sentamu police investigation
Church of England

Did Archbishop Sentamu fob off the Clergy Discipline Commission to protect bishops from allegations of misconduct?

As the police continue questioning the Most Rev’d and Rt Hon Dr John Sentamu over his alleged failure to respond properly to a report of clerical child abuse, here’s a little something which might assist the investigating officers with their inquiries. Or, rather, it might provide a potential line of inquiry to elicit a little more insight into the Archbishop of York’s character and/or the culture of disregard for accountability and disdain for transparency which appears to thrive at Bishopthorpe Palace.

In in the 2015 Annual Report of the Clergy Discipline Commission, it states in paragraph 17:

Six complaints were made against bishops in the course of 2015, and six were dismissed. In one complaint a penalty by consent was imposed. Two complaints were outstanding at the year-end (compared with three at the end of 2014). There was one case where a prohibition was imposed under section 31(1)(a) following conviction.

To which footnote #3 applies:

The figures in respect of bishops are based solely on the return for the province of Canterbury figures – records for the province of York were damaged by flooding.

That’s rather convenient providence, which smells a little fishy.

There are two possible secure locations for CDMs (Clergy Discipline Measures) to be stored in the Diocese of York: Bishopthorpe Palace or York Minster. The Minster was totally unaffected by the 2015 floods, but the archives aren’t kept there anyway. Bishopthorpe Palace was indeed flooded, and is apparently quite prone to flooding, and this is where the archives are kept. In the floods of December 2015, it was reported that the Archbishop of York “was quick to say that he is less affected than other people”, so he wasn’t overly concerned by any damage his home suffered. And he issued a further statement:

As expected, the undercroft in my home here at Bishopthorpe Palace is flooded again. We are fortunate however that back in the 13th century they built with flooding in mind, such that when the water subsides it soon washes through the original flood drains made for the purpose. I am thankful for the foresight that went into planning all those years ago.”

“As expected…” So it was was entirely foreseen and prepared for. The Palace undercroft was flooded, just as it was in November 2000, when Archbishop Sentamu’s predecessor, Archbishop David Hope, waded through the rising water to ensure his (manifestly raised) boxes of archives remained nice and dry.

bishopthorpe undercroft flood


However, the floods of 2000 were the worst of the century: “The River Ouse rose to an astonishing 5.5 metres above its normal level.” The official Viking Recorder states that the 5.4 metres reached on 4th November 2000 remains the highest level on record. The floods of 2015 evidently stopped short of that height. So unless Archbishop Sentamu has abandoned Archbishop Hope’s eminently sensible storage-on-stilts system, there appears to be at least a foot of dry space between the sludgy Ouse and the ancient (and not so ancient) archives.

Indeed, so minor was the damage to the Palace in 2015, and so unconcerned were the Archbishop’s staff about any possible future deluge, that, despite being specifically invited, they sent no representative to the subsequent meeting of Bishopthorpe Parish Council convened with the Environment Agency to discuss flood risks, defences and responses.

That aside, we are concerned here with a 2015 report by the Clergy Discipline Commission about CDMs lodged in 2015. Unless Bishopthorpe Palace has the world’s most zealous and precipitate archivist, you’d think the paperwork might still be floating (not literally) in someone’s pending tray, or perhaps sitting in someone’s filing cabinet in a (dry) office, rather than having been bunged down the cellar with all the 16th-century Archiepiscopal visitation records, wouldn’t you?

Private Eye has already lampooned the inadequacy of Sentamu’s account of CDMs “damaged by flooding”‘:

private eye archbishop sentamu

It is important to note that ‘The Devil’ makes a crucial error in this piece, which impugns John Sentamu’s character beyond decency: Fr Matthew Ineson lodged complaints of misconduct against the Archbishop of York and sundry other bishops (Peter Burrows, Bishop of Doncaster; Steven Croft, Bishop of Sheffield [now Bishop of Oxford]; Martyn Snow, Archdeacon of Sheffield [now Bishop of Leicester]; Glyn Webster, Bishop of Beverley; and Roy Williamson, Bishop of Bradford [retired]) in 2016, not 2015. That is rather an essential fact to have got wrong, for ‘The Devil’ misleadingly suggests that Sentamu made light of a serious allegation of clerical rape by fobbing off the Clergy Discipline Commission with “damaged by flooding”.

And yet that final paragraph does merit a little more interrogation than William Cowper’s adage about God’s mystery, because the inference is quite serious. In fact, it is very serious. When you mix a little levity with generous measures of cynicism and sarcasm, you get a rather brain-numbing cocktail which desensitises the spirit and clouds judgment. But when you consider the gravity of what ‘The Devil’ is saying here and apply reason with a touch of discernment, it is difficult to come to any conclusion other than that the Archbishop of York is either lying, or treating the Clergy Discipline Commission with utter contempt.

