THREE bishops have sharply criticised the record of Ecclesiastical, the insurance company, over its treatment of abuse survivors on behalf of the Church of England.
In a letter to Mark Hews, the chief executive of the Ecclesiastical Insurance Group (EIG), the bishops condemn “horse trading” between lawyers negotiating settlements for abuse survivors.
The letter was sent after a meeting with a survivor, and calls on the insurer to consider revisiting both past settlements and its overarching approach to claims, questioning, for example, whether fairness should be taking precedence over justice and reconciliation.
The move was welcomed by the survivor, Gilo, also known as “Joe”, who first spoke of “offensive horse trading” years ago, when he was awarded £35,000 in a settlement with the diocese of London (News, 4 December), an experience he described as “demeaning, degrading”. He believes that the Church must remove all responsibility for handling of survivors from Ecclesiastical (News, 28 July).
Ecclesiastical has issued a strongly worded response to the bishops, stating that their letter “seriously misrepresents” the company’s actions and “misunderstands how insurance works”.
The letter is one of a number of outcomes from a meeting Gilo had with three bishops last month. Another is a letter of apology from the Archbishop of Canterbury. Gilo has described writing 17 letters to the Archbishop before finally getting a reply from a correspondence secretary assuring him that the Archbishop would hold him in his prayers.
Archbishop Welby’s letter to Gilo says: “I am writing to say how profoundly sorry I am for all the abuse you have suffered. . . I am shocked to hear of what has happened to you and the impact over so many years. . . I am sorry that the way your correspondence was handled has not been helpful to you, and has not been to the standard you would expect.”
He had asked for a review of processes: “There are lessons to learn and I am keen that we learn them and make any changes necessary.”
As a teenager, Gilo was the victim of an attempted rape by the Revd Garth Moore, a former Chancellor of the dioceses of Southwark, Durham, and Gloucester, who died in 1990. He was then drawn into what he has described as an exploitative and emotionally abusive relationship with Brother Michael Fisher SSF, who later became Bishop of St Germans. He first wrote about his long struggle to have his reports of abuse taken seriously in 2015 (News, 17 April, 2015), including how he disclosed the abuse to “roughly 40 C of E priests, and to senior people, including bishops”.
The three bishops are the Bishop Durham, the Rt Revd Paul Butler (formerly lead bishop for safeguarding); the Bishop at Lambeth, the Rt Revd Tim Thornton (who was Bishop of Sherborne when Gilo disclosed details of abuse to him in 2003); and the Bishop of Buckingham, Dr Alan Wilson who has criticised the Church’s handling of abuse (News, 28 July). All met Gilo in September. He was also supported by Phil Johnson of the support group Minister and Clergy Sexual Abuse Survivors.
At the end of the day-long meeting, an agreement and action-plan was drawn up and signed by all. This agreement is confidential, but the letter to Mr Hews was made public on Sunday. It calls for further work to ensure pastoral support of survivors after a claim has been settled, to avoid survivors’ experiencing “abandonment”.
The bishops write: “Our own past experience has shown us that EIG has not always offered consistent advice, and has not always practised its response to survivors in the way that we had been given to believe would be the case. In particular we have been very concerned to hear how ‘horse trading’ around the level of settlements has occurred between lawyers with little concern for the impact such an approach has had on the survivor.”
An independent case review, the Elliott Review, commissioned by the diocese of London as part of its settlement with Gilo, found that the Church had not implemented the “excellent” safeguarding policies that were in place in 2014, when he was in touch with various authorities (News, 18 March). It said that as soon as Gilo began legal proceedings aimed at securing compensation, the Church was advised by its insurers to break off all contact with him. Cutting off contact with survivors was “unacceptable practice” and contradicted the Church’s own principles set out in its safeguarding guidelines, the review said.
Ecclesiastical has challenged this, saying that the C of E “misunderstood the advice it received, resulting in the suspension of the survivor’s pastoral care” (Comment, 4 August).
The Bishop of Crediton, the Rt Revd Sarah Mullally, was appointed by Archbishop Welby to lead the implementation of the reforms recommended by the Elliott review. She gave an update on progress in April (News 7 April).
In their letter to Mr Hews, the bishops note that abuse has had a “lifelong” impact on Gilo: “It has seriously impacted his health and wellbeing. This in turn has affected his work and finances.” They say that they are “very concerned about the way in which the claim was handled at the time”. They call on Ecclesiastical to “take a fresh look” at the settlement reached, in the spirit of the Guiding Principles it produced in 2016, Guiding principles for the handling of civil claims involving allegations of sexual and physical abuse.
