Fr Alan Griffin diocese of london safeguarding suicide
Church of England

Safeguarding suicide: ‘there is a crisis of trust within the Diocese of London’

Following the comments and demands made by the Coroner in the wake of the suicide of Fr Alan Griffin, the Diocese of London and Lambeth Palace have accepted responsibility for the “poor processes or systems, or mistakes, that led to unreasonable pressures on Fr Alan”. Since these “poor processes or systems” led to false allegations of child abuse being made by the Diocese of London, and then shared with the Roman Catholic Church without any evidence whatsoever (indeed, without even a complainant, a witness, or an accuser), it is fair to say that these “unreasonable pressures” led directly to Fr Alan’s death.

The Coroner, Mary Hassell, was so concerned by this that she issued a ‘Prevention of Future Deaths report‘, having considered that there is nothing apparently preventing the Diocese of London (or the Church of England) from smearing and defaming others in their care – accusing them of paedophilia or other sexual abuse without any evidence whatsoever – and placing such allegations in their written records with no objective risk assessment, no verification, and no justification.

The mental health and wellbeing of Fr Alan Griffin was never a consideration. There was no pastoral care, no compassion, and no natural justice. He killed himself in desolation and despair because nobody in the Church of England cared to seek the truth or show him mercy, or even a glint of kindness.

But there is to be a lessons-learned review, “to promote learning and improve practice, not to apportion blame”.

Really? Is nobody to blame? Is corporate “deep regret and sorrow” sufficient when a priest kills himself because he could not cope with an investigation into his conduct, the detail of and the source for which he had never been told?

Who should have told him? Isn’t at least that person to blame? Who passed to the Roman Catholic Church the unsubstantiated allegations of child abuse? Isn’t that person to blame? Whose job was it to gather evidence and seek verification? Isn’t that person to blame? Is nobody really going to take responsibility?

A letter has been received at Cranmer’s Tower from the Rev’d David Ackerman, a clergyman in the Diocese of London. It is worth publishing in its entirety, not least because it offers an insider perspective on the true state of Safeguarding in the Diocese of London. It is being sent to the Coroner in the hope that she might see that a lessons-learned review may not teach the right people the necessary lessons.

25 August 2021


David Ackerman

I was until recently a Safeguarding Support to Clergy in the Two Cities Area of the Diocese of London. I resigned when it became clear that the Church was about to insist on a procedure for church councils based on falsehood. In the murky world of law, guidance and best practice it is never easy to do the right thing, perhaps one reason for the lack of trust in “Safeguarding” on behalf of clergy. Yesterday saw “The Diocese of London and Lambeth Palace” expressing “their deep regret and sorrow at the death of Fr Alan Griffin” and issued a response of assurance to the Chief Coroner “of the Diocese’s commitment to change, ongoing learning and improvement”. “We take responsibility” the response notes “for what went wrong”.

It is not clear however who “we” are. Are we all responsible for what went wrong? If we are all to blame is no one to blame? “The overall purpose of the Review (which is to come) is to “promote learning and improve practice, not to apportion blame”. It would have been refreshing to read in the response some reference to the fact that some indeed have more questions to ask than others.“From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded” writes St Luke “and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked” (Luke 12:48). It must be hoped that any review will expand on who “we” actually are?

As regards such a review the response states that “the full Terms of Reference (subject to consultation) will be published on the Diocese of London website when consultations are complete (anticipated early September 2021)”. It must be clear by now to those involved in the review that there is a crisis of trust within the diocese of London. For clergy to read about “consultations” of which they have played no part, and see a Case Steering Group with a membership made up predominantly of bishops and the diocesan chief executive hardly engenders trust. At one level this does not matter as any report must be “received” and clergy are increasingly consulting each other about matters of importance and discussing the changes they wish to see.

I suspect few clergy, reflecting about the case in question and reflecting on past months, will be excited about claim that “the Diocese of London has continued to develop our approach to clergy wellbeing. A range of support groups, sources of therapeutic support, (and grants to pay for it) have been made available, and we have developed web resources relating to physical and mental wellbeing for clergy and their households”.

We are all used to receiving emails assuring us of “care”. Care however comes from something more than this. As I said when I stepped down from my safeguarding role, it is impossible to promote a culture of safeguarding in a diocese where there does not exist a culture of care, or indeed Christian compassion. Something for the college of bishops of the diocese of London to reflect upon. Do any of “the college” think back to that day in the spring of 2020 when it met to discuss the closing of churches. After a long discussion on the financial implications for the diocese one bishop bravely asked (or so it is reported) “should we be talking about the welfare of the clergy”? There were, it is said, many blank, incomprehensible stares.

We seem a very long way from the example of Jesus Christ who did not show his love by “communicating focussed messages, via training events and developing tools” but by taking up the cross. If “the wider Church has instigated a number of support tools which are accessible to all clergy” they have passed me by, but then again I have not spent the past 18 months trapped in Zoom looking at a computer.

