No one ‘should ever stop being vigilant’ of risks

25 January 2019

Independent chair of National Safeguarding Panel gives first interview

CHURCH HOUSE

Meg Munn is undecided about calls for an independent national body

Meg Munn is undecided about calls for an independent national body

THE Church can “never again be trusted” to protect children and adults from being abused under its care — not unless it relinquishes, at all levels, the unquestioned deference that comes with power, accepts accountability, and has the policies in place to reduce the likelihood of abuse.

This was the view expressed by the first independent chair of the National Safeguarding Panel, Meg Munn, in her first interview since she was appointed at the end of last year (News, 21 September). She took over from the Bishop of Bath & Wells, the Rt Revd Peter Hancock, who is the lead bishop on safeguarding for the Church of England.

Speaking in Church House on Thursday of last week, Ms Munn said that no parent, carer, or friend should ever stop being “vigilant” of safeguarding risks in any organisation, including the Church.

“Unless the Church is getting it right now, unless it has done everything it possibly can in terms of preventative messages — checking people who are being put into positions of authority, holding people to account, and dealing with concerns — then that trust can never be built up.

“I don’t think people should go around being scared, but every parent, carer, and friend of a vulnerable person should know what to look for — because, unfortunately, there are a huge amount of people in our society who have done and will do bad things to vulnerable people and we need to be vigilant about that. . .

“Most people who abuse have not been convicted; that should not make you feel safe.”

Ms Munn is a qualified social worker and former MP. In 2010, she established and chaired the All-Party Child Protection Parliamentary Group, having previously chaired the APPG Voice, which worked for the prevention of abuse of vulnerable adults, particularly adults with learning difficulties. She left Parliament in 2015 to become an independent governance consultant.

“One of the problems for the Church is that people think that when they go to church they will be safe. My whole experience in social work is that you can never assume anyone is going to be safe. Of course, you want people to do everything they can to make it safe, but people didn’t in the past, and, to be honest, the Church has been very late to realise what it needs to do.”

The Church must understand the danger of power without accountability, she said. This lack of scrutiny and transparency cultivates abuse.

“If you wanted to construct an organisation that a paedophile would want to get into because it gave them access to children, or to exploit adults, it would be the Church of England. The element of power that diocesan bishops have, with relatively little accountability; the deference which goes to somebody at that level of power, with no formal structures of process in place to hold that to account, or even have oversight. . . That is worrying.

“It requires everybody of good will to have their eyes open and act when they see something. Survivors and families often say that people knew about past abuse but didn’t say anything . . . because it was deemed too difficult, or they allowed the offender to move on.”

THE National Safeguarding Panel is pushing for a culture change, Ms Munn says. The group includes survivors of clerical abuse, and is separate from the National Safeguarding Team of 13 Church House staff led by the National Safeguarding Adviser, Graham Tilby.

Members of the Panel meet four times a year, but Ms Munn, who has chaired one session since her appointment, plans to raise this to six so that the group can “cover in depth” the wide range of safeguarding topics, reports, and updates.

“I want to set up a programme that enables us to have input at the right moment. Sometimes, the panel have been asked too late to comment on things. I want us to hear from people, read, and come to a view. So far, everyone is on board with that.”

Its key task is to hold the Church to account on safeguarding. This covers preventing future abuse, responding to past allegations as well as abuse happening now, and responding to and working with survivors.

“It is understanding [the impact of abuse] from the inside — what makes it real — the devastation that these offenders wreak on people. We need that voice. Our priority has to be about prevention and about what the Church is doing now.”

Besides learning about the panel and updating its terms of reference, Ms Munn, a practising Methodist, has been getting to grips with the nuances and structure of the Church of England.

“That is quite a task,” she said. “Understanding how it is organised, who can do what, who makes decisions, and about what, is fundamental, or I could spend a lot of time talking to the wrong people or looking in the wrong areas.”

It is because of its unique and vast complexity that she is undecided whether the Church should be answerable to an independent national safeguarding body, which many survivors and campaigners have called for.

“There is a debate as to whether diocesan safeguarding officers should be employed centrally, or by the diocese. I think they should be employed by the diocese, because, if it all comes from the outside, you will not change the culture. . . There should be common policies and procedures to which they respond.

“Where it’s complex is how that is overseen. The audits from the Social Care Institute of Excellence are good, but more thinking needs to be done about what safeguarding means within the Church.

“A church is not a local authority: you have that mix of office-holders, employees, and a mass of volunteers. You can’t replicate that, and I am not sure anyone has fully understood it. . . The Panel ought to be playing a role in that.”

MS MUNN’s strong interest in protecting children and vulnerable adults was partly driven by the child abuse experienced by her extended family at the hands of the Roman Catholic Church in Australia, she said.

“Two of my [family members] were horrifically abused by a Catholic priest when they were small children. . . The family was part of the group that persuaded the Australian government to establish the Royal Commission [into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse].”

The UK equivalent to the Royal Commission is the Independent Inquiry into Child Sex Abuse (IICSA). Ms Munn expects to be involved in the third and final hearing of the Anglican investigation, due to take place in July (News, 18 January).

She continued: “I have seen the absolute devastation that abuse wrought on that family. Devastation does not cover it. I do not claim to have the same kind of experience or insight as someone who has suffered that themselves, but I do know what that has been like for them in terms of getting the Catholic Church to pay attention. People lose their faith.”

The Church was not a statutory organisation, however, and “needs to find its own way” in terms of safeguarding, she said. “You go to church with your vulnerabilities. Like every other form of abuse, [clerical abuse] is an abuse of power, but it is also an abuse of faith.”

Church of England structures need to change: the Clergy Discipline Measure, for example, is not fit for purpose, she says. “Safeguarding issues require a particular response — I would doubt that other complaints warrant the same response. It is something I want the panel to be looking at.”

On the calls for mandatory reporting, she said: “It was always my expectation and understanding when I worked for local authorities that I was required to report; that is mandatory reporting. The view in the Church is the same. Do I think it should be put in law that it is a criminal offence not to report? It is problematic. . .

“How do you define a suspicion? My worry is that would be a disincentive to people raising low-level concerns that might lead to something else being looked at.”

It comes back, she says, to creating a culture, supported by safeguarding training, in which people feel confident and comfortable reporting concerns. This can build a picture or pattern of abuse.

“We want everybody in the Church to think: ‘We have to do this, not because people think I am an abuser or everybody is likely to be an abuser, but because abusers will target vulnerable people in our Church’ — and, if we are to live out our values, belief, and faith then we absolutely have to have our policies, procedures, and training in place that makes that less likely.”

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