These guidelines were praised by the president of the Association of Child Abuse Lawyers during the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) last year (News, 2 December). But in their letter, the bishops suggest that the absence of survivors during this hearing “significantly weakens the endorsement given. . . Our own hard experience within the Church of England is that it is much easier to put good words on paper than it is to ensure they are fulfilled in practice.”
The letter suggests that “serious consideration needs to be given to revisiting cases where past practice may have reached a settlement that did not truly match the significance of the impact of the abuse”. And it asks for an “ongoing commitment to reviewing the guiding principles. For example is ‘fairness’ really the best principle when the Church would be more concerned for justice and indeed, where possible, reconciliation?”
A statement on the mediated meeting says that the three bishops will now work with the new lead bishop for safeguarding, the Bishop of Bath & Wells, the Rt Revd Peter Hancock, to discuss an “action plan for change”. Bishop Butler and Bishop Thornton apologised for “failures that have occurred in the response to his case, both by them and other senior figures in the Church”.
“They recognise that the Church continues to face serious challenges through its response to survivors,” the statement says. “They are convinced that these matters need to be faced honestly and squarely. . . We are aware that much work needs to happen to make significant changes to our structure. We hope that the release of this letter signals that change is being taken seriously.”
It goes on: “There are many situations needing justice, healing and reconciliation. We are acutely embarrassed that it has been survivors who have over many years, decades in some situations, had to find the courage to drive forward change.”
On Monday, Gilo said that he and other survivors would “hold the bishops up to the wheel of the words”.
“If the bishops match their rhetoric with action and change then it is very significant,” he said. “Then it becomes a truly courageous statement.” He was aware that “everything grinds really slowly in the Church”, and warned that, if the Church waited until the conclusion of the IICSA, it would be years before change was seen.
Archbishop Welby suggested this month that the Church was “striving to be as good as we ought to be” in its response to abuse claims (News, 13 October).
Ecclesiastical has previously defended its handling of abuse claims, arguing that it has been “misrepresented” in the media. In August, John Titchener, group compliance director, wrote that, in Gilo’s case, the Church “misunderstood advice it received, resulting in the suspension of the survivor’s pastoral care”, and that Ecclesiastical spotted this, ensuring its correction (Comment, 4 August).
On Friday, the company issued a strongly-worded rebuttal to the bishops’ letter.
“We simply do not recognise the description in the Bishops’ letter of our actions either in Gilo’s case, or in our general handling of abuse claims,” the statement says. “Unfortunately, while we welcome the broad thrust of the Elliott Review on Gilo’s case, it is completely wrong about our conduct. We have repeatedly stated that we have documentary proof its conclusions about us are deeply flawed.”
It expresses “profound sympathy for the victims and survivors of the horrendous abuse carried out by members of the clergy, and welcome the Church of England’s emphasis on putting survivors front and centre when making reparations for that abuse. . . Our role is to handle insured claims for financial compensation fairly for these acts of abuse.”
The company argues that the bishops’ letter “misunderstands how insurance works” and says that there is “no basis to revisit the settlement agreed with Gilo and his lawyer on a full and final basis”. It says that the Elliott Review has “led to fundamental misperceptions of how we behave and how we handle claims more broadly, potentially to the detriment of survivors”.
“It is not in our gift to change civil law, which defines the claims process,” the statement explains. “Negotiations between lawyers — characterised in the bishops’ letter as ‘horse trading’ — are a normal part of that process. So are full and final settlements, which bring certainty to all parties within the civil justice system.
“We suggest that those in the Church who desire changes to the law look to the IICSA to recommend a way forward, as it investigates accountability and reparations across all sections of society, including the Church and the insurance industry.
“It is, however, in the Church of England’s gift to provide further compensation as well as ongoing pastoral care to victims and survivors of clergy abuse if it so wishes.”
Joshua Rozenberg, a legal commentator, told Radio 4’s Sunday programme that “there is no way, I can see, that the Church of England can require its insurer to reopen a settlement that insurer has made with a claimant.” But it could make a “voluntary payment”.
On Monday, Gilo said that he agreed with Ecclesiastical that the Church had to take “full responsibility for the way that redress and reparation happens”. The Church “for far too long has been washing its hands and relying on their insurer to play out a whole bunch of legal games on its behalf”. He believes that the Church should be represented at all mediation meetings “to see exactly how EIG [Ecclesiastical Insurance Group] is operating”.