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Synod listens to reproaches from child-abuse survivors

12 July 2013


Contrite: the Bishop of Southwell & Nottingham, the Rt Revd Paul Butler

Contrite: the Bishop of Southwell & Nottingham, the Rt Revd Paul Butler

THE General Synod, on Sunday afternoon, apologised on behalf of the Church of England to victims of abuse for the failure of its systems to prevent abuse, and for its failure to listen to them properly.

Introducing the debate on safeguarding and the follow-up to the Chichester commissaries' reports, the Bishop of Southwell & Nottingham, the Rt Revd Paul Butler, who co-chairs the joint C of E-Methodist safeguarding liaison group, read a statement from the Stop Church Child Abuse Group (SCCAG). "It is not comfortable," he said, "but I am honoured that these brave survivors have trusted me to read it on their behalf.

"It is an indication of where the Church of England is in hearing the voices of those who have been caused irreparable harm within the Church that survivors are not allowed to speak for themselves," the statement said. "Survivors are not allowed to share their vision for safeguarding the vulnerable and responding to those who have been abused at this important debate. We have been told it is to do with other debates taking place over the coming days, and the danger of setting a precedent.

"If this resolution had been thought through at all, if survivors had been consulted and brought into discussions about its content and purpose, and plans had been made accordingly, then there would have been no need for precedents," they said. "Why are the victims always the last to be consulted about how they are to be responded to?"

They said that survivors were "confused" about the resolution and debate, and that "an apology normally comes after the truth is known, when responsibilities have been placed where they belong, and the harm caused has been set down, reckoned, and acknowledged. An apology made without the costly engagement of reaching out to victims, listening to what happened to them and the suffering endured, would be meaningless."

They asked whether the apology was a game - "another in the decade of games played out in the public, to present a Church responsive to its past failings and moving forward in harmony with survivors - until the next time, the next case that reveals further abuse, cover-up and denial, and the inadequacy of ineffective procedures".

"Many victims of rape and abuse perpetrated within the Church have not survived," they said. "Many victims suffer with mental-health difficulties directly attributable to the abuse they endured. Many are in prisons, homeless, unemployed, in ill-health, and socially isolated.

"Many survivors have not come forward through fear, shame, and a deep mistrust of the Church. They, too, must be acknowledged."

They called for an independent public inquiry, saying that it was the only way to "uncover the truth of how many have been abused and continue to suffer; of the privileging and protection of offenders, and the denial, silencing, and vilification of the victims and their families; of the collusion and cover-up and attempts to pervert the course of justice; and the ongoing institutional and cultural dynamics within the Church that continue to enable abuse and to cover up and deny the abuse perpetrated by clergy and others at the cost of safeguarding the most vulnerable within the Church."

Bishop Butler concluded SCCAG's statement by asking the Synod to observe a silence, before making his own speech to introduce the debate.

The commissaries' reports, he said, would be seen as landmarks in the Church of England's response to abuse. "This can be the pivotal point, when we turn from having a default position that is to defend the institution, even at the cost of failing to respond appropriately to those who have been abused, to one where we will listen to the survivor, and begin from there."

The commissaries had "exposed much wider institutional failings that affected every diocese. For far too long the institution, and notably those in most senior positions, either disbelieved the stories that survivors told us, or believed them, but tried to hide the truth away or remove the offender elsewhere, vaguely hoping that 'the problem' would go away."

Bishop Butler said that the motion was "only a step on the journey", because a raft of legal changes were needed, which would be "expedited with due speed".

He concluded: "We failed, big time. We can do nothing other than confess our sin, repent, and commit ourselves to being different in the years ahead."

Professor Glynn Harrison (Bristol) quoted the words of a priest who had been abused by a parish priest at the age of 13. He asked the Synod for three things. First, an understanding of how damaging sexual abuse was. What he had suffered had had a "profound effect" on his growing up and sexual development. It went "deeper than one ever imagines".

