rigorously defends the individual rights of its 42 Diocesan Bishops. Most (all?) of them are famously pro-EU, which is another institution suffering democratic deficit. In the same way that the EU pays lip-service to the nation state, so we see that for all that the major decisions are expressed as coming from the House of Bishops, the reality appears to be that much of the strategic decision-making emanates from Church House.

The July 2018 ‘Summary of decisions by the House of Bishops and Delegated Committees‘ records briefly at para 17: “The House endorsed the course of action presented to them by the Secretary to the House of Bishops regarding the approach structures and legislative framework for Safeguarding at national level.” This is all very correct in terms of how we currently do things, but is this the best way?

Was this not the way of doing things that created the infamous ‘Past Cases Review‘?

Was this not the process that created the Bishop George Bell debacle? The Church of England leadership will still not follow the plain and increasingly irritated advice of its independent investigator Lord Carlile, who said: “The Church should now accept that my recommendations should be accepted in full, and that after due process, however delayed, George Bell should be declared by the Church to be innocent of the allegations made against him.”

Was this not the way of doing things that received a detailed complaint about the abuse by John Smyth six years ago, and in answer to my question as to progress answers:

Since February 2017, the National Safeguarding Team, working in co-operation with Hampshire Police, has sought to ensure that all those affected by the alleged abuse committed by John Smyth were offered support and counselling. Following John Smyth’s death, the criminal enquires continued. In late October 2018 Hampshire Police confirmed that no other charges would be brought against anyone else regarding his alleged abuse. Since then, the NST has been in active dialogue with the key organisations relevant to John Smyth’s involvement in the Iwerne Camps, with a view to securing a collaborative approach to the commissioning of a lessons learnt review. The Church believes that a meaningful review requires the engagement of all relevant organisations. To date, the Church has not been able to secure this agreement with the other organisations, but we continue to be in active dialogue regarding this.

The complainant – with whom I am in direct communication – assures me that he has barely been formally supported and assisted by the church and knows not of any victim who has. He writes:

So, there in the answer is the answer….. “To date, the Church has not been able to secure this agreement with the other organisations, but we continue to be in active dialogue regarding this.” So, despite endless contact….. three meetings, a promise that it would be announced by Christmas, I learn, from a written answer, that no progress has been made. That is soooooooo crap….. for goodness sake why not tell me this direct. I am almost hyperventilating I am so angry. It is CRAP. No review is happening, because they cannot get everyone into line……

If an NHS Trust, or a probation body, or a parish needs investigating, as something has gone wrong, and that body says “no, not going to cooperate”, do authorities in those spheres say “oh, that is a pity, we cannot investigate”? If all guilty (in the general sense of open to criticism) parties refuse to play ball, then nothing would ever be investigated. I agree that an inquiry will be better if all do contribute, and will be easier and quicker if all play ball, but no one surely has a veto??? If the Catholic Cardinals refuse to cooperate, it does not just get stopped, it carries on (and makes public and criticises their refusal). But just because, presumably, Iwerne refuses to play ball……. there is no investigation? Really??

Most worryingly, it does not appear that the basic investigation and recording of witness evidence has even begun. Many of the potential witnesses are currently Anglican priests under safeguarding discipline. Some of those associated with Smyth and the Iwerne Trust have died. If witnesses accounts and denials of knowledge (if appropriate) are not captured in a timely way, may not their reputations be placed “under a cloud” of complicity in the cover-up by some future archbishop without evidence, just as Justin Welby has tainted the memory of Bishop George Bell? Justice requires due process to victims and those under suspicion alike. We are woefully failing many in this case.

The third fundamental weakness is our greatest. We still do not properly engage with our victims. Last July, a victim stood on the stage before the assembled Synod and told her story. She received a standing ovation. Later, at a fringe event, to their great credit, both Archbishops and several Bishops attended a meeting at which a number of victims explained their suffering and their frustrations at how we have treated them. It was very uncomfortable for those with responsibility to hear, but they did so with patience and grace.

The victims had previously delivered a booklet to every General Synod Member entitled We asked for bread but you gave us stones. It was a harrowing read, cataloguing neglect, hard-heartedness and indifference. We thought it was going to be a game-changer. It proved not to be, so this Synod is being given an update. And so we wait.