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Awareness is the key to safety

20 February 2008

Mental-health training and information is vital to keep clergy safe, says Eva McIntyre

Sad farewell: clergy leave the funeral of the Revd Paul Bennett last March PA

Sad farewell: clergy leave the funeral of the Revd Paul Bennett last March PA

“The message to clergy is: ‘Don’t open the door,’” said a priest from Llandaff diocese, when we were on retreat in Wales. The conversation had strayed on to clergy security, and the locking of the stable door after the murder of the Revd Paul Bennett (News, 23 March 2007).

The advice seemed ridiculous. It was surely encouraging clerics and their families to become prisoners of fear. It was also completely impractible, especially among a group that believes it is necessary to be available.

Yes, we should be security conscious. Proper training, provided by professional experts through a continuous refresher scheme, needs to be implemented across the Church. Self-defence instruction, workable security devices, and the use of approaches recommended by such bodies as the Susie Lamplugh Trust — all should be standard practice.

The notion of availability also needs to be addressed robustly. It does not necessitate making ourselves completely vulnerable. Balancing the perceived needs and expectations of others with safe practice will encourage us to investigate this further. There are questions such as how to educate the laity about their expectations of parish clergy.

Mental-health awareness is vital. The man who murdered Paul Bennett (and others who have attacked or killed clergy or their families in recent years) was mentally ill. Not opening the door is an inadequate response in this circumstance. You have to leave the house some time; the person will still be around. She or he is a paranoid schizophrenic, or has a personality disorder, and has a fixation on you.

When I worked as a prison chaplain, we encountered prisoners who had a profile of hatred towards religious figures. When they came into prison, they were risk-assessed, the chaplaincy team was advised of the danger, and measures were put in place to protect us. Violent prisoners would be segregated and supervised, and chaplains would always be accompanied by two officers when visiting them.

One of my most moving memories is of the occasion when a female officer stood in front of me while such a prisoner was being escorted to an appointment. She would have taken a physical attack to protect me.

If a prisoner was not violent, but had issues about religion, chaplains would notify officers of their intention to see her (routine practice when entering a wing anyway). An officer would then be near by.

Information was the most significant element for protecting ourselves; being aware that the person had violent tendencies meant that we could adapt our behaviour. Basic security practices kept us safe — such as making sure someone knew where we were and whom we were with, and never getting into the position where a prisoner was physically between us and the door.

It is high time for parish clergy to think about the wisdom of seeing strangers alone in their vicarages, and whether they tell people where they are going when making home visits.

Clerics need high-quality instruction, and not just a good book on the subject. Training of the level received in the Prison Service would help us all to take the right action when confronted with someone in a psychotic state.

The ability to recognise basic symptoms — such as agitation, repeated physical actions, lack of lucidity, rapid speech, and fixations on irrational topics — should lead us to call for support from specialists. Knowing not to challenge people’s delusions or collude with them, but to distract them with other, mundane subjects, can lead to a calming of the situation, and buy time for an exit plan. Learning to read the signs and make the appropriate response might make the difference between life and death for us or them.

A similar information-sharing approach to that in prisons could be transferred into the community to protect clergy. It is not an insurmountable task for the various agencies in one place to communicate with each other. Police, probation, social services, GPs, and clergy could share information in a confidential agreement.

The first step would be for the relevant agencies to be aware that someone with dangerous tendencies is in the community, and to do a risk-assessment — this should have been done before release from hospital or prison, and the information passed to the “multi-agency protection arrangements” (the team of professionals who monitor offenders in the community).

The second step would be to provide clergy with what they need to recognise the person — a photo and name. The confidential nature of the information could be spelt out by the informing officer.

The third step would be for the police and probation service to monitor the individual, and keep the vicarage and church regularly on the police beat. They could provide a direct phone line in case of sightings. We can provide a far better level of protection than we do at present.

It will soon be the first anniversary of the murder of Paul Bennett, and it is staggering to think that the lessons appear not to have been acted on throughout the Church. I look back further to the murder of the Revd Chris Gray in Liverpool in 1996. He had contributed to a book, The Fire and the Clay (SPCK, 1993), in which he spoke of the priest following Christ in loving his people to the point of laying down his life.

We can at least learn from their untimely deaths, and, in memoriam, implement a training policy to keep the clergy safe. How many priests need to die before we can come up with something better than “Don’t open the door”?

The Revd Eva McIntyre is Vicar of Stourport and Wilden, in the diocese of Worcester.

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