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‘Toxic’ CDM leaves clergy suicidal, research finds

16 July 2020


THE Clergy Discipline Measure (CDM) is part of a “toxic management culture” in the Church of England, and is so flawed that it needs complete replacement.

This conclusion, in a paper published on Thursday by Dr Sarah Horsman, Warden of Sheldon, an independent retreat centre and support hub for those in ministry, is based on the results of a survey of one third of the C of E clergy, carried out with the University of Aston.

The paper welcomes the unanimous decision by the House of Bishops on 8 July to concur with an interim report by a working group chaired by the Bishop at Lambeth, the Rt Revd Tim Thornton. Bishop Thornton said on Thursday that he was “committed to replacing the CDM Measure with a new process”.

In all, 5628 clerics, including 291 respondents facing 351 CDMs, responded to the Sheldon survey. For this first set of results, researchers drew on the completed responses of 197 clergy who had been respondents in one CDM.

Among the findings:

  • More than one third of clergy subject to a CDM had had thoughts about ending their life;

  • Only 18 per cent felt that they were treated as innocent until proved guilty;

  • Half (49 per cent) strongly disagreed with the statement: “I felt supported by the diocese through the process”;

  • Nearly two-thirds (60 per cent) agreed or strongly agreed with the statement: “The CDM undermined my trust in senior clergy colleagues”.

Sheldon calls for a new framework to “heal the structural damage to bishop-clergy relationships and to be much more distinctively Christian, wiser, more transparent and above all, simply kinder.”

The researchers acknowledged that taking part had been a costly exercise for many, and that some had refrained from contributing for fear of reactivating painful memories. The Measure was found to have lost the confidence of clergy as an appropriate means of maintaining professional accountability.

Looking at the emerging findings in more detail, 99 per cent of respondents agreed that clergy should be accountable for their conduct. But only 39 per cent trusted the CDM process to see justice done. This figure dropped to 21 per cent among those who had personal experience of the Measure. A total of 84 per cent agreed that the process was sometimes used inappropriately. Fewer than one quarter thought that the CDM had a good theological grounding.

Two-thirds of those accused were found to be not guilty. Although the CDM tended to be viewed primarily through a safeguarding lens, only 25 per cent of the cases examined included any allegation of either current or historic sexual misconduct. “The impacts described are therefore mostly on ordinary clergy who had no reason to expect to get caught up in this process.”

Forty per cent of respondents wrote that “at times during the CDM, they had felt it would be better for other people if they were dead. A similar proportion had thoughts about ending their life. Three per cent of respondents made one or more actual suicide attempts.” The paper remarks that “the successful ones were not available to complete the survey.”

This statistic, Sheldon says, “was one that our academic partners found especially shocking and indicative of a toxic management culture. It is essential that the lessons are learned here.”

When asked whether the senior staff treated respondents with humanity, kindness, compassion, or dignity and respect, fewer than 20 per cent agreed. Fifty-five per cent agreed that “they [senior staff] had little or no idea what I was going through.”

The paper draws attention to one quotation from a pastoral supporter of clergy subjected to a CDM: “The effect on them has been shattering, disabling and in some cases almost abusive. The outcome being that one has died, one has lost faith and left the Church, one is no longer exercising any ministry, one has left the diocese, and one is a shell of the person they once were.”

Many of the criticisms focus on the mechanics of the CDM process, many of which were neglected or carelessly followed by dioceses. Failings in the implementation of the Measure are said to be “widespread and non-trivial”.

Among the respondents, 41 per cent had no prior warning of the CDM; 78 per cent were notified by post. Although the assumption is that the most serious cases take the longest, one third of all not-guilty cases took six months or more to reach determination.

Respondents were required to comply with tight response times and were often fearful of being penalised if they did not comply. “Waiting for decision(s) from the Bishop” accounted for delay in 38 per cent of cases.

When a cleric had been formally suspended, the required review after three months was “very seldom implemented”.

Only 34 per cent were offered the pastoral care to which they were entitled. Half of those who used a lawyer or sought counselling were funded through C of E legal aid or the diocesan counselling services, but one third paid for the services wholly or in part themselves. Legal fees for one in five of the not-guilty cases cost between £5000 and £10,000.

