LAST August, the Archbishop of Canterbury approved payments to a victim of abuse, known as “VB”, thus launching the Interim Support Scheme for survivors of church abuse (News, 26 September 2020). As the secretary-general of the Archbishops’ Council, William Nye, explained to a survivor earlier this year, the choice was, in effect, between getting it done and getting it right. Faced with the suicidal condition of VB, they chose the former. Recent complaints by survivors suggest that the window for subsequently getting it right is small. None the less, as this week’s letter from the scheme’s administrator proclaims, many survivors have been helped financially through the interim scheme.
To the Church’s shame, the suicide of Fr Alan Griffin cannot be prevented in similar fashion. His death while under investigation for unsubstantiated rumours, passed on to the Roman Catholic authorities by the diocese of London, will not surprise many of those who have been subjected to an investigation under the Church’s safeguarding or clergy-discipline regimes. To a Church that has overlooked so many indications of the harm that its complaints procedures have caused, it is important to say that this is a game-changing moment. The coroner has given Archbishop Welby and the RC authorities until 3 September to respond to the legal Prevention of Future Deaths notice.
It is not enough to point to the revision of the Clergy Discipline Measure (CDM), starting its progress through the General Synod. It is important that this should return to the Synod in November; but even this will not be soon enough to prevent present harms, nor does it encompass safeguarding. There are many things that the Church can do to make the existing system work better than it does and as well as it can. Here are three of the most urgent:
Disclosure: the nature of the accusation and any evidence should be clearly and immediately communicated to the respondent. In the recent account by Canon Overend of the CDM that should never have happened (News, 18 June), it was during the ten weeks spent in the dark about the accusation that he first contemplated suicide. Similarly, the process should be made clear at every stage to the complainant, especially when the complaint is taken over by an archdeacon or church official.
Support: although plenty has been written and promised about support for those involved in a complaint, what is available is still inadequate. It should not take a suicide to teach the Church — especially with the benefit of all those lessons-learnt reviews — just how traumatising the complaints procedure is. Survivors have to relive their experiences multiple times, sometimes in a hostile environment. Respondents are forced to contemplate the end of their ministry and the loss of the family home for the most trivial of errors. Even those who are eventually found guilty of abuse might well have been subjected to abuse in their past. How can a supposedly pastoral organisation have got this so wrong?
Speed: until a replacement for the Clergy Discipline Measure has been agreed, a concerted effort is needed to resolve disputes in weeks, not months. The first act must be to rid the Church of the clutter of grievances that gum up the system. The amended CDM code of practice, agreed by the Synod in April (News, 30 April), contains much helpful advice, and includes an outline of a diocesan system to deal with complaints deemed not serious in a maximum of 56 days. Such a system can be set up without legislation, and should be a priority in every diocese.
It is not enough to admit that the present complaints system is broken. It is not enough to work on a long-term replacement. When the health, well-being, and even lives of those caught up in the present system are at stake, change cannot be delayed.