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Safeguarding: the next steps

06 April 2018

THE three weeks of hearings of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA), which focused on the Church of England in general and the diocese of Chichester in particular, felt like an excoriating Lenten penance. The effect, though, must pass through Passiontide and become part of the good news of Easter. Although the report of the IICSA examiners is awaited, the value of public hearings is that the Church can begin to act on the failings that were evident to all. The Archbishops of Canterbury and York said as much in their pastoral letter for Palm Sunday. They point out, quite rightly, that a beginning has been made, and this, too, was apparent during the later evidence presented to IICSA. But, as we said earlier (Leader Comment, 16 March), past blunders, defensive policies, and deliberate obstruction have cast such a pall that they overshadow the better practices now being introduced, and have left a trail of damage in their wake that, survivors say, still needs to be addressed.

These pages contain a range of different perspectives on how to tackle sexual abuse; and yet there is a common desire to make safeguarding comprehensive and effective. This sounds like stating the obvious. There is a danger, however, pointed out most clearly by Josephine Anne Stein, that the type of safeguarding being promoted throughout the Church is modelled on a pattern designed to protect institutions from prosecution. A Christian organisation must do better than this. It would be shaming if, at some IICSA hearing in future, statements such as “I didn’t think I had a responsibility to talk to the police” were replaced by “We’re sorry that X offended, but X went through the full safeguarding process and so we fulfilled our responsibility.” Nothing will undermine the drive to improve safeguarding more than the impression that it is all so much more paperwork to little purpose. Safeguarding courses are, belatedly, being examined to see what they might offer victims of abuse, for example, of whom there are many within the ranks of clergy and church office-holders.

Then there is the vital matter of prevention: time and again, survivors have said that, if there is one thing above all else that they desire, it is an assurance that steps have been taken to stop someone else from suffering as they have. To do this, the Church must listen not only to survivors, but also to perpetrators and, in doing so, begin to see them as fellow pilgrims, not pariahs. The logic of Archbishop Welby’s remarks about Bishop Bell, setting aside whether they were applied to the right person, is that saintly acts can be carried out by those responsible for evil acts. Finally, the Church must be bold enough to examine the faith that it has received from past generations, to discern whether theological views owe more to their cultural assumptions than to an enlightened reading of the scriptures. An altogether more sophisticated and intelligent approach to safeguarding is called for.

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