Second, he asked the Synod not to underestimate "how costly it is to come forward and give evidence". Being cross-examined in court had been a "humiliating and crushing experience" that was in many ways as bad as the original abuse, he said.

Third, he asked the Synod not to underestimate the importance of responding well. On the day that the priest who had abused him was convicted, the diocese concerned had put out a press release apologising to the victims. But it was not for a further three months, and only after a number of personal requests from him that he had received a letter of apology from the diocesan bishop. This had been "profoundly painful".

Professor Harrison said that the legal changes being proposed were "crucial", but the cultural changes more so. First, it was important to remember that these were "spiritual issues of darkness, wickedness, the deceitfulness of the heart, and redemption". He asked that that the changes be nested in the "broader gospel narrative".

The Revd Catherine Nightingale (Deaf Church) said that it was important that the Church recognised the survivors and their stories. But the removal of the time limit for abuse allegations to be made should apply to vulnerable adults, who might need time and support to tell their stories.

She also called for the anonymity of complainants to be preserved. She knew of one complainant who was still being pursued by the priest against whom she had brought a complaint.

The Revd Mark Steadman (Southwark) argued that this was "arguably the most important debate of this group of sessions". The Church must begin to seek justice and reconciliation. This might be done through an inquiry, or through a truth and reconciliation process such as that conducted in South Africa.

Besides structures and systems, the culture must change: "Too often, there is a complacency and attitude that 'This won't happen here.'" It was "deeply regrettable" that the recent changes to DBS procedures by the Government meant that copy certificates would no longer be sent to bodies such as churches. This would make the whole vetting and barring process more complex to administer and less safe. The Government needed to help bodies such as the Church in their attempts to do better.

John Freeman (Chester) said that "diocesan variations" in safeguarding policy made him "twitchy". It left the Church open to "a maverick diocese doing its own thing". Mr Freeman asked Bishop Butler "to consider again one all-embracing comprehensive set of rules that apply to all dioceses, administered from the centre; so we all know where we are going".

Canon Hazel Whitehead (Guildford), who is responsible for safeguarding training in Guildford diocese, said that such training was "very costly in terms of time, money, and energy - and it's a cost that is well spent."

Nevertheless, it was the bishop who was ultimately responsible for safeguarding; and yet nowhere in the report were they told about the responsibility of the bishop. "So what I'm seeking in this debate is assurance that all bishops will be held to rigorous account."

David Kemp (Canterbury), chairman of the Canterbury diocesan child-protection-management group, contrasted the situation in the Church 20 years ago, when he heard a bishop say that an offender "won't do it again", to today, "when we are better, but still travelling".

While expressing gratitude for the report, Mr Kemp said that it "lacks urgency". He asked why the national Church had only "half a person" employed in safeguarding. "What message does that send?"

Canon Simon Butler (Southwark) said that, alongside the necessary procedures, the pastoral care of alleged perpetrators of abuse should also be taken into account. He recounted the story of somebody in a parish where he had been formerly. This person had been accused of abuse, remanded in custody, and, after being released on bail, had taken their own life. "That moment has been the most painful, unresolved failure in my pastoral ministry," he said.

Stephen Pratt (Lichfield) said that it was "deplorable that the place to which so many people turn to receive help and support as the result of abuse is also the place where so many find themselves abused". He said that its "recommendations need to be far more urgent than is set down here".

The Archbishop of Canterbury said that the statement read out from survivors of abuse at the start of the debate had been "absolutely agonising. . . What it says, above all, is that, for us, what we're looking at today is far from enough."

He said that there would always be dangerous people in congregations, but one hoped and prayed that they would not assume positions of responsibility. Nevertheless, the odds were that, from time to time, people would conceal their motives sufficiently well to do so. The Church faced "a continuing challenge and reality".