Looking, however, at my computer and reading the response I am struck by two points that highlight a real and pressing problem: the House of Bishops’ and its guidance. Here is a classic case of Quis custodiet ipsos custodes. Many clergy will remember being sent a couple of years’ ago a form to complete in relation to parish files.

“Over the last two years, the Diocese of London, along with all other dioceses in the Church of England, have been undertaking a Past Cases Review of safeguarding cases in line with the House of Bishop’s Practice Guidance” the response notes. Let me explain what clergy were asked to sign, and it will be clear how hollow the final section of the response reads, at least to me.

Clergy were asked to survey parish files to discover if there were any references to safeguarding issues that remained undiscovered and then sign a form stating whether in our opinion someone might pose a risk in the future. At the time I asked questions of this process. In the past records were not kept as they are today and by what standard were we to judge what might be an “issue” and a threat? Although I found no such files I refused to sign a form saying that I should judge whether someone was a threat. If one day they were and I had stated he or she was not I would rightly face action. The forms were a form of entrapment. When I raised this point the then head of diocesan safeguarding blamed “national church”.

This leads me to suggest that a key defence in the response is simply unacceptable.

“Although elements of our response to and handling of the concerns about Fr Griffin fell well short of good practice and need improvement, the principle of reporting, without investigation or filtering, of safeguarding concerns to qualified professionals, is one which is well established and one which we defend” it states. This paragraph is in response to a specific criticism of the Coroner:

I then received submissions on behalf of the Church of England regarding any prevention of future deaths report. These submissions impressed upon me that referrals to child protection and safeguarding professionals must not be reduced and urged me not to include any concerns that may be taken as a criticism of clerics or staff for not filtering or verifying allegation.

“The aim of making this submission to the Coroner” the response continues “was not to deflect criticism away from clergy or staff if they had acted inappropriately. It was made in the context of the IICSA recommendations and in the light of existing House of Bishop’s Guidance to the clergy that state that clergy must refer all safeguarding concerns or allegations to the Diocesan Safeguarding Team in the first instance and in any event within 24 hours (see 6, above). This is to ensure untrained clergy are not investigating or using their own judgement, and to establish consistency of process”.

In relation to the issue of parish files untrained clergy were indeed asked to investigate and use their own judgement, and we might add be damned if the process went wrong. Furthermore we are all asked to use judgement in matters of safeguarding. Why is training offered if it does not include the vital factor of knowing in so many instances what might be a safeguarding issue. References were made to Fr Alan being seen having dinner with a group of men. Is the diocese of London suggesting that this is a safeguarding concern? Are clergy viewed as so stupid that they are unable to judge what should be brought forward as a safeguarding concern and what should not be? There is always a filtering of any information or knowledge in the sense that it forms the basis of whether or not it is a matter for concern. I have had many conversations in fact with Safeguarding Professionals when I was unsure of whether something should be reported and indeed such professionals are used to discussing different types of responses. They have always been helpful and very often concur with a course of action. Keeping a note, sharing information etc.

In the letter to clergy by the Bishop of London following the Coroner’s report it is of regret that her tone, as is so often the case with church statements, address the clergy as if we have never heard of safeguarding. We in fact live with it all the time. When we open our doors we balance the risk of welcome with the demands of welcoming some very challenging people. Of course the easiest option is to keep the doors shut. My own view is that I take safeguarding so seriously that I no longer have confidence in the diocese or the Church of England having its own safeguarding departments or professionals. We should be able to refer to local authority safeguarding and I now trust secular, totally separate and independent safeguarding far more than what the Coroner’s report revealed about the culture we live with. When the Bishop of London directed the churches be closed at the beginning of the pandemic the then Head of diocesan safeguarding was asked about such things as food banks in churches and safeguarding implications. “Refer to local authorities” she advised. If that advice could be given then, why not all the time?

For the House of Bishops and College of Bishops in the diocese of London (who must be aware of the culture they are responsible for) it would be timely to reflect on this prayer. From the Book of Common Prayer it is said when a newly consecrated bishop receives, from the Archbishop, the Holy Bible.

Be to the flock of Christ a shepherd, not a wolf; feed them, devour them not. Hold up the weak, heal the sick, bind up the broken, bring again the outcasts, seek the lost. Be so merciful, that ye be not too remiss; so minister discipline, that you forget not mercy: that when the chief Shepherd shall appear ye may receive the never-fading crown of glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

We need shepherds, rather than reports, to restore trust. The response of the diocese and Lambeth Palace does not even begin to answer the questions that surround the case of Fr Griffin. ‘Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?‘ asked Juvenal. If you ask who guards the guards the best response and answer is to change the guards. The time is right for a changing of the guard, or more accurately, the changing of shepherds.

The Rev’d David Ackerman
The Parish of St John the Evangelist at Kensal Green