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Leader comment: Is this institutional corruption?

18 June 2021

ON TUESDAY, an independent panel chaired by Baroness O’Loan concluded that the catalogue of failings by the Metropolitan Police when investigating the murder of Daniel Morgan in 1987 constituted institutional corruption. The force had been more concerned about its reputation than about seeking the truth. The panel said: “Concealing or denying failings, for the sake of the organisation’s public image, is dishonesty on the part of the organisation for reputational benefit and constitutes a form of institutional corruption.” This is a sentence that the Church of England hierarchy would do well to contemplate. It was only when the Church listened to the experience of its Black and ethnic-minority members that it faced up to institutional racism. What would be the conclusion if it listened attentively to the clergy and laity who have been scarred by its dysfunctional complaints procedures?

This week’s account of the experience of the Overends does little justice to the trauma that they clearly suffered over the more than two years since Canon Overend was accused of assaulting a student 22 years earlier. Much of the delay was out of the Church’s hands: the glacial pace of the courts since the pandemic hit means that many thousands, victims and accused, have been denied justice. In mid-April, the number of outstanding Crown Court cases stood at 58,246, compared with a pre-Covid baseline of 39,331. (It has since dipped slightly.) But what cannot be blamed on the civil system is the treatment of the Overends, and scores — perhaps hundreds — like them. For the shocking thing is that their story is not unique or unfamiliar. Thanks largely to the work of the Sheldon Hub, where those accused of abuse and misconduct have a voice, similar accounts are in the public domain, most recently in its report I was Handed Over to the Dogs (News, 25 May). Perhaps the commonest complaint is that the principle that someone is innocent until proved guilty is disregarded, sometimes reversed, when safeguarding is involved. It is little comfort to be offered pastoral support from strangers when the clerics’ chief pastors, the bishops with whom they have worked and are expected to work again treat them as if already convicted.

According to the O’Loan panel, to be institutionally corrupt, an organisation has to “conceal or deny” its failings. The use of non-disclosure agreements comes close to this behaviour, and it is good to have had such a firm steer away from them from the Archbishops; but close, too, is the attitude that acknowledges failings but does nothing to remedy them. There is a new Clergy Conduct Measure, to be discussed by the General Synod next month. But that is not yet in operation; nor is it clear whether it will address a safeguarding system that allows disasters such as Lincoln’s to happen.

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