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Synod members hear significant changes planned for church safeguarding

27 February 2021

A slide from a safeguarding presentation given by the lead bishop for safeguarding, the Bishop of Huddersfield, Dr Jonathan Gibbs (top right)

A slide from a safeguarding presentation given by the lead bishop for safeguarding, the Bishop of Huddersfield, Dr Jonathan Gibbs (top right)

SIGNIFICANT reforms to ensure that the Church of England is no longer “marking its own homework” on safeguarding were discussed online by General Synod members on Saturday afternoon.

During the informal meeting, the Bishop of Huddersfield, Dr Jonathan Gibbs, lead bishop on safeguarding, introduced a presentation updating members on measures taken to ensure independent oversight of the Church’s safeguarding provision.

Although no decision had yet been made, one option being considered for the future was to transfer safeguarding responsibility to an independent charity or trust. This change has long been demanded by some abuse survivors and campaigners, but the Church has resisted it until now (News, 6 March 2018).

Many of the changes originated from the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA), which had been “deeply shocking”, Dr Gibbs said, and “hammered home how the Church had failed victims and survivors, and the consequent need for repentance and change at all levels of the Church’s life”.

He acknowledged that the measures were not coming as fast as some would like; they had to bring in lasting cultural change, however, rather than quick fixes to garner headlines.

The C of E must make its formal response to IICSA’s report this month, six months after it was published (News, 9 October 2020).

The other “big-ticket item” was a proposal to establish an Independent Safeguarding Board, which would create independent oversight of the National Safeguarding Team (NST). This work was the product of consultation with survivor representatives, and was approved by the Archbishops’ Council last week (News, 26 February).

This would mean that the Church was no longer “marking its own homework” when it came to safeguarding, Dr Gibbs said. “We need to rebuild trust, above all among victims and survivors.” These reforms would be only the first phase of the process, he told the Synod.

The interim director of safeguarding, Zena Marshall, then explained how engagement and consultation with survivors was regarded as integral to all safeguarding reform. This included having victims and survivors on recruitment panels for senior posts in the NST.

The Safe Spaces service (News, 16 October 2020), which offers support to anyone who has experienced abuse in the C of E, Church in Wales, and Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales, had now been live for five months, she said. It had supported 95 cases in total, and, on 31 January, had 60 active cases. Initial feedback from the two-year pilot had been positive.

Dr Gibb then explained how safeguarding training in the Church had been rebranded as “safeguarding learning”, to try and shift perceptions from focusing on process — “knowing what to do when something happens” — to engaging with people’s deeper values and beliefs.

This was a key part of meeting IICSA’s recommendation for cultural change in the Church. There would also be specific learning pathways for both clergy and senior leaders in dioceses and cathedrals.

Work continued at pace on rewriting central church policies on safeguarding, he said, as well as developing a national redress scheme for survivors.

A project manager for this scheme had now been hired and begun work, Ms Marshall reported. In six months, a full proposal, with timelines for when it would be ready, would be sent to the Archbishops’ Council.

The Director of Mission and Public Affairs at Church House, Westminster, Canon Malcolm Brown, described the work of providing independent oversight of the NST. An Independent Safeguarding Board (ISB) would be created by July, comprising a chairperson, a survivor-and-victims’ advocate, and a third member to lead on handling complaints.

“The independent voice will be on our backs, in a good way, as a critical friend, to enable us to come up with answers to difficult questions about the role of independence which we should not be asking ourselves,” he said. “We cannot delay any longer having that independent accompaniment to our work.”

The ISB would be small, but complementary and diverse, Canon Brown said. It would also supervise the director of the NST, and advise on developing policies and guidance, future training programmes, and staff appointments.

There was an ongoing tension about how distant safeguarding work should be from the Church, he explained. If it was too embedded, it could become captured by the needs of the institution; if it was too removed, it would never be able to foster cultural change.

At present, having an in-house NST supervised by an independent board seemed the right balance, but in the future it was possible that a fully independent safeguarding team would be created as a separate legal entity.

“To get to that step will take time, but there isn’t time to wait before we introduce any independence at all,” he said. The ISB would eventually assist the Church to consider the difficult questions on full independence for the NST, as well as how diocesan safeguarding should be managed. (A key IICSA recommendation was that diocesan safeguarding advisers become officers instead, employed and managed independently of the bishops, whom they would then be able to direct.)

A further level on top of the ISB, such as an ombudsman, might also be necessary in future, to be an independent accountability check on the board itself, Canon Brown said.

The House of Bishops and the Archbishops’ Council were both committed to abiding not only by the letter, but also by the spirit, of the IICSA recommendations.

After a short screen break, the speakers answered questions sent in by Synod members during the earlier presentation. In response to several questions, Canon Brown said that the establishment of the ISB was a decision that the Archbishops’ Council had to take, as it had trustee responsibility for national safeguarding; but he hoped that the Synod could be involved in a second phase — possibly including making final decisions — when issues concerning diocesan safeguarding structures were debated.

He also reassured members that he had regularly consulted survivors and victims throughout the process of forming plans for the ISB.

Replying to further questions, Ms Marshall acknowledged that time was passing: it was now more than a year since proposals for a redress scheme had been agreed. But “it is important to get this right,” she said. She was confident that it could be progressed in a timely manner. An interim support scheme existed for those who needed emergency intervention in the mean time.

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