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Safeguards only work if used, say vulnerable adults

24 October 2014

The care of abused adults is also a key concern of the Church. Madeleine Davies investigates


Way forward? An "authorised listener" should be appointed by each diocese. Photo posed by models

Way forward? An "authorised listener" should be appointed by each diocese. Photo posed by models

IN JULY 2008, a 26-year-old woman complained to the Dean of Jersey, the Very Revd Robert Key, that she had been subject to abusive behaviour by a churchwarden. Five years later, an investigation into his handling of her complaint resulted in his suspension by the Bishop of Winchester, the Rt Revd Tim Dakin. This led to claims of "constitutional crisis" in Jersey, and, eventually, transfer of episcopal oversight for the island to the Archbishop of Canterbury.

The facts of the case have been subject to extensive scrutiny and dispute. Both the Dean, reinstated in April last year, and the woman have criticised that first investigation, carried out by a psychotherapist, Jan Korris. In 2013, Bishop Dakin commissioned two more reviews of the situation. The results of neither have been published after concerns about confidentiality and legality.

What is agreed is that, three months after the 26-year-old arrived at a church in Jersey, a churchwarden and his wife invited her to stay in their home.

"We took risks in our relationship with [the woman] but thought we were doing so under God's calling," he later told the Dean.

According to the Korris report, within a few months, the woman had moved out and reported "unwelcome and potentially abusive behaviour" to the Dean. Over the course of the next three years, she also made complaints against the Dean, the safeguarding officer, and others, and was eventually arrested for breaking a harassment order and deported from the island for three years. She has since written a number of blog posts expressing her rage and hurt about what she says was violation at the hands of the Church.

Whatever the conclusions of the unpublished reviews, her case raises important questions for the Church about its care of vulnerable adults.

"In Korris, the lack of clear boundaries meant that violations could occur or be perceived to occur," says Simon Bass, CEO of the Churches' Child Protection Advisory Service (CCPAS), which now extends its concern to adults.

"There is a need to look at how we provide guidance and policies that are practical enough, and provide safety for all concerned - not just the person who may be a vulnerable adult, but also those wanting to reach out."

Mr Bass can cite "lots of instances" of individuals' opening up their homes. "That is seen as an act of Christian love; but when boundaries are muddled, harm can follow."

CCPAS has collected 3000 responses to an online survey about the care of vulnerable adults in Christian communities. The research is being conducted in recognition of the fact that churches are increasingly involved in ministries that bring them into contact with vulnerable adults, including street pastoring, debt counselling, and running foodbanks. CCPAS is receiving an increasing number of calls about this area.

The level of understanding within the Church about vulnerable adults "reflects society", suggests Mr Bass. While legislation for protecting children has been in place for decades, it was only this year, in the Care Act, that vulnerable adults were included in a statutory framework.

"It is important that the Church gives as high a profile to the safeguarding of vulnerable adults as they do to children," says Ruth Reed, the vulnerable-adults adviser in the diocese of Liverpool. "Congregations may be aware of certain vulnerable adults and how to respond to them. However, due to the wide spectrum that vulnerable adults cover, it is not always possible for congregations to be able to respond to all natures of vulnerability."


THE Church of England has had a policy on vulnerable adults since 2006. Promoting a Safe Church includes a "working definition", which states that a vulnerable adult is "any adult aged 18 or over who, by reason of mental or other disability, age, illness or other situation is permanently or for the time being unable to take care of him or herself, or to protect him or herself against significant harm or exploitation". It acknowledges, however, that some adults who do not recognise themselves in this definition "may still find themselves exploited, bullied or abused".

Among the vulnerable will be those who are survivors of abuse. As the national inquiry into historic abuse stumbles into life, churches can expect more people to disclose abuse that may have taken place years, or even decades, ago.

Although abuse might have taken place in a church setting, Promoting a Safe Church suggests that the Church can be a place of healing for vulnerable people who have been marginalised in the past.

"It is important to recognise the vulnerability and possible 'childlike' state of survivors," the policy warns. "They can be over-compliant and easily manipulated. Power abuse within pastoral care is a real danger here."

The 2006 report does not smooth over the complexities of protecting vulnerable people. "Church workers need to understand that they hold a position of power and influence even if they do not feel that that is the case," it says.

"Prevention can be particularly difficult with those who may be vulnerable, because of the range of people who are in contact with them, and the variety of ways in which churches and others try to be of help or befriend people who otherwise would be isolated."

Church workers are cautioned about "the dangers of dependency in pastoral and professional relationships". They should "avoid behaviour that could give the impression of inappropriate favouritism, or the encouragement of inappropriate special relationships".

Practical advice includes being aware of the dangers of visits alone, especially in the evening, the possibility that physical contact, such as a hug, may be misunderstood, and keeping a record of all encounters.

Managing boundaries is particularly crucial for clergy, who make numerous visits, often to people's homes, and are required to deal with deeply personal and painful matters.

