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IICSA: Bishop of Buckingham criticises ‘unhealthy’ level of bishops’ power

03 July 2019

Centralisation raises the question of accountability, says Dr Alan Wilson


The Bishop of Buckingham, Dr Alan Wilson, gives evidence to the Inquiry on Tuesday

The Bishop of Buckingham, Dr Alan Wilson, gives evidence to the Inquiry on Tuesday

THE “unhealthy and excessive” centralisation of power in bishops in the Church of England means that they are not being held accountable for safeguarding decisions which should not be theirs to make in the first place, the Area Bishop of Buckingham, Dr Alan Wilson, has said.

He was giving evidence on Tuesday to the final hearing being conducted by the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) to investigate safeguarding in the Anglican Church.

“The centralisation of all sort of things on bishops is unhealthy and excessive, and that raises the question of the accountability of bishops,” he said.

Asked by the chair of the Inquiry, Professor Alexis Jay, whether he thought that diocesan bishops should play a part in decision-making in cases of alleged abuse, Dr Wilson said: “No. Emphatically no. And that’s one of the fundamental problems with where we are right now.”

He called for an independent safeguarding body to hold bishops and dioceses to account. It was unreasonable to expect diocesan safeguarding advisers to do this.

“You cannot expect somebody who is a mid-range employee of the bishop to hold the bishop to account. It simply doesn’t work that way. . . Advice is just advice. If they [the bishop] respond badly, who is to hold them to account on that advice?”

During his evidence, Dr Wilson, who has worked closely with survivors of clerical abuse, including A4, who gave evidence on Monday, was highly critical of current Church safeguarding practices. He was particularly critical of the Clergy Discipline Measure (CDM), under which, he said, bishops were expected to be both judges and pastors.

“That is in itself very problematic indeed,” he said. “It means that an enormous amount of work conducted under the CDM is done in a hurry by people who are not used to doing that sort of thing, and who may make very quick judgements which are not particularly secure.”

Other issues with the CDM included delays and lack of a whistleblowing policy, he said, which meant that “witnesses are quite often intimidated and don’t want to make statements because they are afraid that this will be thrown back at them by the person about whom they are complaining. There is that level of operational difficulty.”

In his written witness statement, Dr Wilson described the CDM as “self-protective, inconsistent, and opaque” — an analysis which many survivors agreed with, he said. “I have seen CDMs in which one witness was late with a statement and the whole thing was therefore unravelled.”

Fundamentally, the structure of the CDM encouraged secrecy, he said. “It is very difficult sometimes to establish what has actually happened; a lot of CDM proceedings are conducted in a dense cloak of secrecy, so that nobody knows what has happened, and, therefore, in terms of the Church learning from disciplinary lapses by clergy, that can’t possibly happen because nobody knows what has gone wrong.”

The most common outcome of the process was for the cleric in question to resign before the matter could be raised at a tribunal. This might save embarrassment to the cleric and the expense of further CDM proceedings, he said, but the negotiation would likely include a non-disclosure agreement with the victim.

“That is a problem, because it means that the cleric can apply for work — particularly if the Lambeth List has not gone out, then nobody will know that they were on that. And [the cleric] will feel that. by not giving them a reference them for a job. I have compromised their confidentially.”

The Archbishops’ List — which records penalties imposed under the CDM and is maintained at Lambeth Palace — had not been updated or distributed since August 2017, Dr Wilson said.

Dr Wilson was questioned for more than an hour by the lead counsel to the investigation, Fiona Scolding QC, on his views on the Church’s current system of handling allegations of clerical abuse and subsequent reparations, and its treatment of both survivors and clerics.

Whatever new disciplinary system was put in place, it should apply also to lay people working in a church context, such as church musicians and youth workers, he said. “There are people whose behaviour towards clerics is also unacceptable. . . Lay people bully clergy as much as clergy bully lay people.”

He did not understand the argument that the Church wanted to keep safeguarding in-house: “There are large number of things that the Church deals with, like fire regulations and drink-driving clergy, without having to control it. I don’t understand the argument that, unless we do it on an ad hoc basis with 42 different dioceses, we can’t own the importance of this.”

He described the “rotten-apple theory” — apportioning blame solely to the perpetrator — as nonsense. “There is never just one person involved in abuse. It happens in a context which makes it possible and which makes cover-up possible; unless you understand that context, you will not understand what actually happened.”

Dr Wilson is an advocate of unfrocking clerics, i.e. deposing them from Holy Orders. “Not to have that red line sends up a powerful signal in any profession — if it was impossible to strike off a doctor but to say we will be put on a list which we won’t circulate anyway, that would not be a very powerful way of preventing someone who should not be a doctor from practising as a doctor.”

Dr Wilson and his chaplain, Canon Rosie Harper, have co-written a book, To Heal and Not to Hurt: A fresh approach to safeguarding in the Church (Darton, Longman & Todd). It is based on conversations over a decade with 60 survivors and complainants of clerical misconduct.

Dr Wilson suggested a “scheme of accompaniment” — similar to a bishop-visitor in the case of clerical marriage breakdowns — to support survivors. “One of the big problems many survivors experience is a sense of being all alone, battling a system which regards them as some kind of danger or problem.”

Dr Wilson also supports the introduction of mandatory reporting in the Church, specifically to a multidisciplinary committee, with consequences for failing to report. “It is impossible to do anything to protect anyone without mandatory reporting,” he said

“As long as all reporting is discretionary, people think they’re doing something unusual if they are reporting it. . . Churches are institutions which place very high value on loyalty, and sometimes this tribal loyalty becomes more important in the minds of some people than the truth, and I think that’s extremely reprehensible.”

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