One cannot credibly allege collusion or cover-up, as ‘The Devil’ suggests, because the chronology is flawed. And yet “damaged by flooding” (with the implicit ‘and that’s the end of the matter’) is certainly evidence of Sentamu’s distaste for detail, disregard for accountability, and indifference to justice.

If not for truth.

CDMs are not written on goatskin with an inky quill and sent to an archbishop’s palace by snail mail: they are more usually handwritten and scanned or typed on a Word document (or pdf) and sent by email. Even if they are sent by Royal Mail, it is inconceivable that the complainant would not keep a copy, and that an archbishop’s staff wouldn’t recall receiving the paperwork. And equally inconceivable is it that, on receipt, a CDM would not be copied to all the relevant people in the diocese or (in this case) province concerned – the Archbishop, the accused clergy and (most importantly) the Registrar, who has a few legal and procedural obligations to fulfil.

The subject of a CDM is obviously entitled to receive a copy of the complaint against him or her as a matter of natural justice. When a complaint is received against a bishop, you’d think the Archbishop’s office would send a copy by email and recorded delivery, to ensure safe receipt. It is, after all, a rather serious matter for a bishop to be accused of misconduct, isn’t it?

The Bishop is obliged to acknowledge receipt of a CDM and send the complaint and evidence to the Registrar for preliminary scrutiny. He would write to the complainant and the respondent setting out his role. The Registrar would send his preliminary scrutiny to the Bishop and the Bishop may dismiss the complaint, take no further action, or ask the respondent for an answer.

That’s a lot of correspondence and email evidence which would exist across quite a few hard drives. Why did the Archbishop of York not simply ask his Provincial Registrar to scan his email inbox to see how many CDMs he received in 2015? Why not scan his ‘sent’ email and count how many CDM notifications he had forwarded? If it was all done with hard copies and hand-written memos, these must exist as Word documents or pdfs. They must exist on a number of Bishopthorpe PCs.

And yet Sentamu is asking the Clergy Discipline Commission (and, indeed, all of us) to believe him when he says (or leaves us to infer) that all the 2015 CDMs received at Bishopthorpe Palace only ever existed in hard-copy, and all these were efficiently responded to and archived before the end of the year, and all were subsequently lost in the flooded undercroft in December.

Bishopthorpe hard drives were evidently not damaged by rising water, because no fool places PCs in an undercroft which is prone to flooding (and expected to flood that month). Correspondence obviously continues to take place by hard copy and by post, and this would be recorded and stored by the Diocesan Registrar (or the Provincial Registrar in the case of a complaint made against a bishop). You’d assume (wouldn’t you?) that it would remain stored in the office while the investigation is ongoing, and then archived and retained permanently, given its significance to those concerned.

Since the CDM became law, it is a civil tribunal rather than an assize court, which was the case under the old legislation, but the administration behaves in some ways like that of a magistrates’ court. Such courts need full disclosure of relevant papers, and “damaged by flooding” is really no better an excuse for non-disclosure than “the dog ate my homework”. Indeed, it is far less plausible, since puppies are known to shred, chew and digest books and papers, leaving nothing much retrievable from their mess. But what soaked and soggy papers may not be dried out?

The Clergy Discipline Commission is presided over by Lord Justice McFarlane, the President of Tribunals. As it is no longer a criminal jurisdiction but a civil tribunal, it is likely that all papers are able to be kept out of the public domain. But it is hard to see why Archbishop Sentamu should be able so easily to keep papers from the President of Tribunals. The Commission in 2015 was made up of:

Chair (and President of Tribunals): The Rt Hon Lord Justice McFarlane
Deputy Chair (and Deputy President of Tribunals): Sir Mark Hedley
The Rt Rev’d Dr Peter Forster, Bishop of Chester
The Rt Rev’d Christopher Lowson, Bishop of Lincoln
The Rev’d Canon Celia Thomson (Gloucester)
The Rev’d Canon John Sinclair (Newcastle)
Dr Anna Thomas-Betts MBE (Oxford)
Mr David Mills MBE (Carlisle)
Mr Martin Follett (Diocesan Registrar of Exeter and Truro)
The Rev’d Canon Jane Sinclair
The Rev’d Canon Moira Astin (Lincoln)Dr Jamie Harrison (Durham)

Did none of them not query for a second the plausibility of Sentamu’s reason for an ‘unknown’ return in 2015? Did none inquire into the nature and extent of the damage allegedly caused to these records in the flooded undercroft? Did none ask why any surviving hard copies could not be dried out? Did none wonder how every single electronic version – pdf, scan or email – had also come to be “damaged by flooding” when only the undercroft was affected? Are they all so blinded by clericalism – even a Lord Justice of Appeal in England and Wales – that they never doubted for a moment that Archbishop Sentamu was telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?