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Clergy need to be better protected

11 January 2019

More help is required to deal with violent and abusive behaviour, says Nick Tolson



Police search near St Mary’s, Thornbury, in Gloucestershire, after the murder of the Vicar, the Revd John Suddards, in 2012

Police search near St Mary’s, Thornbury, in Gloucestershire, after the murder of the Vicar, the Revd John Suddards, in 2012

CLERGY do not have a safe, easy life. They are one of the few professional groups whose workplaces and dwellings are bound up with the people whom they serve; and the caring nature of their work, often delivered alone, means that, at times, they are at risk of violence and other forms of abusive behaviour.

A pilot survey, published late last month, asked more than 500 Church of England clergy in the south-east of England about their experiences of violence and verbal abuse, as well as various aspects of being a member of the clergy today. The survey was commissioned by National Churchwatch, and funded by the Government, which has been concerned about the rise in anti-Christian hate crime in the UK, and financed an independent report by the School of Law at Royal Holloway, University of London.

The Government is stepping up efforts to combat anti-Christian hate crime: it is introducing new laws and encouraging police forces and the courts to tackle it. A new website, www.report-it.org.uk, run by the charity True Vision, is helpful (I particularly like the large red button to “Report hate crime”).

BUT, as the report The Safety and Security of Anglican Clergy: Pilot survey makes clear, anti-Christian hate crime is only a small part of the abuse and violence that some clergy face. They need much more help to deal with day-to-day incidents that put them at risk.

Some clergy in the report, for example, suffered repeated abuse and violence. During the past two years, ten per cent said that they had “suffered some form of serious violence”; the most common reasons for this were mental illness (31 per cent) and alcohol/drug addiction (30 per cent).

Whatever the reason, all clergy are at risk of violence and abuse, and the various denominations are still not prepared. As with any risk, there needs to be a comprehensive and detailed look at that risk, and practical control measures should be put in place to deal with it.

Since the previous report into violence against clergy, published 18 years ago, no measures have been put in place to better protect clergy and their families. Since then, five members of the clergy have been murdered in the UK, including the Vicar of Thornbury, in Gloucestershire, the Revd John Suddards (News, 16 February 2012); and a significant number have been abused, assaulted, and injured.

Yet there has been no national (or even diocesan) method introduced to enable these crimes to be reported, and no official guidance has been issued by the Church. There have been guidelines on dealing with terrorism, which, for churches, is a very low risk, but nothing about dealing with violent people who may turn up on the vicarage doorstep with issues such as mental illness, or alcohol or drug addiction (or all of these).

The pilot survey report makes it absolutely clear that most of the clergy who took part have no formal method of reporting any of these crimes through their dioceses. This means that, often, senior staff are unaware of incidents, and, even if they are aware, they do not have any practical solutions that will help the clergy in need.

The NHS has an effective reporting system, whereby staff are encouraged to report every single event: this goes directly to the management of the hospitals and trusts, which are required to act to reduce the risk. (This may be implementing training, parachuting in teams to support people, or improving physical security.) The trusts report to the NHS nationally, and the NHS nationally takes action as required.

The National Trust has a similar system; the RNLI has a similar system; in fact, every national organisation that deals with members of the public has a system — except the national Churches. Why is that? Why do they seem not to care?

I hear excuses that clergy are not employees, and so the national Church is not responsible; and dioceses say that they are not responsible, either. Ultimately, no one takes responsibility — and it is the front-line clergy who suffer.

On individual occasions when dioceses do act, it is often done by the safeguarding teams who have been put in place in recent years to deal with child protection and to assist with clergy stress. While these people are very caring, they do not have the experience or training required to support clergy who feel at risk of violence, or who have suffered from violence. They are an important part of the clergy’s support network, but they should not take the lead when a violent incident occurs.

ALL national Churches — and, in particular, the Church of England — need to put in place practical control measures to support those of the clergy who suffer from violence and anti-Christian hate crime.

Let’s start with putting in place an internal national reporting system for these crimes. Let’s develop a formalised response to clergy who suffer from crime. Let’s have a “one-stop shop” where clergy or dioceses can go if they need practical support such as training, or physical equipment. And, most of all, let’s keep our clergy safe — they are a precious resource.

Nick Tolson is director of National Churchwatch. He is a former police constable and cathedral verger and has worked in the Military Police.


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