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Flawed clergy discipline is ripe for reform

by
11 December 2020

Measure to be proposed would deal with complaints regionally, and be more pragmatic and theologically sound, says Peter Collier

THE main reason for replacing the Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction Measure 1963 with the Clergy Discipline Measure 2003 (CDM) was that the former was complex, costly, and was leading the Church into disrepute. In 40 years, there had been only four cases determined under its provisions.

Its replacement, the CDM, has opened wide the door: 1179 complaints were registered in 14 years of operation. It is now subject to the same criticisms as its predecessor, and even more so. It is said to be as complex, more costly — and still leading the Church into disrepute.

It was designed to deal with serious misconduct cases. In 1996, the General Synod asked that it should include a separate system for dealing with grievances. Regrettably, that never happened.

Of those 1179 complaints, 311 were summarily dismissed, and 200 have resulted in no further action because either there was no misconduct or it was of a minor or technical nature. But all of these 511 have taken time, cost significant sums of money, and involved significant harm to many people.

Recent public debate about the CDM has exposed its flaws and recounted the damage that it has done. There is now widespread agreement that any new system must separate serious misconduct (i.e. conduct that would usually result in temporary or permanent prohibition) from grievances (which are usually the product of some breakdown in relationships that need repair).

But we must also recognise less serious misconduct that would usually be dealt with by rebuke and/or some form of injunction: for example, to undertake further training. If that less-than-serious misconduct is not dealt with more simply, we fear that clergy will be left with many of the problems that the Sheldon Community has identified — particularly the weaponisation of CDM procedures to effect resignations (News, 17 July).

 

AFTER responses to our interim report (News, 18 September), the ecclesiastical working party looking at CDM reform has now refined its proposals and hopes to publish a final report early in 2021.

We propose that all complaints should be immediately investigated by a member of a regional assessment panel. These would be skilled people trained to national standards who would carry out an immediate investigation when a complaint was lodged, speaking to both complainant and respondent. They would maintain detailed records, and ensure that both sides were kept informed as the investigation progressed.

The regional framework would provide independence from diocesan structures, and, with someone always available, it would ensure a more agile and timely response to complaints than a monolithic central standards agency could muster.

Reconciliation would be encouraged in cases of relationship problems. While resolution is not always possible, we believe that, in many cases, third-party involvement could enable reconciliation, and, occasionally, the bishop could be brought in to assist.

That inquiry should be completed in 28 days. A report would then be made to the bishop, which would identify any misconduct and determine whether it was serious. Extensive codes of conduct are not necessary to judge what is serious misconduct. You know it when you see it (obvious instances are sexual abuse, adultery, and theft).

Further work on professional standards may provide useful guidance, but a prescriptive code is unlikely to serve the Church well as the basis of a discipline system.

The bishop would allocate anything serious to a serious-misconduct track, and allegations not admitted would be put before a tribunal judge for directions. Early judicial involvement would expedite matters, and lead to a trial no more than six months after the first directions hearing.

In the past 14 years, to give an idea of scale, there have been 239 cases — an average of 17 a year — in which prohibition has been imposed. Of these, 67 followed a secular conviction, and 148 an admission of guilt. Of 30 tribunal hearings, 24 resulted in prohibition. (The other outcomes were: two dismissed, one conditional discharge, and three rebukes.)

 

THE report from the regional panel in less serious misconduct cases should carry a recommendation about what should be done: the imposition of a rebuke, and/or an injunction, perhaps for training; or a direction not to act in a similar way again — which would be recorded in the cleric’s blue file. No consent would be required for that penalty, although there could be a meeting at which the cleric could argue why the bishop should not act as proposed.

In cases of grievance, the assessor would report on what steps had been taken towards resolution. The report would also advise on any need for intervention, and any capability issues.

This is not only pragmatic: it accords with sound theology. The Church’s approach to discipline since Jesus spoke the words recorded in Matthew 18.15-17 has always been to seek reconciliation in cases of relationship breakdown; and repentance, reformation, and restoration in cases of misconduct.

 

The Rt Worshipful Peter Collier QC is chairman of the Ecclesiastical Law Society’s working group on the Clergy Discipline Measure. He is the Vicar-General of York.

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