Church of England

Safeguarding: why is the Church of England’s institutional compassion so constipated?

This is a guest post by Martin Sewell, a retired child protection lawyer.


A few weeks ago I wrote about the way in which the Church of England had failed to support one of its abuse survivors in his time of need. This was not through individual callousness or failure (which is why I deliberately never personalise criticism), but rather symptomatic of the unhelpful institutional character of the church. Our rules and unthinking culture fail to live up to the words that our leadership rightly expresses, as the following story illustrates.

Just over a year ago, a survivor – who I shall call Dave – finally came to terms with his abuse and felt the need to seek the help from a church in whose care he had been grievously let down. He was a victim of a known abuser, and Dave was approaching the church for the first time: it is not therefore a case complicated by multiple reports or disputes about who said what and when.

Neither is it a matter of monetary compensation: Dave is a continuously practising Anglican, and moreover comes from that sector of the church that takes seriously the biblical principle that if your brother offends you, you should first seek to make peace with him and not have early recourse to the courts.

One might think that – insofar as one can use the infelicitous phrase ‘ideal victim’ (from the church’s point of view) – Dave is it.

Dave’s abuse did have one individualised component that complicates the necessary healing he needs in order to give him the peace he seeks. The measure of this is that an everyday innocuous lectionary reading could catapult him unexpectedly back into those times.

His abuser had misused scripture to manipulate and silence his victim, and, unsurprisingly, Dave felt he needed a counsellor who was theologically aware in order to address such matters in a holistic way.

Being unaware of how these matters are handled, he approached his local diocese which promised to look into it. He waited, several weeks. When he received a response it was to say that the matter was the responsibility of another diocese, so it was passed on and Dave waited… several weeks. Eventually, he was told that this matter would have to be dealt with by the National Safeguarding Team… and so he waited.

He knew his special requirement was a complicating factor, but it still took a while before he was told that somebody was located and approved and that he could have an assessment to determine if this was the appropriate counselling for him. He was given a 10:30am appointment a very considerable distance away; it required him to take four different trains and to get up at around 4:30am to get there on time.

Unsurprisingly, given the possible need for weekly sessions, Dave took the view that this was not a workable solution, but being a resourceful and helpful fellow, he made his own enquiries and offered this alternative to the church. It was relatively local and cost about £55 a session.

The counsellor was not known to the church, however, and a further complication then arose. Dave was told that his counselling would only be paid for provided that weekly reports of his sessions would be provided to the church.

When Dave asked why this might be, he was told that if relevant material came out of the counselling, it would need to be passed on to the church’s insurers. This was unacceptable to the counsellor, and so the process stalled again.

Dave was able to locate another counsellor within reasonable travelling distance, and began receiving the help he needed. The church was still doing nothing for him: he is dependent on state benefits, so family members were paying the price for him. They did their best, but while they managed to carry the burden for a while, it proved too much, and so over a year after initially approaching the church, he is without counselling for the abuse he suffered within the Church of England.

In all generosity, I do not believe anyone from top to bottom of the church thinks this a happy situation. So why is our institutional compassion so constipated?

Recently, the Very Rev’d Prof Martyn Percy offered a critique on this blog in which he accused the church of having sold out to a commercial managerial culture: it raised important points for discussion, but hearing Dave’s story I can only think ‘If only that were true!’.

No commercial firm sensitive to the need for reputational recovery and a good deal would blunder as we appear to have done in Dave’s case.

Theologically, managerially and technically we have demonstrated an incompetence of considerable magnitude.

During a recent debate at General Synod, Canon Simon Butler reminded us of the spiritual tenacity of some people whom the church finds troublesome. He reminded us of Jacob wrestling with the Angel and crying out: “I will not let you go until you bless me.” Like other complainants, Dave has demonstrated a similar commitment to the church, coupled with the patience of Job. Many would have shaken the dust from their feet and walked away. Dave has resourcefully ‘put the solution on a plate’ and offered it to us, yet we seem to have been incapable of recognising how easy he has made this for us.

