A GAP is emerging between two groups looking at the Clergy Discipline Measure (CDM), which is acknowledged as being in need of urgent reform.
On Friday, the official working group chaired by the Bishop at Lambeth, the Rt Revd Tim Thornton, released a progress report, saying that, having established the need for the CDM to be replaced, it has been commissioned by the House of Bishops to bring forward proposals for what the replacement should be.
A key recommendation from the working group is the setting up of a central office to deal with serious complaints against clergy. For their part, clergy would be encouraged to be part of a union.
The other group looking at the reform of the CDM was set up by the Ecclesiastical Law Society (ELS) and chaired by the Vicar-General of York, the Rt Worshipful Peter Collier QC.
In its interim report (News, 11 September), the ELS working group expressed its belief that disciplining clergy should remain the responsibility of the diocesan bishop. In a consultation paper, also released on Friday, it proposes a regional system as a means of pooling expertise between groups of dioceses while retaining a close connection with the diocesan bishop.
Both parties propose a new triaging arrangement, which would allow minor grievances to be separated and dealt with at an early stage, and only serious matters to be referred upwards for longer investigation. Bishop Thornton’s group wonder whether a complainant should be required at the outset to indicate whether the complaint is a grievance or a matter of serious misconduct, and this to be checked by the diocese. They acknowledge that the ability to dismiss a trivial or vexatious allegation is severely hampered by the present legislation.
The ELS consultation also tackles complaints about clergy conduct that sit above the level of a grievance but below serious misconduct. Writing in the Church Times this week, Judge Collier suggests that regional assessors might recommend remedies to the diocesan bishop: “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”.
Bishop Thornton’s group acknowledges concerns about the continuing part played by bishops in the disciplinary process, but argues that the setting up of a central office be seen as a delegation of responsibility, not its removal — akin to the Bishop’s Advisory Panels for recommending candidates for ordination training. The object of the central office, the progress report says, is “freeing bishops into a different pastoral relationship with respondent clergy than is currently possible”.
Staff at the central office would not be “tasked with protecting the Church’s interests”, the working group says. The object would be to operate with “enough independence from the institutional Church to inspire the confidence of those who are being regulated by this office, and those who report alleged misconduct on the part of regulated professionals”.
Bishop Thornton’s group also proposes the drawing up of a set of professional standards against which to measure clergy conduct.
On the question of unions, the group says: “In other spheres, regulated professionals tend to become members of a union, so they have adequate protection from the arbitrary exercise of power on the part of their employer or regulator. Although it is noted that some clergy are already part of a union, it is proposed that this should happen on a larger scale. This does of course raise questions about whether there is a sufficiently broad choice of unions for clergy to join.”
One of the chief concerns of the ELS group is speeding up the present system, with an early assessment of complaints. They ask in their consultation whether a diocesan bishop should have the power to dismiss complaints at this stage.
When serious misconduct is alleged, the group suggests reversing the current process of gathering evidence before a tribunal hearing. It proposes an early hearing in front of an experienced judge at which a plea can be heard and directions given about what evidence will be required.
The ELS group also proposes that legal aid should be available to anyone accused of serious misconduct, and appeals should be allowed against judgments.
Bishop Thornton’s group acknowledges that a legislative solution is not a quick fix, which means that the present system will continue for some time to come. “This is a serious concern when considered in light of the hurt that many have spoken about experiencing under current legislative arrangement.”
As a consequence, the group has initiated interim changes to the workings of the present CDM rules:
a) regular communication during the investigative and tribunal stages of a complaint;
b) reforms designed to improve communication, the service of documents, the cross-examination of vulnerable persons, and the handling of allegations and vexatious complainants;
c) an online system for the submission of complaints, answers, and applications;
d) regular training for key participants.
The group notes that various dioceses are carrying out their own reforms, particularly in the area of triaging complaints, and cites Gloucester’s “6 Step Process”.
The official working group progress report can be found here. It has asked for responses by 16 January to be sent to email@example.com.
The ELS consultation paper can be found here. The ELS has also asked for responses by 20 December, sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.