"This is not an issue we can deal with: it is something we will live with, and must live in the reality of, day in, day out, for as long as the Church exists, and seek to get it right." The actions proposed by the report "must be ones that are persistent", he said. "We cannot in 20 years be finding ourselves having this same debate and saying 'Well, we didn't quite understand then.' There has to be a complete change of culture and behaviour."

Archbishop Welby had a "profound theological point" to make. "We are not doing all this - we are not seeking to say how devastatingly, appallingly, atrociously sorry we are for the great failures there have been - for our sakes, for our own flourishing, for the protection of the Church. But we are doing it because we are called to live in the justice of God, and we will each answer to him for our failures in this area."

Bringing about a change of culture would require "very dramatic increases in resourcing".

The Archdeacon of Chichester, the Ven. Douglas McKittrick (Chichester), described his own diocese as an example of a failure to listen, to investigate properly, and to deal with allegations robustly through the proper authorities. He welcomed the Archbishop's visitation. "The lack of implementation of what were robust diocesan safeguarding policies in part of our diocese was, and is, unacceptable," he said. "The Chichester diocese has wasted no time in implementing the commissaries' recommendations. The Church of England must now, with urgency, do likewise."

Mary Johnston (London) said that she was a lay representative on a group that had drawn up the Guidelines for the Professional Conduct of the Clergy ten years ago. "I distinctly recall that one issue that seriously exercised my clergy colleagues was sacramental confession: the responsibilities that exist in the seal of the confessional, and how, and when - if ever - to break the sacramental seal."

She said that she hoped that "thorough training is already mandatory" for "those priests that are to offer this highly specialised and valuable ministry".

The Bishop of Hereford, the Rt Revd Anthony Priddis, paid tribute to survivors for their courage - particularly those survivors who were in the public gallery; but also pointed out that "statistics would suggest that there is quite a significant number of people elsewhere in this chamber who have themselves been abused and are survivors." He warned that "perfect policies perfectly implemented will not stop abuse. "It is necessary for us to have the best policies, and it is necessary for us to implement them in the best possible way; but we always need more than policies."

He said that people in the Church needed to be suspicious, because people who had a tendency to abuse, had abused, and would abuse or want to abuse, were devious and clever; grooming not only children, but also adults.

April Alexander (Southwark) spoke of two matters from personal experience. She did not regard herself in any way as a survivor. About 30 years ago, she had been attacked at home by a very elderly male neighbour. She had not been able to talk about it for five years. She said: "We now know that the tendency to bury memories is very common, and I would like to suggest that the 12-month limit is totally inappropriate in all cases of sex offence." She also suggested that it might be appropriate to treat all complainants as vulnerable adults.

Her second experience had taken place when a young curate had come to her parish. She had been the only mother to have had concerns about his requests to take children on overnight trips on which he was the only adult present. Five years later, he had been convicted of grave offences against under-age girls, but even then her friends had assumed that there had been a miscarriage of justice. She now regarded this as a case of "mass grooming". There was no mention of this phenomenon in the report before Synod.

The Revd Hugh Lee (Oxford) endorsed everything in the motion, but called on Synod to "go further" in three respects. First, the definition of "vulnerable adult" should be jettisoned. Second, there should be no time limit in the Clergy Discipline Measure for the reporting of any sort of abuse. Third, the Measure should deal with any sort of abuse, not just sexual and physical.

Canon Suzanne Sheriff accused Synod, including herself, of keeping the issue of safeguarding at a distance, saying "Not me," and talking about "the Church" and "them".

The Synod must accept that members within it had been abused or were abusers: "If we are going to take this seriously, we must believe that the inconceivable is possible."

The Revd Stephen Lynas (Bath & Wells) introduced an amendment adding a requirement to ensure that safeguarding arrangements were "communicated effectively to those responsible for safeguarding in parishes".

"Safeguarding isn't about what happens in London or in diocesan offices," he said, "but in our parishes."

