THERE has been much recent discussion in the media about Ecclesiastical’s handling of abuse claims brought against the Church of England, with particular focus on the experience of one survivor at the centre of the Church of England’s Elliott review (News, 28 July).
As the only insurer to publish our approach on handling abuse claims, we believe in making the claims-handling process transparent and understandable. Recent media discussion has misrepresented our claims process to such an extent that we feel we must put the record straight.
Child abuse is reprehensible and traumatising. We agree with the broad thrust of the Elliott review in promoting the needs of survivors and the importance of listening to them. But its assertion that Ecclesiastical instructed the Church of England to deny a survivor pastoral care is untrue. Unfortunately, we were not asked to participate in the review, and so had no opportunity to provide the evidence that showed this. On the contrary, we have always been clear that pastoral care and counselling can and should continue in parallel with an insurance claim.
This inaccuracy has led to broader misperceptions among victims and survivors about what actually happened, about how abuse claims are managed, about our own claims-handling record, the nature of our business, and our independence.
As a core participant in the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA), and as an insurer working to help improve survivors’ experience of the claims-handling process, we find that these misperceptions create anxiety and are deeply unhelpful to the aims of this work. They must be addressed.
FIRST, some context. Ecclesiastical is an independent, regulated insurance company specialising in the heritage, arts, education, and faith sectors where we cover property and liability risks. The faith sector was just a quarter of our business in 2016, and Church of England churches were just a part of that. While abuse claims represented less than one per cent of those we handled last year, we treat them with disproportionate importance. We recognise the traumatic nature of the experiences that victims and survivors have endured, and how difficult bringing a claim through the legal process for financial compensation can be for them.
That is why, over the years, we have developed our own survivor-centric approach to handling abuse claims, endeavouring to manage each investigation with sensitivity, empathy, and integrity while meeting the requirements of the civil litigation process. This has been praised by solicitors representing abuse victims and survivors (News, 9 December 2016).
Last year, we summarised this approach in our guiding principles for the handling of abuse claims, which are available at www.ecclesiastical.com, not just for the organisations we insure but also for current and prospective claimants. This, we believe, helps them by providing clarity and reassurance on what the claims process entails.
So, what actually happened in the case of the Elliott review? We have documentary evidence showing that the Church of England misunderstood advice it received, resulting in the suspension of the survivor’s pastoral care. Our own solicitors spotted and corrected the Church’s misunderstanding, enabling its pastoral care to be restored in a matter of days.
Consequent coverage of the Elliott review’s findings has reinforced a misconception that insurers liaise directly with survivors. In reality, this is exceptionally rare. Survivors almost always appoint solicitors to bring their claim against the insured organisation, whose job it is to work with the insurer and its solicitors, if used, to agree a way forward.
Virtually all the claims we handle are settled, and compensation is agreed, before they reach court, through negotiation between the survivor’s solicitors and our specialist claims team and solicitors if used. When a meeting is held to conclude negotiations, survivors’ wishes are represented by their solicitors, covering details such as location; whether the survivor is present; or the facilitation of an apology from a representative of the insured organisation. For example, some survivors choose to remain in a separate room while the meeting takes place, with their solicitors reporting back to advise them on progress.
Recent media coverage has also created the misperception that the insured organisation can influence the claims process. Let us be clear: as an independent and regulated commercial insurer, it is our role to manage and settle claims. In line with standard insurance practice, once an abuse claim is brought against any of the organisations we insure, we take charge of handling the claim, and the insurance contract determines the claims approach — not the insured organisation.
THE final points raised in recent coverage concern Ecclesiastical’s governance, and its perceived influence on our claims-handling — in particular, through the presence of senior clerics on our board, and our ownership by Allchurches Trust.
This is simply not the case. Like many companies, we have representatives of customer groups on our board. Presently, we have one Anglican cleric on our board of 11 directors. Our non-executive directors make a valuable contribution, but they have no involvement in our day-to-day running, including handling claims.
Our owner, Allchurches Trust, an independent charity regulated by the Charities Commission, receives a significant proportion of our profits, which it grants to many charitable causes. We are proud that our profits go to good causes, but we play no part whatsoever in deciding how those grants are disbursed.
As insurers, we have the greatest sympathy for victims and survivors, and endeavour to handle the insurance claims they bring against our insured organisations as sensitively as possible. We aim to set industry-leading standards as embodied in our guiding principles for handling abuse claims.
In addressing the points made in recent weeks, I hope we have provided the clarity and transparency that survivors and our insured organisations expect of us and deserve.
John Titchener is group compliance director of Ecclesiastical Insurance Group.