bullying church of england priest suicide
Church of England

The immoral, scandalous and disgraceful nature of CofE bullying

‘Immoral, scandalous or disgraceful’ is a phrase from the Statutes of Christ Church, Oxford: it describes behaviour warranting disciplinary action being undertaken within that institution, but it is also an entirely appropriate description of the way in which the Church of England has handled the case of the late Fr Alan Griffin, an innocent man who was institutionally bullied to death by a church he had served for most of his life.

Instead of those responsible owning up to the consequences of their actions and either offering their resignations or facing disciplinary action, we are to have another ‘Lessons Learned Review’, a response which is equally immoral, scandalous and disgraceful.

What such a review will mean in practice is that the Church of England will appoint a reviewer of its own choosing; devise its own terms of reference without consultation with any outside party; work in conjunction with its usual lawyers who have little daily experience of front-line safeguarding, whose primary purpose will be to ensure that the matter is directed towards the least controversial of outcomes, and, above all, nobody will actually be held personally accountable in any significant way. It will take many months before reporting, when interest has died down. How do I know this? It is simply because that is what usually happens with ‘Lessons Learned Reviews’.

I used to professionally instruct experts on the propensity of suspected persons to continue their bad behaviour, and the guiding principle they applied was always the same: “The best predictor of future behaviour is past behaviour.” On that basis, the outlook is not good.

Several years ago the Church of England declared a commitment to the principles of ‘Transparency and Accountability’, yet that remains a distant aspiration. There are many obvious examples. Question-and-Answer sessions at General Synod are frequently treated as a cat-and-mouse game by Church House, with the avoidance of giving a straight answer to an inconvenient question the preferred default option. The powers that be will never say what ‘Lessons Learned Reviews’ cost us, so General Synod never knows and cannot assess whether they are value for money.

We have presentations followed by questions, which means that General Synod members never get the opportunity to challenge the directions of travel for reform proposals (until it is all too late and too much time and resource has been committed, so it passes with a few dissenting voices). This is how we ended up with the last failed CDM package.

Non-Disclosure Agreements with whistleblowers have been replaced with “confidentiality clauses”, so that’s alright then.

Institutionally, we remain committed to reputation management despite having nominally rejected that priority, following the recommendations of the IICSA report.

So be clear, when the Church of England talks of ‘Transparency and Accountability’, it is reasonable to be suspicious.

The Senior Coroner Mary Hassell, however, practises a far greater degree of openness and transparency, and so we have learnt three important things from her report in the sad and sorry case of Fr Alan Griffin.

Firstly, it is possible for a case to pass through our shambolic procedures with nobody noticing that this was never actually a safeguarding case to answer.

This is not a unique failing. The recent case of Canon Paul Overend passed through an equally gruelling process resulting in the Canon and his wife being placed under clinical observation for suicidal ideation, and now we learn that the whole process had no legal foundation whatsoever. Dean Martyn Percy similarly received no answers when he questioned the jurisdictional basis for the Church of England process initiated against him. When we challenge the church with not knowing what it is doing in the area of safeguarding, there is more than ample evidence for the proposition.

Secondly, the Coroner found that “nobody took responsibility for steering the direction of the process from start to finish for making coherent reasoned evidence based decisions that made sense in the context of the information that was available to the team as a whole”. (Read that again, slowly.)

You might expect clergy to be familiar with sifting: in Scripture the wheat is to be separated from the tares, the sheep from the goats, the righteous from the unrighteous – it ought to be pretty basic and familiar territory. Yet a combination of incompetence and corporate group-think seems to take over. People entrusted with this work are often unfamiliar with unpleasant, real-world abuse and are likely to be inherently risk averse. If you have not seen a lot at close quarters it is hard to say (or even think): ‘This doesn’t add up; it simply doesn’t meet the criteria.’ The willingness to say that out loud in a meeting marks out the professional from the amateur, and Fr Alan Griffin needed this kind of hard-nosed awkwardness to have kept him safe. Absent that competence, you end up with absurd risk assessments like those in the Percy case.

If you discount clergy suicide, it always looks like the safe option to let thin cases continue ‘just in case’. There is almost inevitably an inexpert corporate predisposition towards ‘better safe than sorry’. This certainly happens at the lower end of the problem, but when you move towards the higher end, the polarity shifts. Taking on the big fish – the Ball Brothers, the Fletcher brothers – was too tricky and politically problematic: best stick with the smaller fry, like Fr Alan Griffin.

So he and others like him have suffered agonisingly, often for months and sometimes for years, while the incompetent and inexpert take their time, and others isolate, gas-light, and gossip. Faced with the self-satisfaction of the institutionally righteous, some decide that ending their life is the least worst option. They cease to believe they can receive justice.

Fr Alan’s suicide was foreseeable – in fact, I and other predicted such an event last year when the suicide of Caroline Flack hit the headlines, and the Sheldon Hub Report gave us the research evidence to match our real-world experience and suspicions.

This level of institutional incompetence surely constitutes ‘Institutional Bullying’, with everyone involved having assumed a safeguarding problem for which there was no evidence, and never seeing the harm they wrought.

The third devastating point from the Coroner is that the initial response of the Church of England was not to engage with the Inquest, and later “urged me not to include my concerns that may be taken as a criticism of clergy or staff for not filtering or verifying allegations”. This looks manipulative, and probably requires an apology when the Archbishop of Canterbury replies to the Coroner, as he has been requested to do, on behalf of the Church he leads.

The attempt to deflect criticism plainly failed, and was certainly not congruent with a church presenting itself as “Simpler, Humbler and Bolder“.

The Archbishop might usefully consider whether anyone involved, upon reading the Coroner’s Report, should offer a resignation of contrition.

Fr Alan Griffin was constantly given the message that he was a problem, that he shamed the institutions he served, and that unknown persons were speaking against him about risks he did not understand. Above all, he was utterly powerless to make it stop. Nobody respected him enough to analyse the case properly. That sense of powerlessness is a key erosive factor in such cases.

The latest CDM reform paper does address this problem to a degree because it has as a key element: the triaging of complaints into appropriate streams of action. That is sensible and keys into the remarks about ‘proportionality’ recently made by the President of Tribunals when declaring a full hearing of the Percy allegation unwarranted. If the Church of England is making proportionate triage the linchpin of better practice, how can anyone complain if the Coroner flags up the deficiency of those currently working the system? If she had followed the course of action urged upon her, then that same incompetence would be built into the new system and we will be no better off, for we do not simply need better rules and structures; we need better people doing the work.

These three cases – Percy, Overend, and Griffin – must surely shame the House of Bishops and Archbishops’ Council to act practically and urgently for the many other victims of bad practice who are even now being institutionally isolated, undermined and abused. These clergy are beginning to make themselves known, and they are as much victims of the Church as abuse survivors. No survivor I know wants injustice for anyone: they know what it is like to be on the wrong side of an unjust, overconfident institution.

I am currently in touch with and supporting the priest who was told that “our role is not to seek the truth but to believe [the victim]”. He might be able to offer an alibi having been out of the country for much of the relevant time, but the dates in question have not been forthcoming, so he waits and seethes and suffers.

I also talk to the priest who was cleared of any impropriety but then forbidden to tell anyone because of an obsessive lack of transparency. Then there are the two priests who were instrumental in identifying abusers but have found themselves under complaint for their pains, and placed under prolonged suspension. “Why am I the problem here?” they plead.

And so on and on it goes: immoral, scandalous and disgraceful, indeed.