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Safeguarding: what we got wrong, and the steps we are taking to put it right

06 April 2018

The diocese of Chichester was put through the IICSA mill over its safeguarding failings. Martin Warner takes an unflinching look at the problem, and the need for solutions


Chichester Cathedral

Chichester Cathedral

I WISH to begin by recording thanks to Professor Jay and the team at the Independent Inquiry into Child Sex Abuse (IICSA) for the thorough, courteous, and unflinching way in which they required us to give an account of our safeguarding failures in recent decades.

A call for action to address past failings in the protection of children from sexual exploitation, and to identify action that ensures their future protection, is what the inquiry was set up to do. It was also tasked with considering what failings have taken place and where, and with making recommendations based on its findings.

The diocese of Chichester was used as a case study for inquiring into child sexual abuse in the Church of England. Some have wished to claim immunity from our failings, regarding us an aberration and unlike more “normal” dioceses.

More careful consideration, however, suggests that what happened here was characterised by attitudes that were not unknown elsewhere.

If, for example, we look at the case of one highly manipulative offender, Roy Cotton, factors emerge at an early stage that might account for why no effective disciplinary action was taken against him.

First, academic snobbery: Cotton was an Oxbridge graduate. Second, social snobbery: he worked in an independent preparatory school before ordination.

Third, manipulating episcopal patronage: he was exempted from selection scrutiny and spent only one term in training. After being ordained in his home diocese and serving a curacy there, he moved to Chichester with a glowing reference from his bishop, and subsequently moved from one parish to another with apparent ease.

Fourth, at the end of his ministry in Chichester, he was dealt with leniently in old age because of illness and infirmity.

These attitudes were not unique to us. That does not excuse what happened here. When decisive action was needed in response to allegations of abuse, our diocesan processes of accountability and the capacity to act were too weak or had become mired in an atmosphere of fear, with the shifting of responsibility from one person or organisation to another.

The accounts of who did what, and what rules they were following, become cripplingly intricate, made worse by fear of legal action.

In this atmosphere, it was possible to lose sight of what it felt like to be a survivor and not being heard.

IICSADr Warner at the hearing on Wednesday

SURVIVORS understandably describe this as conspiracy and cover-up: the desire of a powerful institution to protect its own. Assessment of the forensic detail would allow you to draw that conclusion, and we have to face the fact that, no matter what the intentions were, this is how it felt. Many have testified that this was as damaging as the abuse itself.

For survivors who courageously hoped for culture change and a better response, the most important step towards achieving that was the archiepiscopal visitation and its interim report in 2012. The recommendations in that report have been a significant catalyst for change at diocesan and national levels.

The visitation was a provision that already existed, though largely unused, within the Church of England. Its effective use in Chichester would, I hope, suggest to IICSA that a similar model of intervention could be included in their recommendations.

As with our visitation, it could use external professionals. Its scope could be widened to include immediate action when a diocesan safeguarding adviser, a diocesan safeguarding advisory panel, or a diocesan bishop have become dysfunctional in the handling of any safeguarding issue.

IT HAS also become evident to us in Chichester that culture change is lay led. The task of ensuring that lay people are empowered to do this is the bishop’s first responsibility, and demanding that the parochial clergy oversee that development is the second responsibility. Good-quality training is the key to this, and the training resources from the national safeguarding team have been very well received here.

The expertise of a professional, carefully recruited safeguarding team is another expression of this lay leadership. In particular, we have learnt that an appropriate and effective response from the diocese to a person who has had the courage to make an allegation of abuse is best done by someone who is trained in the work of independent domestic and sexual violence advocacy (IDSVA).

This approach directs attention away from the Church’s preoccupation with its own reputation and handling of process. Instead, it addresses the immediate concern of what it feels like to be the victim of sexual abuse.

The IICSA hearings explored many things that we had already learned about our failures in this diocese. We are ashamed of them and deeply sorry.

I am not ashamed, however, of the people, lay and ordained, of this diocese who have worked with determination and courage to change our culture and our practice, and we are grateful for encouragement and prayers from many supporters.

It is a privilege to serve a people who have known and acknowledged failure, but are committed to the mystery of costly suffering and redemption which is at the heart of our baptismal renewal and apostolic calling in the celebration of Holy Week and Easter.

Dr Martin Warner is the Bishop of Chichester.

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