In the Mail on Sunday last week there was an ‘exposé’ of a decision by the Church of England Interim Survivor Support Scheme whose panel had decided to compensate a vulnerable woman to the tune of £40,000, notwithstanding the fact that the related Clergy Discipline Measure complaint had not been upheld.
The original decision of the tribunal is in the public domain, or a summary is also available. It is an extraordinary story, and at the conclusion of the decision the Chair of the Tribunal specifically identifies how unsuitable and under-resourced the process is for resolving such complex matters. What the Mail on Sunday does not make clear, however, is that although the very vulnerable complainant might well be criticised for the way she sought to buttress her allegation of an illicit affair with the Rev’d William Bulloch with evidence the tribunal rejected, the decision was a split one 3:2, and it is impossible for anybody to read the 40-page decision and not think that the Rev’d William Bulloch had behaved with quite extraordinary imprudence.
The woman concerned has received significant assistance under the Church of England’s Interim Support Scheme, and the journalistic line was both cruelly hostile to her (notwithstanding her plain vulnerability described in the written decision) and witheringly scornful of the church for being profligate with its resources.
We know that the CDM process is not fit for purpose. The church has acknowledged as much. Yet this is the very process that this woman has been forced to rely upon for justice. Amongst the weaknesses of the process was the fact that she was not allowed to present the tribunal with key evidence. For example, her GP, who was willing to testify to her illness, was not enabled to attend the tribunal. And yet on the basis of this avowedly flawed system, this woman is being publicly convicted of fraud and deception by the Church of England and by the tabloid media. Anyone would think she had been put on trial and found guilty. She hasn’t. This is surely an example of what we mean when we say the CDM is broken. Until it is fixed, we properly may need to rely upon it to clear a clergyman accused of abuse on the basis of the presumption of innocence . We should not, however, use it as a weapon against a clearly vulnerable woman. If this is how we treat her, how can we expect any other woman who feels wronged to come forward?
A core question for me seems to be this: in such a case, given we know that we have a broken system, how shall we behave? The answer, I think, is with a good deal of humility and generosity.
The Church of England communications department responded in defensive terms, assuring the readers of the Mail on Sunday that such payments would never be made again. It is worth reflecting a little upon that response.
There was a time when people who had suffered badly at the hands of the church were expected to do so in silence. Later, when legal cases began to be brought, the church deployed a number of strategies in conjunction with its insurers, lawyers and other professional advisers in order to drive down any payments that were made to the broken. The power imbalance was exploited ruthlessly. It was known that no victim could afford to go to trial even if they could find lawyers willing to work on a ‘no-win no fee basis’. Losing, they would be liable to pay the costs of the church’s lawyers.
Some victims inevitably had mental health difficulties as a result of abuse and this was also used to reduce settlements on the basis that they were genetically or socially predisposed to suffering such difficulties. Such opinions were bought and supplied without the psychiatrist even meeting and talking to the complainant.
By 2019, with the church’s reputation in tatters, concerned members of the General Synod introduced an amendment to legislation with a view to rectifying the situation. It was initially ruled out of order, but to the great credit of the Lead Safeguarding Bishop Dr Jonathan Gibbs, he brought a motion in similar terms which could be debated and accepted. This went on to be the foundation of the Interim Support Scheme. That motion was passed unanimously by Synod.
When it came to putting flesh on the bones, there were two possible approaches available to the church. One Synod colleague sketched out a very comprehensive route towards establishing a fully functional legal process for managing such claims. It had much to commend it, but to my mind it suffered two serious drawbacks. First, it was going to be expensive, as the preparation of the scheme was predicated on the advice of three Queens Council supported by appropriate solicitor and accountancy services. Second, it was likely to take three years before it came into operation. I recalled a routine piece of advice I used to give to all my clients involved in matrimonial financial disputes: ‘You can have cheap, you can have fast, and you can have thorough, but you cannot have all three.’
The church accepted that in order to restore any sense of credibility with the survivor community, it was vital to get real money on the table quickly in order to help people in real need. One colleague describe this as an investment in suicide prevention, and that may not be an exaggeration. At the very least, it insured that when people needed counselling for their various traumas, it would be provided quickly and without fuss. Long-term readers of this blog may recall the story of the victim whose claim for fares to counselling on the other side of the country was reduced by 30p because he could have bought a return bus ticket for connecting part of the journey instead of two singles. The obscenity of a church exhibiting such parsimony when its historic endowments where yielding eye-watering returns was lost on none of us.
Accordingly, the Interim Support Scheme was conceived on the basis of discretionary payments, sympathetically delivered. We did not want to sustain the old approach, where the professional advisers made more out of the process than the victims of clergy abuse.
There are two other important principles underpinning the scheme. The more substantial compensation scheme, properly and legally constituted, can and should take into account any payments made under the interim scheme when it comes into being in 2023. The other important feature, which made the scheme viable, is its discretionary nature. There is no right to a payment: person A may receive it, and person B may not. This facilitated a speed of response capacity: one need not overly worry about setting a precedent.
The scheme is still not yet an extensive one, but it has been hugely beneficial to both victims and church alike. I understand that one victim was saved from homelessness; others have seen a real sea-change in the church’s attitude towards them. Some have received follow-up telephone calls to make sure that they are still alright, and asking if there is any pressing need with which they can be helped. Importantly, Bishop Jonathan Gibbs has deflected any questions about whether the scheme has a financial cap.
Our Archbishops have been talking of re-imagining the Church of England in the post-pandemic world, and want it to be “Simpler, Bolder, Humbler”. It is hard to think of a better example of this than a completely fresh approach to victim compensation that is in evidence here.
Now, of course, nobody wishes to see waste or unaccountability, but we need to set this one story within that long history of victim abuse by the institution. Frankly, even if the compensation panel has made a mistake here, is not an error of generosity, an error that favoured the vulnerable, infinitely preferable to decades of hardheartedness? Jesus encouraged promiscuous generosity in a various ways: he took the thief on the cross to paradise; he overturned our thoughts on fairness in the parable of the labourers in the vineyard; h went thoroughly overboard when providing wine at the marriage at Cana. That, too, was a ‘one off’.
Even if it should be the case that this lady has been generously provided for, anyone reading of her circumstances might warm to a church that prefers to err on the side of kindness and compassion.
But unfortunately, this ‘scandal’ is like a Russian doll: there is a scandal within the scandal. How on earth did sensitive private material provided in good faith by and on behalf of a vulnerable person end up splayed across the pages of a Sunday tabloid?
I should be very clear here: I do not believe for a moment that this is anything malign within the institution, but it is plain that somebody leaked these private details with judgemental malicious intent.
Where vulnerable people are concerned, such breaches of confidence are very serious. Yet the seriousness goes a stage deeper, because how can any victim at present approach our scheme with necessarily highly confidential information, including perhaps medical or psychiatric evidence, if they have proper reason to worry that their trust will be abused?
Leaving aside the possibility of either satellite litigation based upon this data breach, and possibly significant fines by the Data Commissioner, the ultimate scandal is that this dreadful article may prove to be the death of our Interim Support Scheme. That would be an absolute tragedy on many levels.
The story has emerged after the time limit for General Synod questions to be filed. When members meet next week, I hope we shall have a clear and transparent statement from the church recommitting itself to the success of the scheme by properly and thoroughly investigating the source of the leak and taking proper steps to prevent any repetition. I have no doubt that that is what our church leadership would want, and although I am known to be a severe critic on appropriate occasions, on this one I am looking to give my strongest support provided we can be assured that proper measures, priorities, and explanations are being put in place, as a matter of urgency.