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My faith in the Church's integrity is broken, says peer

24 September 2021

Safeguarding errors prompt Lord Lexden to quit committee

Lord Lexden

Lord Lexden

Lord Lexden

A CONSERVATIVE peer has resigned from the Ecclesiastical Committee of Parliament over the Church’s handling of safeguarding, telling the House of Lords: “My faith in the Church’s institutional integrity has been completely broken.”

Lord Lexden, a historian who has held senior posts in the Conservative Party’s central organisation, made the announcement on Thursday of last week, after the Bishop of Blackburn, the Rt Revd Julian Blackburn, asked that the Safeguarding (Code of Practice) Measure be presented to the Queen for Royal Assent.

“I can no longer support the Clergy Discipline Measure, in view of the harm it is capable of inflicting on innocent clergy caught up in sex-abuse allegations,” Lord Lexden said. “Doubts about the Church’s capacity to devise a fair and just system for dealing with accusations of sex abuse laid against its clergy have long been simmering in my mind, not least because of the terrible way in which the reputation of the great George Bell . . . was damaged — and damaged so unfairly.

“But worry and concern have now given place to total despair; my faith in the Church’s institutional integrity has been completely broken.”

He went on to describe the “terrible tragedy” of Fr Alan Griffin, a “witty and clever Cambridge contemporary”. Fr Griffin took his own life after unfounded allegations of child sex abuse, prompting a coroner to warn that more clergy deaths would follow unless action was taken to improve C of E safeguarding procedures (News, 23 July).

During his speech, Lord Lexden quoted from the coroner’s report. “The Church had acted on the basis of mere gossip and innuendo,” he told the Lords. “Could there be a clearer example of the denial of natural justice?”

The House also heard from Lord Cormack, who has served as a churchwarden and a General Synod member. He supported the Measure, but hoped that it would not “create some of the tragedies and difficulties that the ham-fisted handling of safeguarding has resulted in in recent years. I speak with some passion and some anger. . .

“As a Christian and an Anglican, I am deeply ashamed of some of the things that have happened historically. But I am also deeply ashamed of the way in which certain things have been handled, as I have indicated.”

Roger HarrisLord Cormack

He spoke of the suspension of the Bishop of Lincoln, the Rt Revd Christopher Lowson, during a 20-month safeguarding investigation (News, 5 February), a “disproportionate handling” that had left the Bishop “somewhat broken”, and of the cathedral Chancellor, Canon Paul Overend, whose suspension had lasted 789 days (News, 18 June). He also mentioned the case of Bishop George Bell (News, 24 January 2019).

He concluded: “I pray devoutly that this Measure will enable us to get the balance right, but it is crucial for the reputation of the Church of England, which is going through a rough patch at the moment. I have not lost my faith, but I have come close to losing my faith in the Church of England from the experiences I have witnessed in the last few years.”

The Measure, which received final approval in the General Synod in April (News, 30 April) and responds to a recommendation by the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA), requires the House of Bishops to issue “a code of practice for relevant persons on safeguarding children and vulnerable adults”.

It replaces the existing duty to have “due regard” to safeguarding guidance with the duty to “comply with” requirements imposed by the code. Relevant persons include anyone whose work “to any extent relates to safeguarding children and vulnerable adults”. The Measure includes a power for the bishop to suspend a churchwarden who fails to comply.

In his response to the two speeches, Bishop Henderson said: “I would be the first to put my hand up and say that we have not been getting things right, and the national safeguarding team is seeking to improve its way of working. There are a number of cases that have been referred to which are inexcusable, and the Archbishop of Canterbury, in particular, has expressed his deep regret over the 20-month suspension of the Bishop of Lincoln, and has expressed that that should be something that is never, ever repeated.”

He was “horrified” by Lord Lexden’s account of Fr Griffin’s treatment.

He continued: “There are cases where, sometimes, a person who has just not complied with a particular line of guidance has been treated as though they themselves are a safeguarding risk. That is an unacceptable comparison, and there needs to be a distinction drawn between the two.”

Lord Lexden pressed Bishop Henderson for a response to the revelation by the coroner in Fr Griffin’s case that she had been urged not to include in her report “any concerns that may be taken as a criticism of clerics or staff for not filtering or verifying allegations”.

Bishop Henderson agreed that this was “reprehensible and unacceptable. One of the big issues has been the whole matter of cover-up and trying to silence voices. That is a very clear example and should never, ever be repeated.”

Last month, Lambeth Palace and the diocese of London admitted to a catalogue of errors that led to Fr Griffin’s death (News, 27 August).

The investigation into Fr Griffin began when the head of operations of the diocese of London, Martin Sargeant, retired in 2019. Mr Sargeant had met the Archdeacon of London, the Ven. Luke Miller, in February, to undertake what the coroner’s report refers to as a “‘brain dump” of information that he had acquired over the preceding 20 years.

The information became the Two Cities Audit report 2019. In total, 42 members of the clergy in London diocese are named in the report, and references range from “descriptions of past convictions that had been dealt with and recorded, through current safeguarding concerns that might or might not have been acted upon, to what witnesses described as gossip . . . The origin of the information in the entries was in places obvious and factual, but in places entirely nebulous.”

The Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Sarah Mullally, has since written to the other 41 members of the clergy listed in the document. She states that there are “no matters that required a complaint under the CDM”, nor any “outstanding action . . . Nevertheless, we have committed to contacting individually any member of the clergy affected to provide further reassurance.”

She has offered to send anyone named a copy of the information that pertains to them, with references to third parties redacted. Clergy may also request face-to-face meetings with the Bishop’s adviser, the Ven. Rosemary Lain-Priestly, and the Area Bishop of Willesden, the Rt Revd Pete Broadbent. Pastoral support has been offered.

“I realise it will be disturbing to learn that your name appears in the document,” Bishop Mullally writes. “You are in my prayers as are all of those who knew and loved Fr Alan.”

Earlier this year, the Vicar of St John’s, Kensal Green, the Revd David Ackerman, resigned as a London diocesan clergy safeguarding support (Letters, 25 June). This week, he also resigned from an elected place representing clergy on the Two Cities Area Council

Last month, he wrote a letter to the Archbishop Cranmer blog, in which he spoke of a “crisis of trust within the diocese of London”.

He also gave an account of a Past Cases Review conducted in the diocese in which “clergy were asked to survey parish files to discover if there were any references to safeguarding issues that remained undiscovered and then sign a form stating whether in our opinion someone might pose a risk in the future. . . Although I found no such files I refused to sign a form saying that I should judge whether someone was a threat. . .

“My own view is that I take safeguarding so seriously that I no longer have confidence in the diocese or the Church of England having its own safeguarding departments or professionals.”

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