THE Church of England’s National Safeguarding Steering Group (NSSG) has rejected an independent review’s recommendation to centralise safeguarding nationally and strip diocesan bishops of oversight of diocesan safeguarding advisers.
The suggestion that safeguarding be made a solely national responsibility came from a new report by the Social Care Institute for Excellence (SCIE), which has recently audited each dioceses’s safeguarding procedures.
Its report, published on Thursday, is broadly positive. Its diocesan audits concluded that there had been a “major improvement in the safeguarding resources, national policies and training courses” since 2015, which was clearly trickling down to the dioceses.
But the report also describes how the work of diocesan safeguarding advisers (DSAs) is managed by diocesan bishops and their staff “without any requirement to have safeguarding knowledge and expertise”.
This lack of a “command and control structure” from the national Church means that inconsistencies in the way parishes and dioceses deal with child abuse are inevitable, the SCIE concludes.
But the NSSG has decided against employing diocesan safeguarding advisers nationally. A senior C of E official said that cultural change was the priority, and, therefore, each bishop had to maintain control over diocesan safeguarding and remain personally invested in the work.
Besides auditing every diocese, the SCIE also conducted the largest survey ever of Anglican abuse survivors, speaking to 60 people who had suffered abuse or were friends of victims. Only 11 of 60 respondents spoke of having received a meaningful response within a year after disclosing abuse to a church figure. Twenty had never had such a response, and more than half of those surveyed said that the timeliness and quality of the response had been “unsatisfactory”.
The experiences reported by the SCIE survey paint a picture of repeated failure to handle safeguarding well.
One vicar abused by a more senior cleric reported that an unnamed bishop who took no action about the abusing priest had told the victim: “The scent of failure will follow you throughout your ministry.”
Another survivor of abuse had been told to attend prayer-ministry sessions to “be healed of my problem with men” after divulging an attack by a male priest.
Another complainant spoke of being reminded by local church authorities that the alleged perpetrator was a very high-profile figure, with the implication that this placed the latter above suspicion.
When survivors were asked what churchpeople should avoid after a disclosure, responses were: “Avoid gossiping about victims. Avoid yelling at victims. Avoid ecclesiastical pulling together to cover up.”
The survey also passed on suggestions for moving forward. One respondent suggested that all parish churches should have the details of the safeguarding adviser printed on every service sheet and on a notice on the back of lavatory doors. Another proposed that the Church should adopt publicly a target of zero abuse, just as construction firms now openly report how many days have passed since there has been a workplace accident.
Choristers, seven of the survivors in the group, should not have to go through a cathedral’s normal safeguarding procedures designed for adults, but given special treatment, the review recommends.
Finally, many of the survivors regarded the important part that they played in pushing the Church to improve its safeguarding as having been written out of the narrative that the C of E was telling about a journey of improvement.
The SCIE praised the substantial increase in the budget and size of the National Safeguarding Team at Church House, and said there had been progress on fixing problems with the permission-to-officiate system and the clergy’s “blue files”.
Besides criticising the decision to keep safeguarding managed at diocesan rather than national level, however, the SCIE also argued that the way in which “practice guidance” had been produced had unhelpfully blurred the distinction between what was recommended but optional best safeguarding practice, and what was mandatory and essential.
In a statement, the NSSG acknowledged that the report made for “very difficult reading” and said that the Church’s “failure to respond compassionately had undermined confidence in its own safeguarding practice”. “Victims and survivors of Church-related abuse have not received a consistently good response from the Church, and this can lead to being retraumatised.”
The Bishop of Bath & Wells, the Rt Revd Peter Hancock, who is the lead bishop on safeguarding, said: “It is essential that victims and survivor organisations have confidence that anybody coming forward to disclose abuse to the Church are treated with compassion, offered support, and their concerns and allegations are taken seriously.
“The Church recognises that significant changes will be required before survivors will have this level of confidence in the Church, and that undertaking is no simple task.
“However, it is one that I and my fellow bishops and the whole Church are absolutely committed to.”
Among the changes that the C of E will implement is the creation of a Victim/Survivor Charter of best practice in communicating with survivors. It will establish an independent ombudsman to whom victims can complain if they feel that their case has been mishandled.
It is also setting up an independent helpline and support service with the Roman Catholic Church. Provisionally called Safe Spaces, this will be a widely publicised phone number for advice, help, online counselling, and referral to local support organisations and charities.
The SCIE will also soon audit every C of E cathedral. The National Safeguarding Team has signalled that it will commission another round of independent reviews in the coming years to assess progress on implementation.
A joint response from the survivors’ group Minister and Clergy Sexual Abuse Survivors (MACSAS) and unnamed abuse survivors said that the SCIE report “illustrates the Church of England’s comprehensive failure in the treatment of victims of its own abuse.
”Those of us whose lives have been devastated by clergy abuse know this from long and bitter experience. We are victimised first by our abusers, and again by the church’s ‘defensive responses’ to criticism of its failings.
“The SCIE report confirms what we have known all along: that the Church can no longer be trusted to manage disclosures of abuse. We repeat our call that this work should be handed over to a fully independent body.”