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Comment: Don’t blame the safeguarding process. Blame the people who run it

by
09 October 2020

An anonymous author describes one diocese’s maverick approach

istock

“TRUST the process.” That is what Jenny (not her real name) was told by diocesan safeguarding officials after she had built up the strength to make an official complaint. It was a mantra that would, months later, be repeated by the diocesan bishop.

I, too, told Jenny that she could trust the process. I had no reason not to. I had been actively involved in working with this process and the Clergy Discipline Measure (CDM) for ten years previously, in another diocese. I knew the process well, and, despite its faults, the CDM does provide an effective statutory way of dealing with serious complaints against errant clergy.

The only problem was that Jenny’s diocese was not following the process. It purported to follow the steps in the CDM process, but it was doing so its own way. It ignored the timescales within the Measure; it ignored the steps in the Rules; and it ignored the advice in the Clergy Discipline Commission’s Code of Practice.

 

THE Measure and the Rules are not some piece of internal guidance or procedure that can be tossed aside or supplanted by a diocese’s own way of doing things. They are law.

The Clergy Discipline Measure 2003 (as amended) is primary legislation, having the same authority as an Act of Parliament. The Clergy Discipline Rules 2005 (as amended) is secondary legislation, a statutory instrument. The Code of Practice is not law, but it is statutory guidance which was produced in accordance with a clause in the Measure. So bishops, and those who undertake safeguarding activity on their behalf, need to be familiar with it and follow it.

But not in Jenny’s diocese. Here, the diocese does what it wants. And the structures of the Church of England mean that nobody can hold them to account — short of a separate complaint under the Measure against the Bishop himself for failing to follow the requirements of the Measure.

 

JENNY’s case is one of manipulative sexual and emotional abuse at the hands of her parish priest. She had turned to him for support as she came out of an abusive marriage. She had been subjected to such coercive control by her husband over almost two decades that her personality had been squeezed out of her.

As, too, had her capacity for normal thinking. She had been conditioned to believe that she could think only what she was told to think; that the only opinions she could hold were those imposed on her. She was a walking definition of a vulnerable adult.

Her priest saw this vulnerability and acted on it. Over the course of the next year, he orchestrated a growing emotional closeness to Jenny. He would share intimate information about other people in the parish, building in her mind a reliance on each other. At the time, Jenny believed that he loved her. But he was married. She was confused.

In time, the priest took his abuse to the next level. He sent her explicit text messages. He exposed himself to Jenny while they were talking in his study. And on several occasions he would physically molest her. She never consented to these gropes. They were sexual assaults. But she didn’t speak out. Like many victims of sexual violence, she froze in the moment in utter confusion, unsure of what to do.

She continues to ask herself over and over: “Because I didn’t say no, does that mean I consented?” No. It does not. Consent is active. Never passive.

 

AS SHE continued to emerge from the aftermath of her abusive marriage, and received professional counselling to overcome the trauma of that abuse, Jenny began to realise that what she was experiencing at the hands of her priest was further abuse.

She spoke about it to her counsellor. She also spoke to the diocesan safeguarding adviser — but anonymously. She wanted to hear that what had happened was wrong. She wanted to know that the Church condemned the behaviour of her priest. Slowly, very slowly, Jenny began confiding openly to a small group of trusted people. I was one of them.

I supported Jenny as best I could. We explored the possibility of reporting the priest to the police. But the criminal law would be interested only in the issue of consent, and that is difficult to prove.

The question of consent is of lesser concern for the Clergy Discipline Measure. Consent or not, the priest’s behaviour was clearly conduct unbecoming or inappropriate to the office and work of a clerk in Holy Orders.

I explained to her the process that the Church of England follows when official complaints are made. And, after finding the strength and courage necessary, she contacted the diocesan safeguarding team again, and made a formal complaint.

 

IN EARLY December 2019, Jenny was questioned at length by the archdeacon, and a statement was taken. Mobile phones were handed over for forensic investigation. A timeline was produced. And the priest was spoken to by the archdeacon.

And then, nothing much happened for several weeks.

We were told that the archdeacon was considering whether to make an application to the President of Tribunals for permission to proceed out of time. It was late January before it was confirmed that this application had been made. The President acted quickly, not only giving consent, but also specifying a deadline by which the archdeacon should lay the complaint.

At this stage in the process, the Clergy Discipline Measure provides for very strict and specific time limits for various stages. The most significant step in the process is the preliminary scrutiny report from the registrar, who has to answer two questions: Is the conduct complained of an offence under the CDM? And does the person bringing the complaint have a proper interest in doing so?

An archdeacon always has a proper interest. And sexual abuse and impropriety is conduct unbecoming. In the diocese where I used to work, such preliminary scrutiny reports would usually be received back the same day. In this diocese, it took the full 28 days permitted under the Measure.

On receipt of the registrar’s report, the bishop has a further 28 days to decide what to do. This is a fast turn-around — not least because the first 21 of those days are to give the priest an opportunity to respond, in writing, to the complaint.

The safeguarding team in this diocese incorrectly stated on more than one occasion that the Bishop’s 28 days begin after receipt of the priest’s response. They would not budge in their thinking on this, despite my drawing to their attention chapter and verse of the Measure, which sets out the timescale.

The diocesan safeguarding adviser, in a conference-call video to discuss my complaint about the way the matter was being dealt with, interrupted me to state, very explicitly — and wrongly — that there were no timescales in the Clergy Discipline Measure unless the bishop referred it to a tribunal. This, in itself, is another example of the diocese’s failure to understand the process.

