martyn percy cleared safeguarding
Church of England

Martyn Percy cleared again: CofE safeguarding goes from tragedy to farce

It has been reported that the Church of England’s Director of Safeguarding, Melissa Caslake, has tendered her resignation after only 18 months in the post, and will be leaving at the turn of the year to take up a position as Director of Children’s Services at Devon County Council. She leaves with the good wishes of both the Lead Safeguarding Bishop, the Rt Rev’d Dr Jonathan Gibbs, and her direct line manager, the Secretary-General of the Archbishops’ Council, William Nye.

She also departs with the support of the survivor community, on whose behalf a press release has been issued:

Melissa Caslake will leave with respect from the survivor community and beyond, for the energy she brought in a short time to transforming the Church’s safeguarding, and building a new National Safeguarding Team. Some who have offered legitimate criticism of the controversies over which she nominally presided still recognise that she has left a good mark of the changes required for the future. We note that she came from a Local Authority context and returns to a similar position where she will have clear unambiguous roles, rules, and structures, none of which currently exist within the Church of England in general, and Church House in particular. Until those issues are sorted out the position of Director of Safeguarding is virtually impossible to do with integrity, and we don’t blame Melissa for leaving whilst hers is still intact. We suspect that Moses would struggle to reshape the culture of Church House. Melissa has done well to survive in the post for eighteen months. We wish her well.

The Daily Telegraph reported the news with the enigmatic byline: “Sources claim that Melissa Caslake would not be leaving unless she felt the task had become impossible.” I am not that source, neither do I know who it might be, but anyone closely concerned with what has been happening in Church House since the summer can piece together a number of events, any one of which might have led a person of integrity, and with a good career ahead of her, to head for the relative safety of whence she came. Local authorities do make mistakes; they have their scandals and public inquiries, but at least they have rules and logical procedures by which a person has a fair chance to preserve their professional standing. They do not have a running sore of controversy over their practices and procedures in the way that the Church of England has.

We have heard from victims and survivors alike that the CofE is a place where lives are routinely broken to preserve the reputation of the institution. Ms Caslake’s departure flags up that it is not even a safe place in which to work if you have nominal responsibility but no actual power to effect change. In such a working environment, getting out before you are required to carry the can after an inquest is a smart move.

At the recent General Synod meeting, my two contributions both highlighted the real risk of of a tragic suicide created by our processes. I did not do so lightly, and I can now share the backstories which might even have contributed to Ms Caslake’s decision to move before things got worse. I should note in passing that high-level employment positions in local authorities are not secured overnight: it is therefore not inappropriate to wind back a little to events around the time that such a job search might reasonably be surmised to have begun.

Over the summer months the IICSA report was imminent. At the same time I was among the prime movers of a letter to the Chair of the Charity Commission complaining, inter alia, about inconsistencies in the way the CofE’s National Safeguarding Team dealt with safeguarding complaints. The text of that letter highlights some but not all of those complaints, and was signed by a number of distinguished names and far too many victims of the system over which Ms Caslake nominally presided, though, in truth, with little executive power to effect the necessary changes. Unbeknownst to us, at the same time that we were drafting the letter to Baroness Stowell, a research paper was about to be published by the Sheldon Hub which revealed the shocking statistic that 40% of clergy who were made subject to the Church’s Clergy Discipline Measure considered taking their own lives.

That risk of suicide was a significant part of my concern on two counts. As I told Synod:

…you may remember the celebrity Caroline Flack committed suicide, it was because she felt an incident was exaggerated beyond its importance, not because of what she had done, but because of who she was. She was broken on the wheel of institutional injustice. Synod – we are damned lucky this hasn’t happened within the Church yet – but it will.

It nearly did.

In September, a complainant was referred to me for help. A really nice intelligent man had seriously attempted suicide because of the unbearable pressure he had experienced within our system.

In light of recent developments, I can now tell of a further set of circumstances which motivated me to stress the urgency of improving our practices. Legislative reform takes an age within the Church of England, but a lot of power and wide discretions co-exist within Church House. Simply by putting the Archbishops’ Council on notice of the need to exercise discretions fairly, I hoped we might improve processes within the current flawed system. It did not. Bad mistakes and dangerous processes continued.

Readers may recall that on 28th June this blog carried the story that one of Martyn Percy’s persecutors, the Regius Professor of Hebrew at Oxford University and Christ Church malcontent, Jan Joosten, who was among those who accused the Dean of having a “lack of moral compass”, had been convicted and sentenced to a term of imprisonment by a French court for the possession of thousands of images of child pornography. No offences within the UK are known.

Upon being notified of this by a journalist, Martyn Percy, very wisely and properly, notified the police, and assured them of his full cooperation if they needed access to Professor Joosten’s rooms and computer. The Dean also took the precaution of notifying the Censors who hold formal responsibility for such matters within the College. Both are, of course, principal figures in the campaign against him. You might think that would be an end to the matter, but these are the Christ Church malcontents we are talking about, and logic and proportionality is not their strong suit. Any opportunity to twist a story, however tenuously, is not to be spurned.

At the time, there was still the ongoing investigation into their complaint to the church that the Dean had not properly handled safeguarding disclosures in four cases. In none of them had the persons allegedly let down ever complained. They were being independently investigated by a former police officer chosen by the NST Core Group including, inexplicably and improperly, the complainants’ lawyers, who appear to have had unfettered access to the investigator. Despite the process being stacked against him throughout (again), the Dean was investigated (again), then comprehensively exonerated (again).

So, back to the Jan Joostens story, the next part of which beggars belief.

In advance of his interview with the investigator, the Dean asked to be given an outline of those matters which the investigator planned to cover. That was perfectly sensible: the history was lengthy, there was much paperwork, and it would save them time for each of them if the Dean were to be broadly apprised of the areas which the investigator needed to address.