In the commercial world there was once an advertisement that trumpeted ‘The bank that likes to say ‘Yes”. Child abuse complainants find that we are ‘The church that likes to say ‘No”.

Dave’s case demonstrates similar cultural failings to the story I previously told of the complainant who was denied an advance of a settlement payment in urgent circumstances. Not only does this compound the betrayal of those who have experienced abuse within the church; it lacks the culture of compassionate risk-taking that many of us have commended when we have told and preached the story of the Good Shepherd who risks the welfare of the 99 as he goes in search of the lost sheep.

Managerially, this is poor practice. We have our Archbishop/CEO telling the world that ‘the victim must come first‘, while at the point of consumer contact he and the complainant are being let down by a culture of defensive negativity.

In the early days of the Japanese car industry, it adopted a philosophy that a complaining customer was potential a great commercial asset. The buyer who was content with his service experience told few people; in contrast, the unhappy customer told everyone and anyone who would listen. Finding and satisfying the complainant was more economic than wasting the advertising budget while leaking goodwill through poor customer service.

The Church of England is stuck in British Leyland mode, when we ought to be aspiring to be Honda.

After hearing Dave’s case, Professor Percy will forgive me if I respond to his complaints of a commercial culture within the church – ‘If only!’

I mentioned technical incompetence, and this is perhaps the most worrying aspect of all. If the church makes reporting of the details of counselling a precondition of paying for it, that is outrageous. Counselling is like the confessional: you have to be utterly confident that what gets taken into he room stays there.

In a court setting there are only about five questions you will ever be permitted to ask about what happens in counselling:

1. Does s/he attend the session regularly?
2. Are you satisfied with his/her degree of engagement with the process?
3. How far along the planned pathway do you estimate you have reached?
4. What is your best guess as to the costs?
5. How long do you estimate the counselling need will continue.

These are, of course, questions about process, not substance. The idea that discussions which arise from within a counselling context might properly find their way to the Church of England’s insurers is highly questionable.

First, such a policy needs to be considered within the ethical guidelines of the British Association of Counselling and Psychotherapy.

Second, counselling depends upon trust and confidentiality: some victims need to explore their own feelings of guilt and responsibility and will be inhibited if they feel that exposing vulnerability will assist the church’s insurers to reduce the settlement.

Third, any contractual requirement to accept such reporting will have been negotiated within a chronic power imbalance. How much ‘consent’ is there when all the need is on one side and the church holds all the negotiating advantages? Is pressing home that advantage not abusive in itself?

Fourth, the policy reaffirms the chronic conflicts of interests within our structures: you cannot serve two masters; you must either prioritise the victim or the insurer’s interests.

Superficially, Dave’s case is a very simple one, but yet again we seem to find the church making a complete pig’s ear out of it.

One appreciates that major changes might need to await the recommendations of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse, but three easy lessons can be learned and applied from Dave’s case:

First, any case that is presented to a diocesan safeguarding officer by a complainant living in their diocese should be handled by the receiving diocese as a ‘one-stop service’ to victims. The financial ramifications of such a change should be handled behind the scenes, while the victim receives the requisite help without delay. Internal wrangling should never impact on prompt service delivery.

This is commonplace in the secular world where a body of principles to resolve ‘turf wars’ over responsibilities between local authorities already exist. Care cases and housing disputes regularly throw up such issues, and the courts have laid down easily adaptable rules for deciding who picks up the bill.

Second, reports of counselling should never require breaches of confidence as a precondition for funding. It doesn’t happen in the courts; it should not happen in the church. It fundamentally misunderstands the nature of counselling. Sadly, this neither shocks nor surprises me.

Third, we need an interim Ombudsman scheme – someone charged with the power and responsibility to get things sorted practically and promptly and not take no for an answer.

We can have debates about the merits of competing philosophies and devising best models for the church, but I am sure that Professor Percy and I can agree that what happened and is happening to people like Dave does not accord with either of our visions. We need to change such obvious and easily reversible errors, and we need to see the start of change now. An ounce of good practice is worth a ton of theory. We can get on with ridding the church of this kind of nonsense easily, long before IICSA reports.