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Not fit, not safe

24 July 2020

THIS week, we carry an account by a priest of a funeral that she forgot. Clergy will recognise this as the stuff of their nightmares. Forgetting is, moreover, a common symptom of stress. She admitted her fault straight away. Everyone who responded to the Sheldon survey on the workings of the Clergy Discipline Measure (CDM) accepted that clergy should be professionally accountable for their actions. Those same people, however, and now the House of Bishops, agree that the CDM is not working well. A responsible Church, let alone a compassionate one, would have recognised that the priest could be relied on to punish herself. A secular employer would have looked at her record and perhaps issued a time-limited warning. Instead, although the permanent “gross misconduct” mark in her file still rankles, the most harm to her was done during those months of desultory cruelty while her livelihood, house, reputation, and vocation were on the line.

We also carry Lord Carlile’s verdict on a current safeguarding process, suggesting that the failings extend beyond the CDM. His view is that, by trying to play nice, and refusing to acknowledge the adversarial character of a disciplinary process, the Church has set aside fundamental rights that are routinely available to anyone in the criminal-justice system, or in the business world. Behaving as an employer is a relatively new concept for the church authorities: they have assumed the powers of secular management without extending common protections to their “staff” — or, of course, people who aren’t. Thus the present disciplinary proceedings are full of injustices. To name but a few: the withheld accusation; the willingness to proceed with incomplete evidence; the “criminalisation” of procedural anomalies; secret trials; a lack of representation; and, of course, long delays. These will be familiar to those who have undergone a CDM or a safeguarding investigation or both. More seriously, they will be familiar to those who manage the CDM process — and to the Bishops who, until 8 July, seemed willing to countenance it.

The Measure was brought in to replace an old, cumbersome system, with promises of swifter justice and the quick dismissal of vexatious or minor complaints. Delays now are, if anything, worse. And if it is cheaper in financial terms, too many have witnessed its mental, physical, and spiritual cost. A system that cannot distinguish between innocence and guilt, lapses and crimes, cannot be called safe. In considering reform, the Bishops and the Synod could do worse than note present faults listed by a correspondent: “It has no fundamental understanding of mediation, forgiveness, and restoration; it does not acknowledge biblical truths which, historically, have influenced the centuries-old legal system in this country. It discredits those in authority who have to work with it, and is capable of destroying good people.”

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