Mrs Reed warns: "Churches often simply want to get on with it. So a church could set up a pastoral visiting group just by giving volunteers a list of names and numbers [to contact]. This is a well-meaning but misguided approach, which could lead the volunteer and vulnerable person into all sorts of difficulty. My training focuses on how to avoid such situations and help understand this complexity."


THE proper handling of complaints is crucial to the care of vulnerable adults.

Promoting a Safe Church urges that all complaints be taken "very seriously" and dealt with "promptly and fairly". It states clearly: "If the abuse of an adult appears to be a criminal offence, the police must be informed, and a referral must be made to the local authority."

It goes on: "With less serious matters, such as inappropriate behaviour or attitude not amounting to abuse, the worker's immediate superior should approach the worker and discuss the concern with them with the aim of identifying ways of improving the situation."

"The informal route should always be tried first," the policy suggests. "At this early stage it will be important for someone to listen carefully to the complainant to determine how he or she wishes to proceed." This could include making a formal complaint against a member of the clergy under the Clergy Discipline Measure.

A failure to take complaints seriously can have far-reaching consequences.

CF, a churchgoer in the Home Counties, has post-traumatic stress disorder and a dissociative disorder. She believes that vulnerable adults require reassurance that their complaints will not be "filtered".

She fears that there exists "a presumption of innocence inherent in the very role of priest, which mitigates against the person who is making the accusation, and who may well have been very greatly hurt. Without a transparent process to follow, this presumption may well hinder or even prevent a proper investigation."

CF served as a PCC treasurer from September 2011 to May 2013, a post she was able to fulfil with pastoral support from her vicar. But a combination of stress, and the need, she says, to act robustly to maintain the church's financial integrity coincided with a gradual withdrawal of this support, turning, she says, to personal hostility.

She has emails between herself and the vicar over several months, which document the gradual deterioration in her ability to cope with the work that she had been given, and the failure of the vicar to address the issues she raised. She knew she was becoming very unwell because she began to experience vivid suicidal ideation: very disturbing images that frightened her.

In a rare meeting with the vicar, he told her that people who talk about suicide never do it, and those who do it never talk about it. This effectively silenced her.

Less than a month later CF had a breakdown, and was unable to continue. She did not go to church for two weeks. When she returned, the vicar asked the churchwardens to escort her to the vestry, and, in full hearing of the church, he told her that he was not going to tolerate her behaviour any more, and told her to hand over her files as treasurer. She was accused of having upset one member of the congregation. The vicar's action was done without the knowledge or consent of the churchwardens or PCC.

She wrote a letter of resignation to the PCC, and also wrote to the Archdeacon. Two months passed. In his reply, he told her to move on. She wrote again, and the answer was the same.

CF wrote to the Bishop, and recommended changes to the diocese's response to vulnerable adults. His reply said that her comments were noted. He did not ask to see her. To date, there has been no detailed examination of the vicar's behaviour. She now worships at another church, and, although she now has a very supportive vicar, she regards church as a very unsafe place.


THE Church's policy on caring for survivors of abuse, Responding Well, was published in 2011. It states that every diocese must appoint "carefully chosen, competent and trained people who will be able to be 'authorized listeners'".

The Church is also currently exploring how to create "safe spaces", possibly provided by external agencies.

CF believes that "a timely apology can save a great deal of pain, and many tears."

The Bishop of Durham, the Rt Revd Paul Butler, who chairs the Church's safeguarding committee, believes that there has been an improvement in the Church's response to complaints, but says that, in the past, survivors have had "serious difficulties".

There is, he says, "a much greater openness around apologising. Not just apologising, but re- penting where things went wrong." He highlights advice from Ecclesiastical Insurance with regard to how churches should respond to allegations of abuse that do not constitute a formal claim. This states: "Offering an apology, an offer of treatment and other redress [not defined] shall not in itself amount to an admission of negligence or a breach of statutory duty."

It is important that churches are aware of this, Bishop Butler says, given the perception, well-founded in the past, that fear of litigation has prevented the making of apologies.

Although the Church's documentation and instructions to parishes are in place, survivors' groups question whether they are actually being implemented.

"An abuse policy that does not have a clearly stated process of implementation is effectively worthless," CF says. "A vulnerable person or an abused person by definition has no power in the Church. This means that someone with power has to make a decision to implement the policy, but to do this they have to suspend their total and complete faith in the priest or other person concerned."

The latest safeguarding legislation (Draft Safeguarding and Clergy Discipline Measure) presented to the General Synod in July, states that the ordained, Readers, churchwardens, and PCC members, must all have "regard" to the safeguarding guidance on both children and vulnerable adults. While a diocesan self-audit is under way, the Church is consulting on how best to conduct more in-depth monitoring, perhaps featuring peer review or external auditors.

"The stark reality for us is what's happening on the ground in parishes as far as vulnerable adults are concerned," Bishop Butler says. "There are visits being done to people at home, work in residential and nursing homes. How are people being supported and cared for?" Auditing all 16,000 parishes is, he admits, a "big task". The Church's safeguarding only as strong as its weakest link.

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