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Independent scrutiny for National Safeguarding Team moves a step closer

26 February 2021


THE first phase of the Church of England’s move towards independent oversight of its National Safeguarding Team (NST) will be in place by July, a new paper confirms. It is due to be presented to General Synod members on Saturday.

The paper, by the director of mission and public affairs for the Archbishops’ Council, Canon Malcolm Brown, was presented to an informal meeting of the House of Bishops and the Archbishops’ Council this week, and approved by the Archbishops’ Council. Minister and Clergy Sexual Abuse Survivors (MACSAS) and members of the Survivors’ reference were consulted on early drafts of the paper.

In December, the Archbishops’ Council voted unanimously in favour of a proposal for interim oversight of the NST to be put in place before the February 2021 Synod, to pave the way for full independent oversight by February 2022 (News, 18 December 2020).

The first step, the paper says, will be the appointment of an Independent Safeguarding Board (ISB), with both executive and advisory functions. It will deal with casework passed to it by the NST; respond to complaints concerning alleged mishandling or maladministration of cases and procedures; and determine how the Church should respond to the needs of victims, survivors, and families.

It will also help in developing safeguarding practices and policies through phase two. The emphasis throughout the report is that the proposals for phase one are only the beginning of more far-reaching processes, and that ongoing commitment from the House of Bishops, the Archbishops’ Council, and the General Synod is essential.

The report highlights some of the dilemmas involved in having an independent safeguarding role. It points out that an independent body will need to be funded by the Church itself. It will have considerable moral authority, “the power to blow the whistle publicly and expose resistance or backsliding on the Church’s part”.

It warns, however: “There are many contexts where friction and resistance from the Church could undermine the independent body. What is needed is a structure which the Church may put in place, but which it cannot frustrate.”

Funding arrangements, it says, should not be used as a lever to prevent the independent body doing its job. On the other hand, “giving out blank cheques creates moral hazard — it is not in the interests of the independent body to have power to demand unlimited resources since that militates against operating efficiently and, ultimately, effectively.”

It also notes a tension between the statutory role of trustees and the desire for safeguarding to be wholly the responsibility of an independent body.

On issues of management and authority, it says: “The Church of England, recognising the professional integrity of safeguarding staff, should be able to work comfortably with independent oversight of the professional safeguarding standards alongside its own line management structure.” Existing models for a wholly independent charitable body to handle safeguarding will be explored and assessed in phase two.

Survivors, the report acknowledges, “are currently putting themselves in the hands of the very organisation through which the initial abuse was able to occur, or by whom they were accused, so the Church’s response must be reinforced — and seen to be reinforced — by a structure that is independent of the Church and its cultures.

“Others, such as the families of victims and accused persons, are often forgotten as processes unfold, and the ISB should have the power to address their concerns where they have not been satisfactorily dealt with elsewhere.”

It describes cultural change in the Church as “not the only solution” to its failures, but says that “without it, there is no way forward”. Power, it says, “comes in many forms, and clergy are often ill-equipped (theologically, organisationally, and psychologically) to recognise the power they possess, both personally and by virtue of their office. Better training and mentoring/ supervision can help here.”

It says that a tribal or club mentality is exacerbated “in an institution where ordination conveys authority. It can lead to a culture of clericalism in which challenging the authority of the ordained becomes a kind of spiritual offence. The hierarchical structure of the Church can also lead to inappropriate deference which deters honest encounters. An independent function which will challenge the institution — publicly if necessary — thus becomes essential to the Church’s integrity.”

The function of the ISB is to provide professional supervision to the director of safeguarding; be responsible for ensuring best practice in handling casework and managing casework from the NST; and receive, investigate, and respond to complaints referring to the NST’s handling of cases, with support from National Church Institutions.

It will quality-assure National Safeguarding practice requirements issued by the House of Bishops under the Safeguarding and Clergy Discipline Measure 2016; ensure that victims and survivors, and all others who are affected by safeguarding cases, are heard and enabled to inform policy and practice; make any recommendations; advise on the continuing development of a core training curriculum for dioceses; advise on good practice models; and hold the Church publicly to account for any failure to respond to the ISB’s recommendations.

The appointment process for ISB members needs “to communicate the commitment of the Church of England at the highest level to the principle of independence and, at the same time, demonstrate that the appointment process is not being manipulated in favour of ‘safe’ candidates”.

It recommends that the Archbishops nominate two persons, “chosen for their understanding of the principle of independent oversight”, to join an appointment panel comprising a nominee of the Archbishop of Canterbury and one of York (or two joint nominations); “a person with an extensive safeguarding experience, not directly involved in the work of the NST”; and two representatives of survivor groups, including at least one with a survivor of abuse in a Church of England context. The panel should include both men and women.

The report acknowledges that the speed at which this work has had to be progressed demonstrated that the Church of England was serious about independence and did not intend to procrastinate. But it would also mean that ISB members would be “recruited to roles which are not fully defined in some detailed respects, and where some relationships and powers remain to be worked out”.

It also acknowledges that the consultation “falls short of a model of co-production which would have placed survivors closer to the whole process”, and that others impacted by safeguarding cases also needed to be brought into the dialogue. All parties agree that survivor representation and involvement in the processes should be further improved.

Read the paper here

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