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National register proposed for clergy to ease safeguarding concerns

22 June 2018

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ALL Church of England clergy will be required by canon law to submit their name and ministerial authority to a new national register, assuming that the General Synod follows the recommendations of the National Safeguarding Steering Group (NSSG).

The group’s report, published on Friday, will be debated by the Synod when it meets in York next month.

The report also calls for a new policy on granting and renewing Permission To Officiate (PTO), a review of the Clergy Discipline Measure (CDM), and new requirements to “strengthen suitability and selection” of candidates for all forms of ministry.

The report has been produced by the NSSG in response to safeguarding failures, concerns, and recommendations highlighted during the public hearing conducted by the Independent Inquiry into Child Sex Abuse (ICSA) in March. The hearing used the diocese of Chichester as a case-study to investigate the extent to which the Anglican Church had failed to protect children from sexual abuse.

The inquiry established that there is no public national database for the clergy besides Crockford’s Clerical Directory, which is incomplete since clerics can elect not to appear in it. Also, records of clerics with current or expired PTO, criminal records, and other concerns kept on file by dioceses tend to be incomplete, lost, ignored, or blighted by poor record-keeping.

A spokesman for the NSSG told journalists at a press briefing on Thursday: “There is Crockford’s; and dioceses hold their own information about clerics who hold the bishop’s licence and PTO. But it is true that this has not been as robust or sound as we would like it to be, given the technology we have, and that there is scope to produce a central register for those who hold authorisation to minister.”

The report states that the Archbishops’ Council has already agreed to impose legislation requiring diocesan bishops to provide details of all clerics who are authorised to exercise ministry in their diocese. This includes names, and the area, place, or activity of their authority. Separate to the register, Crockford’s is to be developed with this information and made publicly available free of charge.

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The House of Bishops had also approved a revised PTO policy, the report says, which requires applicants to complete a form, make confidential declarations, and undergo safeguarding training, which must be renewed every three years. PTO will expire within five years and renewal will be subject to DBS checks.

Evidence heard by the IICSA hearing pointed to a “culture of secrecy” in the Church, and there have been repeated calls to create instead a “culture of challenge” to those in authority — to report and respond to allegations of child sex abuse rather than shift the responsibility on to others.

The NSSG report agrees. The Church must “challenge when individuals do not comply with safeguarding requirements; challenge, and, for some, discipline, when individuals fail to report safeguarding concerns or allegations, or when they think it is someone else’s responsibility,” and anyone who suggests that safeguarding is “getting in the way” of mission.

It acknowledges that institutional abuse is more likely to occur when there is a “culture of secrecy and denial” coupled with poor awareness, compliance, codes of conduct, and recruitment and vetting practices.

The report will be presented to the Synod on 7 July by the Bishop of Bath & Wells, the Rt Revd Peter Hancock, who is the lead bishop on safeguarding, and Dr Sheila Fish of the Social Care Institute for Excellence (SCIE).

This will be followed by a debate on a motion to endorse three main priorities listed in the paper, and to support the work of the NSSG to “rebuild the trust and confidence” of survivors and the public.

The first priority is to support and engage with survivors of abuse, including publishing the survey currently being conducted by SCIE; establishing an independently chaired survivors’ panel; and commissioning a “safe spaces” helpline with the Roman Catholic Church.

“We are trying to produce a more consistent approach to survivors,” a spokesman for the NSSG said. “We have some survivors on the national safeguarding panel, but we want to get a more diverse range of perspectives.”

Its report has not yet been seen or informed by survivors, however, he said on Thursday. A fringe meeting has been organised by the National Safeguarding Team on the eve of the debate, to which survivors have been invited. Survivors have also been invited to speak to the Synod during the presentation on Saturday.

“It will be their space to say what they want to Synod, with a view to helping the Synod to understand their perspective and the work and research that is coming.”

The second priority in the report is to overhaul clergy selection, suitability, and discipline by introducing safeguarding guidance for potential candidates; establishing new selection criteria to be used at the Bishops Advisory Panel (BAP) stage; and ensuring all candidates have undergone training.

The CDM has already been amended to widen bishops’ powers to suspend clergy, the report states, as have measures relating to the dismissal of churchwardens and PCC members, and canon law relating to lay ministers. A working group is to be established to assess whether further changes to the CDM are needed.

The third priority concerns the “structure, independence, oversight, and enforcement” of safeguarding practices. This includes the possibility of independent investigations into individual clerics or dioceses, how this might be enforced, and the question of whether there should be an internal or external regulatory function for safeguarding.

Survivors and their legal representatives have made repeated calls for “genuinely independent” oversight of safeguarding and mandatory reporting of abuse (News, 6 March).

The report considers an independent ombudsman service to handle allegations; but it warns that an independent auditor could compromise a “true internal culture change” currently taking place in the Church; and potentially distance bishops, clergy, and officers from individual safeguarding responsibilities.

A spokesman for the NSSG explained: ““We recognise that there needs to be a change of culture in the Church, but you cannot simply hand that over, because safeguarding must permeate all of what the Church is doing.

“We cannot outsource the mission of the Church; what we need to do is to make sure that this mission is conducted in a way that is safe. . . You cannot outsource safeguarding if safeguarding is the way in which you conduct your mission. . .

“We are sometimes accused of ‘marking our own homework’ — it has recently been marked by the Chichester Visitors, SCIE, IICSA, and local safeguarding children boards, so we are not averse to scrutiny.”

The 15 members of the NSSG include the Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Sarah Mullaly, who has written a blog on the report, and four other bishops; members of the Archbishops’ Council and the Church Commissioners; and the chief of staff to the Archbishop of York, the Revd Malcolm Macnaughton.

Bishop Hancock concludes in his foreword to the report: “We need to develop further clarity about leadership and responsibility if we are to protect children and adults adequately. It is the attitudes and actions of our leaders and of the people in parishes as well as the commitment of parish clergy and senior parish laity that are critical.”

 

The full Synod motion reads:

That this Synod, recognising that safeguarding is at the heart of Christian mission and the urgent need for the Church of England to continue to become a safer place for all and a refuge for those who suffer abuse in any context:

(a) endorse the priorities for action outlined in the report (GS 2092); and (b) call on the House of Bishops and the Archbishops’ Council to ensure that the plan of action is implemented as a matter of priority.”

It is the only business tabled for that day.

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