Sheldon provides support for clergy who are harmed during the process, and the paper states that health effects on respondents were shown to be “significant and disproportionate”. The effects on mental health would be long-lasting, the researchers concluded. The trauma stemmed from being automatically exposed to the high-stakes risk of losing both home and livelihood. Furthermore, those facing false allegations of abuse were in “a living hell” and exhibited many of the same psychosocial symptoms as victims of abuse.

The paper reports: “A parish priest telephoned Sheldon after completing the survey relating to his CDM case concluded ten years earlier. Through intense sobbing he expressed his gratitude that someone was at last asking the questions, having lived alone with the trauma for so long.”

Participants were also invited to complete a separate unprompted free-text survey. Three hundred and six people contributed more than 270,000 words, “perhaps a strong indication that this was a subject on which people have not previously been heard”. These are still to be processed.

Dr Horsman writes that the very significant time and funding that Sheldon contributed to commissioning this research reflected its “unusually serious concerns about the human costs and other toxic effects of the CDM appearing at many levels of church life.

“We hope there will be a serious commitment to understand what is gone so very wrong in this aspect of the Church’s relational life. This is a necessary prelude to crafting a good replacement for the CDM.”

It calls for “a thorough scoping exercise” with clarity on the fundamental purpose of any replacement process, looking at how it relates to existing policies and procedures, and which of those existing procedures may also be flawed and should be repaired or replaced.

Rebuilding confidence and morale among clergy would include a past-cases review “and an understanding of cultural issues that have allowed abusive practices to take root”.

It suggests a threefold replacement of the CDM: a church grievance/dispute- resolution process focused entirely on facilitating resolution between the parties with no external sanctions; a “Church Misconduct” process for objective wrongdoing, handled at diocesan level; and a “Gross Misconduct” process applied only to clergy over a single major episode or pattern of repeated or reckless lesser episodes.

It recommends a clear separation of powers in a national body with trained and resourced personnel; independent oversight with an appeal facility; protection against mental-health risks; minimum standards of evidence and “beyond-reasonable-doubt” burden of proof; and equitable sharing of financial risk between complainant, respondent, and institution.

It warns: “Hasty replacement of a damaged brand with a similarly flawed alternative would be a further tragedy. We will be bringing forward evidence in support of the need to fund an independent national body resourced with the necessary expertise to regulate the boundaries of professional conduct.”

On 8 July, the House of Bishops reviewed a confidential interim report by the CDM working group set up with Bishop Thornton in the chair. The Bishops committed themselves unanimously to “working towards replacing the Measure and to making interim procedural changes to ensure the current system is more workable until new legislation is enforced”.

Bishop Thornton commented at that meeting: “We are now actively seeking to improve processes, minimise delays, and identify other improvements needed to make the system more effective.”

He said on Thursday: “I am very saddened indeed to read the findings in the Sheldon research. I am committed to replacing the CDM Measure with a new process, taking note of much of the learning the research presents to us.

“The CDM needs to change, and there are clearly many people who have reasons to be concerned about it. There are aspects of it which work well, but I am well aware of the need for significant change.

“We are looking to bring proposals forward to General Synod in February 2021. I can say that it is likely such proposals will include the importance of having a triage process in each diocese to handle complaints better at a more local level.

“We plan to put forward proposals for a mediation process which is not now always offered in cases right across the country. We have also other significant changes to suggest in relation to safeguarding matters and to address matters around delay and communications.”

He agreed with Sheldon that something had to be done immediately to improve the treatment of clergy currently going through the CDM process.

“I am delighted to say that the new Designated Officer is working on what can be done in the short term to remind either bishops and registrars how the CDM process can work and which sometimes appear to have forgotten.

“He is also looking at what can be done in the short term to move in the direction we feel is right in the longer term. So whilst, yes, it will take time to make some of the larger changes I think are necessary, I am very hopeful that we can make some changes more quickly, and identify areas where we can move towards the changes we want to see.

“Especially in the area of communication and delay I think we can make good progress very quickly.”


The Sheldon paper can be read here.

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