The bishop has no power to refer a case to a tribunal — only to the Designated Officer: a senior lawyer based at Church House. It is the Designated Officer who conducts an investigation before referring it to the President of Tribunals for a decision on whether or not a tribunal should be held.

Referral to the Designated Officer is one of five options open to the bishop in responding to a complaint. But the bishop has no real discretion here. In cases involving serious complaints which are denied, the Clergy Discipline Rules and the Commission’s guidance makes it very clear that a referral is the only option open to a bishop.

 

JENNY’s case is now, finally, with the Designated Officer, and is progressing professionally and diligently. But it has been a long journey to get this far — much longer than the timescale envisaged in the legislation.

The first delay to the 28 days occurred because the priest wanted a longer period to provide his written response to the complaint than the 21 days allowed for in the Measure. He was finding difficulty obtaining legal advice because of Covid restrictions. This may sound reasonable; but the priest was first informed of the complaint in December 2019. He was informed again in February, when the President of Tribunals consulted him about the out-of-time application. He had plenty of time to seek legal advice before any Covid restrictions came into play.

The next delay occurred because the Bishop took it upon himself to interview both Jenny and the priest, to help him to decide which action he would take. This is completely outside the rules, and is completely inappropriate. A victim of sexual abuse should never be forced to recount their experiences unnecessarily.

In this case, Jenny had to give details to the archdeacon, and then to the Bishop. She will have to explain it to the Designated Officer, and she may well have to give evidence at a tribunal, where she could be cross examined.

The rules and statutory guidance say that the Bishop’s only option was to refer the case to the Designated Officer. There was no justification whatsoever for subjecting Jenny to what was, in effect, the first round of cross-examination.

It was the Bishop’s desire for this cross examination for both Jenny and the priest that led to a further delay in the 28 days — the dates of the priest’s and the Bishop’s holidays meant that more than a month would pass between Jenny’s cross-examination and the priest’s.

When challenged in early September about why the Bishop had still not referred the case to the Designated Officer, despite this being the only legal avenue open to him, the diocesan safeguarding officer explained that they were waiting for the priest to confirm that he accepted the official notes of his meeting with the Bishop as being correct.

“We have his verbal response to the allegations, but we need his written response before we can refer it to the Designated Officer,” he said. I had to remind him that the diocese already had the priest’s written response, and that he had been given an extension to the statutory 21 days in order to obtain legal advice before submitting it.

The diocesan safeguarding officer will accept no fault in the way he, the Bishop, and the diocese are handling Jenny’s case: the delays were not delays; and the bishop’s cross-examination of both Jenny and the priest were designed to give the priest a chance to change his defence and admit his guilt — something that the safeguarding officer says often happens when a priest is confronted in person by their bishop.

But such an approach is explicitly and clearly outlawed by the Rules and statutory guidance, which says that the bishop should do nothing to pressurise a priest into changing their account. Plea bargaining is not an option under the Clergy Discipline Measure. The priest has 21 days to submit a written response — not several months.

Another failing by the diocese is in providing pastoral care for Jenny. In early December, the safeguarding team emailed to say that they would look into getting pastoral support. In mid-January, the Archdeacon emailed to say that once the application to proceed out of time is received by the president of tribunals, “all parties will be offered pastoral support.” Several other similar promises were made.

At his meeting with Jenny in early August to go through her account, the Bishop said that he was glad that pastoral support was almost in place.

It is now more ten months since Jenny first made her complaint to the diocese, and she is still not in receipt of pastoral support. The diocese have offered counselling — but only on the basis that the counsellor is contracted by the diocese, and reports to the safeguarding officer on a regular basis.

Jenny’s counsellor rightly refuses. Such an approach would make the diocese the client rather than Jenny; and the counsellor would be responsible to the diocese rather than to Jenny.

The usual approach, Jenny’s counsellor says, is for the counsellor to invoice the client for her fees, and for the client to claim this back from whichever organisation has agreed to provide the support. That way, the counsellor’s line of accountability is always to the client, and there can be no pressure from outside bodies — such as the diocese — for the counsellor to disclose what is said. Counselling has to be confidential.

The Church of England’s national safeguarding rules and guidance, to which all church officials, including bishops, must have due regard, require the Bishop to ensure that appropriate pastoral support is in place. In Jenny’s case, the diocese has dragged its feet, and come up with excuse after excuse as to why this has not happened.

 

THE case is now out of the diocese’s hands. The Designated Officer and the legal office at Church House will now handle the case. Having worked with them in the past on a number of complaints under the Clergy Discipline Measure, I have no doubt that the case will now proceed properly.

But it is no wonder that so many victims and survivors of clergy abuse feel that the Church lets them down. It has taken the best part of a year to get to this point. It should have taken a few short months. The legal deadline for the Bishop to refer the case to the Designated Officer — 28 days following the receipt of the registrar’s initial scrutiny report — was 25 June. The case was not referred until late September: 117 days instead of the 28 days allowed in the legislation.

It is difficult to ask victims and survivors to trust the process when dioceses and bishops throw the process out of the window and follow their own system. Jenny no longer trusts the process — with good reason. As for any victim or survivor in similar situations, delays only add to the anguish; and serve only to benefit the perpetrators.

The Church of England nationally is attempting to get its house in order when it comes to safeguarding — whether that be safeguarding of children or vulnerable adults. But their efforts will be in vain if bishops and dioceses continue to ignore the statutory processes and do their own thing.

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