That outline was provided literally late in the day, in fact after office hours on the night before the interview. This was stressful enough, but in addition to the ordinary worry of engaging in such an important interview, the Dean, who was already worn down by many months of false complaint, learned for the first time that among the allegations to be investigated was the suggestion that he was somehow at fault for his response to the activities of the Censors co-complainant Jan Joostens – in France!

After the event it seems almost absurdly comical, but it was, at the time, very serious indeed. Such news needs to be read in the light of the enhanced risk of suicide which the Sheldon Hub highlighted. All professionals are aware of the heightened sensitivities within safeguarding allegations: it is simply not safe to assume that highly intelligent, competent people cannot be driven to the edge of despair by repeated false allegations. This is especially the case when there is already a known and adjudicated prolonged course of expensive harassment litigation. The Church of England talks a good game on anti-bullying but seems unwilling, unable, or selective in exercising any checks to prevent it happening.

Martyn Percy was not only devastated to hear that yet more injustice was being piled upon him, but it was made worse because the church which he had served for decades was irrationally colluding again with his persecutors. He could not contact his own lawyer that evening for advice and reassurance; he needed support, and I am pleased that he, like others, remembered that he could rely on experienced support from me.

We spoke on the telephone. The problem had arisen during a holiday period when senior figures were away and it was hard to find someone to take responsibility to rescue the situation, but I nevertheless intervened, made the right representations quickly after locating somebody who had the integrity and willingness to intervene, and the matter was rectified. But that is scarcely the point. The safeguarding of respondents in such circumstances is very important. I remind readers that one of the complainant Matt Ineson’s continuing grievances with the church is that his abuser committed suicide unsupported. I worry especially about the little people who don’t know who to turn to in an emergency to short-circuit such malpractice. This is not just about the Dean of Christ Church.

The more one looks at this parody of proper process, the worse it gets. Somehow – and we still do not know how – between the preceding meeting of the Core Group which we were told at the July Synod is independently in control of such processes, and the investigator sharing his areas of interest for discussion, the Christ Church malcontents had managed to divert the process in pursuit of their agenda and alter the initial terms of reference of the investigation, adding this utterly spurious complaint that the Dean had somehow failed to act properly in respect of crimes by one of his persecutors in a foreign jurisdiction, of which he was wholly unaware until notified, and of which he notified the police and the Censors within hours of becoming aware. Something very irregular had plainly occurred.

A ‘learned lessons review’ followed: a few insiders know the facts, but we are not permitted to hear how this manipulation occurred, and no report following that review has been made public. This still happens in a church that proclaims that it has embraced the principles of ‘Transparency and Accountability’.

The complainants in all this are, of course, as regular readers will be aware, represented by the lawyers to the Church of England Diocese and Province, who know who’s who when it comes to exercising influence within the institution.

This is a pretty disreputable story, but it continues, and so does the risk.

Readers will know that, ever persistent, the malcontents have brought forward yet another complaint. While the Bishop of Lincoln’s case is still in limbo after some 18 months, this latest matter against the Dean of Christ Church has unaccountably been fast-tracked to a CDM in record time.

While the malcontents were yet again leaking and briefing via their PR agency Luther Pendragon (and why would they need one if they were not leaking and briefing?), somebody within the Christ Church community reportedly sought to defend the Dean by suggesting that not every allegation is grave and weighty. The response was an updated notice on the Oxford diocesan website containing a one-sided condemnation of that note of caution. This was brought to the attention of the Diocesan Bishop (who must be regarded as having ultimate responsibility for what is published on the website) the Rt Rev’d Steven Croft, who was asked to encourage all parties to desist from speculation. So far he has not done so. Such seeming partiality by his Bishop cannot have been reassuring to the Dean. It has still not been rectified.

Matters may have just been simplified, however. With yet another “safeguarding” allegation brought, the Dean correctly self-referred to the police, lest it be alleged again that he had not deal with matters appropriately. Happily, the police, having investigated, have cleared the Dean, so that is one source of potential delay out of the way. If there is anything in it all, beyond possibly an HR issue inflated out of all proportion by the formal complainant the Rev’d Professor Graham Ward, time will tell.

Under the present broken system which all acknowledge is unsatisfactory, everything can be currently and indiscriminately leaked as ‘serious’. All allegations should be taken seriously; not all are equally serious. Given the Jan Joosten story, and the history of failed persecution of Martyn Percy by the malcontents, the open-minded might best consider the series of exonerations, remembering the Jan Joostens pantomime as less ‘coup de grâce’ – more ‘coup de salauds’.

Meanwhile, Melissa Caslake will be seeing out her time doing the best she can while those she serves try to determine what is to be done to drag the Church of England out of the wreckage of these repeated failings. In essence, the divide is between those who understand that modern process requires fair play for all and compliance with the principles of the Human Rights Act etc, and those who want to maintain the ‘flexibility’ to fix things in what they perceive to be the Church’s best interests by making process up as they go along on a case by case basis – ie, capriciously.

That tension would appear to be playing out even now. We know that there are Church insiders, whom I describe as the ‘smart realists’, who may once have been perceived to be part of the problem, but now clearly ‘get it’. Meanwhile, the Telegraph records that Ms Caslake departs because she faces too much resistance to doing things properly. That sounds ominous.

But she is well out of these machinations. Victims believe she tried to make more of a difference but ultimately decided that the difficulties were insuperable. In future, she may be dealing with poor disadvantaged parents who have failed their children badly, but in my experience they are usually much more straightforward people than those she has had to deal with of late, and she will once again be working within a well-established culture that knows what it is doing.