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Survivors need commitment, not box-ticking

08 July 2016

The Church should turn from defensiveness to positive action, argues Paul Butler

SAFEGUARDING is a matter of the good news of Jesus Christ; for, at its heart, it is about valuing every person as one who is made in God’s image, and for whom Jesus Christ died and rose. It is about everyone’s well-being. It is essential that we see safeguarding in this light; if we do not, then it becomes a mechanical list of dos and don’ts; it descends into box-ticking, and becomes resented.

Primarily, safeguarding is about the prevention of harm, and the promotion of well-being. Then, it also has to be how we handle things when they go wrong, when abuse occurs in its many varied forms — some of which are criminal, all of which are sinful.

As a Church, how we approach safeguarding has been changed by devoting to it increased resources and more effective legislation and policy; but we will always be on a journey. We need to take an active lead, and not be only reacting to past failures.


MY OWN engagement in safeguarding goes back long before it was given that title. For the past six years, however, I have held the responsibility as lead bishop for it. It has been a period of extraordinary change, and an immense amount of work.

One of the deepest pieces of learning for me has been through engaging with survivors. I am grateful to all those who have spoken frankly me. It has been a privilege. These conversations and engagement have to continue. The only way that the Church can improve is by such listening, and then action. These conversations have been robust; they have been hard.

I have not always got this right, personally; nor have we corporately. But there is now, at the heart of the Church, a commitment to survivor engagement and involvement. Sometimes, survivors themselves disagree, and offer us advice and ideas that are at variance with one another; so judgement calls have to be made.


SAFEGUARDING is worked out every day of the week in our parishes, and all church policies and practices have to be designed for this. It is here, too, sadly, that the misuse and abuse of power which lie at the heart of all abuse most often happen.

The local church is also to be a place of welcome for all. So here, too, is where a former abuser might worship — hence the need for careful, agreed management of people who may pose a risk to others. In our calling to follow Christ, we cannot exclude anyone; but welcome has to be safe for all.

Given the numbers of volunteers in our churches, and the huge range of activities, it is wonderful that, week in, week out, the vast bulk of all this happens safely. Prevention takes place. Alertness is maintained.

To say this is not to minimise the seriousness of the damage done when abuse happens; but it is to celebrate the great work that most people do all the time.


ONE of the hardest challenges that I have found has been helping survivors — and, indeed, commentators — to understand the complexity of the Church of England. Equally, it has been extremely hard to help the Church of England’s disparate parts — which are often fiercely independent — to understand that most of the world looks on and sees just one Church of England.

And yet I believe that it is essential that all of us sing one song. We have travelled a long distance in this direction, but, frankly, independent-minded institutions have a way of digging their heels in (sometimes for perfectly valid reasons). Bluntly, I do not think we can expect our society to understand nuanced differences.

In practice, good safeguarding is deliverable only at a local level; so diocesan expertise is essential, but it must be consistent across the whole Church. This is why growing a strong national team has been vital. With regard to safeguarding, we need to act as one Church, and aim to be a beacon of safeguarding for the whole country.

As a nation, we have a significant issue with historic child abuse. This has happened in all institutions, and the majority of abuse has occurred within the family. As a nation, we are still coming to terms with this reality. The Goddard inquiry is tackling it head-on (News, 4 December 2015). The Church of England is, rightly, one of the institutions under the microscope. I, with the Archbishop of Canterbury, called for an inquiry long before the Government was willing to consider the idea.

There is, therefore, an understandable emphasis on past cases that have a continuing impact on the lives of those who were abused. Goddard is also focusing specifically on child sexual-abuse. As a Church, we need to respond to abuse in all its forms. We also need to ensure that we are not putting so much time and energy into responding to the past that we take our eye off the ball in the present, and for the future.

Where people have been abused, we must respond well, and not try to brush things under the carpet. The way we respond can give confidence about present practice. And yet we are in danger of investing so much time, energy, and expenditure in the past that we might be at risk of compromising the present, and investing inadequately in the future. Of course, we must respond well to the past; but we must also ensure that the present is the best that it can be.


AS THE Bishop of Bath & Wells, the Rt Revd Peter Hancock, takes on the lead-bishop portfolio from me, I remain concerned that we, as a Church, and indeed as a society, are operating on a model that is still not founded on having the well-being of all at its heart.

This can happen only when safeguarding is seen as everyone’s responsibility; where every member of a congregation recognises that he or she has a part to play. A Church of England theology document published last week, The Gospel, Sexual Abuse and the Church — which is designed to enable Christian communities to think further about safeguarding — can help to inform us (News, 1 July). It provides some vital tools on how the Church can speak about the gospel when facing the reality of sexual abuse, both in the communities it serves, and as a crime carried out by its own members and officers.

We talk about a sea change in culture around these matters, and at times it feels as if this has happened — just look at the changes in staffing, expenditure, and legislation. There is still, however, a long way to go. This must be about the Church of England’s recognising that it could lead the way rather than be a body that always feels that it is on the back foot, reacting to its failures, past and present.

It can happen only with repentance — a change of mind and direction — and the belief that Jesus spoke the truth of God’s Kingdom when he said: “Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.”


I want to thank publicly Alana Lawrence, Phil Johnson, Jo Kind, Lucy Duckworth, and Graham Wilmer for their generosity in time and conversation with me over the past six years, and I look forward to the continuation of this.


The Rt Revd Paul Butler is the Bishop of Durham, and has been the lead bishop on safeguarding since 2010.

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