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Barriers to accountability

10 March 2017

Many in the Church still find it too difficult to report abuse, says David Greenwood


THE way the Church of England — in particular, its dioceses and insurers — has responded to allegations of non-recent child sex abuse is likely to be examined in the coming months and years by the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) (News, 9 December). I offer my perspective as a lawyer interested in improving safeguarding.

As a starting-point, it is helpful to consider how we would like the Church to respond to these allegations of sexual assaults by clergy on children (and, increasingly commonly reported, abuse of vulnerable and impressionable adults). It could be said that we would like the Church to:

  1. Provide as much support as the survivor would like.
  2. Refer the case to the police and other statutory agencies.
  3. Decide whether there are appropriate internal safeguarding procedures that need to be invoked.
  4. If the allegations are proved, offer a sincere apology, compensation, ongoing therapy, and support.
  5. Do all of the above in a way that does not place barriers in the way of a survivor who wants to report abuse.
  6. Do all this in a way that minimises the trauma that inevitably results from speaking up.

The Church and its insurers did not come to these steps willingly. The long road to this protocol was highlighted vividly by a law professor, Julie Macfarlane, who is a survivor of clergy child sex abuse, in a groundbreaking article (Comment, 11 December 2015).

She questioned the tactics used by the Church via its lawyers and insurers, which included failing to accept a reasonable interpretation of the facts; arguing that her case was out of time; and suggesting that she had consented to the abuse, even though she had been aged only 16 to 18 at the time.

Her key point was that the blurred boundaries between the individual diocese and its lawyers, and the insurers and their lawyers, each wishing to protect the Church and minimise any outlay, turned the process into an adversarial one.

The diocese, or PCC, is the client, but the insurer, usually the Ecclesiastical Insurance Group (EIG), ultimately makes the decisions. But EIG is owned by the Allchurches Trust, which has on its board numerous senior clergy. Thus the Church must be careful to make the right decisions, and should set a good example when instructing the EIG.

Dr Macfarlane’s efforts have gone a long way to ensuring that the EIG and its lawyers, BLM, do respond well. The EIG is now becoming a good exemplar. Julie and I worked on a list of responsible conduct, most of which was implemented by the EIG and its lawyers. The resulting “Guiding Principles” document sets out how the EIG and its lawyers will behave when new claimants report abuse by clergy.


DESPITE this progress, it will help only those brave souls who have the resources to negotiate the significant remaining barriers to reporting abuse. Most do not. I speak daily to individuals who are toying with the idea of speaking out, but who, for various reasons, find it too hard to take the first step.

It is worth setting out three of the main barriers that remain.

The first sorts of barriers are cultural. The Church of England has a strong reputation for helping people in need, and there are, understandably, many inside the institution who wish to protect its good name. Sadly, this leads to defensive tactics: ostracising individuals who complain, and ignoring and closing doors on those who try to report abuse. This is not good for the health of complainants.

These are all issues that have been raised with me in my work of representing those sexually abused by clergy. The Church needs to work on opening up more readily to the realisation that child sexual abuse has taken place, and that, as a responsible organisation, it needs to respond positively. The 2011 document Responding Well was a good start, but it seems to be gathering dust in many dioceses.

A centralised and more enforced approach is needed. A more corporate culture is needed to meet the challenges of organising a uniform response to what is becoming an epidemic of reports of clergy abuse.

Ultimately, the issue of complaint-handling should be removed from church control and handed to an independent body. When the first point of contact for a survivor of clerical abuse is often the successor of the abuser, it is no wonder that many turn away from that first hurdle.

The second barrier is non-church. Assuming that a survivor of clergy abuse is strong enough to find help from the police, there are enormous barriers to negotiate within the statutory system. The police response is also patchy (but rapidly improving). Police investigations can be positive, but are, of course, painful for those involved. Being subjected to cross-examination in both the criminal and civil justice systems is not an experience that I would wish on any abuse survivor. A redress scheme with less intrusive investigation is more appropriate for these cases.

The third barrier is structural. I realised while writing this article that generalising about how “the Church” should respond is an aspiration in more ways than one. First, because a change of attitudes has been slow in many dioceses, and consistently good practice is uncommon; and, second, because it is unrealistic to expect all 42 dioceses to adopt exactly the same approach when they are not required to.

Each diocese is a separate entity, and each is entitled to be run according to the will of its controlling bishop. Only the House of Bishops en masse can centralise the approach to responding well to reports of clergy abuse. The House of Bishops shows no sign of being willing to adopt a centralised and more corporate approach. This means that we are left merely with the hope that, by education, and through the work of many good people inside and outside the Church, good practice will spread. Progress is being made this way, but too slowly.


I WILL continue to educate, point out inadequacies, and encourage positive change. I will also be asking the IICSA to recommend the establishment of an independent body to handle complaints of abuse by clergy in the C of E and the Roman Catholic Church. Any change by the IICSA route is, however, likely to be five years away, which means that survivors will be left to find support where it is available. Many will find that the barriers are too great and, without support, will not improve their quality of life.

It remains to be seen how the impact of new measures, which are designed to make the Clergy Discipline Measure (as recently amended) more accessible, will improve the experience of complainants of clergy sexual abuse. (These were discussed by Rupert Bursell in the July 2016 edition of Crucible.)

My experience so far has been that bishops have manipulated and delayed the processes, causing unnecessary suffering to survivors. It is likely, in my view, to remain yet another barrier to accountability until it is replaced with a bespoke system for clergy-abuse cases, or its replacement with the independent body that I advocate.


David Greenwood is head of the child-abuse compensation team at Switalskis Solicitors.

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