The amendment was overwhelmingly passed without a debate, after the Bishop of Southwell & Nottingham said that he was "happy to accept it in the spirit in which it is offered".

Caroline Spencer (Canterbury) chairs Canterbury Cathedral's child-protection group. She said that a number of people had suggested that they did not need to attend child-protection training because they had received safeguarding training from other organisations, such as schools. "The day your school says you don't need to be trained by them because you've been trained by the cathedral, I'll let you off," she said.

"At parish churches and cathedrals, we open wide the doors and say 'Please come in,' and we have no idea who is coming through those doors; and we know that we are honeypots for people who might have less than totally 100-per-cent wonderful aspirations of what they are going to do."

She explained that when she sent the annual letter calling people for training, she usually received complaints from people asking why; but this year there had been no complaints, because of a changed attitude caused by what had happened in Chichester, at the BBC, and elsewhere.

The Revd Neil Patterson (Hereford) spoke of a previous case in his ministry where a person had not been convicted, but had "managed to cause considerable harm", exploiting his position as a Reader. He said that the man managed to resign his licence before it could be taken off him; and then complained that he had been treated unfairly. A member of the senior staff had written to him saying that things had been done properly; but that "of course, I always intended to do no harm to your good standing in the town."

Canon Jonathan Alderton-Ford (St Edmundsbury & Ipswich) expressed a hope that "we are entering a new phase" of openness that would be "very painful for everyone, and especially the victims". He was "afraid we will look away and forget it, and hope that it will all go away". The hardest thing he had ever done in his ministry was to pick up the phone and say to the appropriate person "I think we have a problem with X." He had also received "the worst of phone calls", learning from his diocese that the "rising star" in his church, whom "everyone loves", was "not the person you thought they were".

He suggested that those convicted of abuse should be barred from all significant posts in the church, including the PCC secretary, PCC treasurer, and deanery-synod member, as well as churchwarden and employee. This was because "we have to prove again that we can be trusted."

The Bishop of Chichester, Dr Martin Warner, hoped that the survivors present would be reassured by hearing about a shift in culture towards a Church that was humbler, more compassionate, and more humane; a process that began with apology. It had often been "vital" for bishops, sometimes inheriting failures, cover-ups, lies, and deceit, to take a lead in encouraging survivors and nurturing this culture, and in engaging with those who had been damaged.

One thing missing from the report was an emphasis on the need for the Church to engage with other statutory and voluntary agencies. He suggested that, at a national and diocesan level, forums should include representatives from agencies such as the police, social services, the NSPCC, and survivors' groups. This would improve accountability.

He hoped that the Church would move towards having a single safeguarding policy. He commended the survivors he had met. Some had told him that what they had missed most was "access to the practice of their faith. I would hope and pray that our intentions and demonstration of a different future will enable them to return joyfully to that."

Before the vote took place, the Synod paused again in a further period of silence for "reflection and private prayer". The vote was carried by 360 nem. con. with no recorded abstentions. The motion read:

That this Synod

(a) endorse the Archbishops' statement in GS 1896 expressing on behalf of the Church of England an unreserved apology for the failure of its systems to protect children, young people and adults from physical and sexual abuse inflicted by its clergy and others; and for the failure to listen properly to those so abused;

(b) invite -
(i) the House of Bishops and the Archbishops' Council to pursue as a matter of urgency the programme of work set out in GS 1896 to enhance the Church of England's safeguarding arrangements, ensuring that such arrangements are communicated effectively to those responsible for safeguarding in parishes; and
(ii) the Business Committee to schedule First Consideration of the necessary draft legislation as soon as the responses to the consultation document have been assessed, with a view to its securing Final Approval in the lifetime of this Synod; and

(c) invite the House of Bishops and the Archbishops' Council to report back to the Synod by February 2014 on what action is to be taken to secure the more effective delivery of the "Responding Well" policy across the Church in the interests of survivors.

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