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Bishop of Lincoln can return to duty after 20-month safeguarding investigation

01 February 2021

Roger Harris

THE Rt Revd Christopher Lowson can return to work as Bishop of Lincoln after a 20-month safeguarding investigation, it was announced on Monday evening.

Bishop Lowson has accepted a formal rebuke for the mishandling of a safeguarding disclosure, and has apologised unreservedly for his “error of judgement”. The rebuke will stay on his file, and he has agreed to retrain in safeguarding matters. There has never been any suggestion that Bishop Lowson was responsible for any act of abuse.

In a statement issued on Monday, he said: “I offer an unreserved apology for my error of judgement in the way I handled a disclosure about a member of clergy in the Lincoln diocese in early 2019. I regret the way I handled the matter, not least because I have always sought to take safeguarding matters extremely seriously.

“Throughout the disciplinary process I have sought to co-operate fully, conscious of the importance of ensuring a thorough investigation for all involved. However, the length of the process has not benefited anyone. I hope that some constructive reflection on this experience might help to improve the Church’s safeguarding and disciplinary procedures.”

All involved in the process have agreed that the time it has taken to resolve this issue has been unacceptable, not least because the issue related to the way in which a disclosure was handled, not an allegation of direct abuse. The case has contributed to the urgency with which the Church of England is seeking the reform of its disciplinary procedures.

The Archbishop of Canterbury commented: “I am very sorry that Bishop Christopher and his wife, Susan, have had to endure such an ordeal over the last 20 months. I have expressed my regret to Christopher and am very grateful to him for the gracious way he has responded.

“I want to make it clear that I am fully supportive of Christopher returning to ministry as the Bishop of Lincoln.”

Archbishop Welby continued: “We have both agreed that there are many lessons we and the Church need to learn from this very difficult season, as we also continue to learn lessons from the scrutiny of IICSA which highlighted our poor response to survivors.”

The Church’s safeguarding procedures were triggered in May 2019, after police informed the church authorities about an allegation (News, 17 May 2019). Bishop Lowson was immediately suspended because, as Archbishop Justin Welby said at the time: “If these matters are found to be proven I consider that the bishop would present a significant risk of harm by not adequately safeguarding children and vulnerable people.”

Bishop Lowson agreed to co-operate fully, while expressing his bewilderment at the charge, and hoped that the investigation would be completed “as quickly as possible”.

Part of the delay was down to the police, who did not conclude their investigation until January 2020, deciding that, on the evidence before them, there was no case to answer. The Church’s investigation, carried out for the National Safeguarding Team, began at that point, and it was later confirmed that Bishop Lowson was being investigated under the Clergy Discipline Measure (News, 5 June 2020).

Both the Archbishop and Bishop Lowson thanked the suffragan bishops in Lincoln diocese, who have held the fort during the investigation. The Bishop of Grimsby, the Rt Revd David Court, has been acting diocesan, and the Bishop of Grantham, Dr Nicholas Chamberlain had taken responsibility for safeguarding in the diocese, a role he will continue while Bishop Lowson completes his retraining.

On Monday, Bishop Court said: “Both Bishop Nicholas and I would like to express our thanks and gratitude for the support and encouragement we have been given by so many in the diocese over the last 20 months. We continue to be absolutely committed to good safeguarding in the diocese, and we now look forward to welcoming Bishop Christopher back and working again closely with him as we seek together to serve the people and church here in Greater Lincolnshire.”

Bishop Lowson resumes his duties immediately, but Archbishop Welby said: “Given the length of his absence from the diocese, Bishop Christopher will now need to take time to renew his relationships with colleagues in Lincoln and this is where his focus will be over the coming weeks.”

Bishop Lowson said on Monday: “The churches, clergy, and people of Lincolnshire have remained in my thoughts and prayers over the last 20 months, and I look forward to returning to serve the diocese as soon as practicable.”

Charles George, a member of the Ecclesiastical Law Society working party that is putting forward proposals to replace the CDM, said on Tuesday: “As Dean of the Arches during the first 13 months of Bishop Christopher’s suspension, I was already concerned at the length of time the National Safeguarding Team’s investigations were taking, and I find it deeply worrying that it has taken a further seven months for the matter to be resolved. As the NST statement concedes, ‘the process has taken far too long.’

“In any allegation of misconduct, there is a need for speedy investigation, including speaking to both parties; an assessment as to whether or not there has been misconduct, and, if so, whether it is properly categorised as serious misconduct; and imposition of appropriate penalty and a risk assessment based on past conduct.

“All of that should be capable of being accomplished within a matter of weeks, and six months should be an outside time limit in the most complex of contested cases. It is my understanding that there was never any dispute as to the facts in Bishop Christopher’s case, which makes the delay the more unfortunate, and this must not be allowed to happen in any new clergy disciplinary system.”

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