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The accused have their rights, too

by
08 October 2021

Remedying past failures should not mean repenting at others’ expense, says Peter Selby

FRIENDS ORDINARIATE OF OUR LADY OF WALSINGHAM

The Revd Alan Griffin, pictured in 2012 at St Mary’s, Cadogan Street, Chelsea. He took his own life in November 2020 while he was being investigated over false allegations of child abuse

The Revd Alan Griffin, pictured in 2012 at St Mary’s, Cadogan Street, Chelsea. He took his own life in November 2020 while he was being investigated o...

THOSE of us who used to hold office in the Church cannot fail to be challenged by the succession of reports on the failures that occurred on our watch. We scour our memories every time a new case is unearthed. We go over episodes in our ministry in the hope that we shall not find in our own history episodes during which our handling was defective. It is important that we do that; for there is no question that, as a Church — and as a society — we should heed a call to repent of the systemic disrespect of survivors’ experience, and of the cover-ups and evasions.

None of us should lightly excuse ourselves: it is the least that we can do in solidarity with our successors, who have now to administer the processes and work out more appropriate procedures for dealing with safeguarding issues and other complaints of misconduct.

But, the more serious the errors of the past which as an individual or an institution you seek to remedy, the greater the danger of plunging into new ones. The tragedy of Fr Alan Griffin (News, Leader comment, 23 July) is but the most extreme instance of a succession of events that illustrate this dangerous lurch: we see processes that, with the aim of remedying past failures, amount to repenting at others’ expense. We see reputations destroyed, justice delayed not for months but running on for years, and talented and devout individuals lost to ministry.

 

A HUGE amount of energy is being devoted to making changes in the Clergy Discipline Measure (CDM) to make it more suitable for its purpose (News, 26 June, 16 July). We all know how demanding it is to create and then implement discipline processes that get the balance right.

What seems to be missing, however, is engagement with some of the fundamental principles that are endangered by the very proper sense of urgency and seriousness with which Churches are responding to the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) reports and the public scandals of the past.

My experience of the criminal-justice system and the debates that surround proposed changes shows how easy it is to be panicked into sacrificing key protections. In what we seek to achieve, we need to bear in mind at least the following:

The presumption of innocence. In English law, there are only two verdicts that can follow an accusation: guilty, or not guilty. If an accusation is not proved beyond reasonable doubt, the verdict is not guilty, and a person who has been accused is entitled to be treated as that. But now allegations are followed by extensive coverage, including “risk assessments” and the consequent precautions enacted against the accused. How, in the face of such a weighty narrative, can a person once accused — whatever the outcome of any investigation — ever get their life back?

Due process. It is understandable that dioceses and the Church nationally have employed people of experience and professional expertise in safeguarding positions; but, if we compare the legal restraints that apply to the police and prosecuting agencies with the authority being given to safeguarding officials in the making and publicising of risk assessments and suspensions, there is a serious loss of balance.

Our repentance for not taking survivors’ testimony seriously enough is being exercised at the expense of a new group of vulnerable people. What is at issue is not the compassion and professionalism of individual safeguarding officials, but the systemic effect of the huge authority that they are given, while the accused have no access to information, let alone appeal.

Double (or multiple) jeopardy. The number of tribunals, investigators, and processes that a person accused of misconduct has to navigate is leading to effective, if not technical, double jeopardy, and with it the danger that closure in one place can be followed by a succession of re-examinations of the same evidence in different ways.

The CDM seems pretty clear that a decision by the President of Tribunals not to take matters to a tribunal means that the matter is closed; but the case of the Dean of Christ Church, Oxford, shows that such decisions can simply be treated as though they were a “Not proven” verdict, leaving matters open to be pursued in other ways. The ancient protection against double jeopardy is precisely to prevent proper investigation of allegations sliding into open season for matters to hang over someone’s head for ever.

Closure. Those of us who have been concerned with the criminal-justice system know how vital it is that a sentence, once served, should conclude the consequences of an offence; otherwise, no offender can ever be rehabilitated.

Surely, the same applies to those found guilty of misconduct in the life of the Church. Of course, there will be cases of exceptional gravity where a “life sentence” is prescribed; but, in general, it is vital that there is closure, not an ecclesiastical version of the discredited indeterminate sentence for public protection. Just because there has been laxity of discipline in the past, and a failure to take seriously the impact of misconduct on survivors, we are not justified in allowing the challenge of rehabilitation to be avoided. We seem to be in a place where there is a life sentence for the guilty and the not guilty alike.

The episcopal task. Certainly, there is much in the past for which we bishops need to repent, in terms of confusion of roles in clergy conduct cases, a lack of professionalism and transparency, and a prioritising of the Church’s reputation over the distress of survivors. But some of the “clarifications of role” which bishops seem expected to embrace in conduct cases mean that they distance themselves from the proper duty of care towards people subject to allegations in a way that can be deeply distressing, and, as we have recently seen, even life-threatening.

The pastoral care of those accused. Pastoral care, then, seems to be simply “delegated” in the interests of role clarity. But what is delegated is but a pale shadow of the pastoral care that is actually required. It is not enough to have a person visit or phone to ask if someone is all right: pastoral care includes access to information, advocacy, and the expectation that the accused will be supported in making their case — and, indeed, questioning the way in which it is being handled.

 

AS WE seek to rectify the wrongs of the past, there are signs of a repentance offered at the expense of a new group of vulnerable individuals. As I read the flurry of recent stories and commentary, and see the relative silence on the fundamental rights of the accused, the otherwise objectionable National Lottery slogan is given chilling force: “It could be you.”

The Rt Revd Dr Peter Selby is a former Bishop to HM Prisons and President of the National Council for Independent Monitoring Boards.

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