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General Synod digest: next safeguarding steps warmly agreed

15 July 2022
Sam Atkins/Church Times

The survivors’ advocate on the ISB, Jasvinder Sanghera

The survivors’ advocate on the ISB, Jasvinder Sanghera


A MOTION recommitting the Church of England to its programme of safeguarding reform was carried overwhelmingly by the General Synod on Saturday afternoon.

Before the motion was introduced, four members of the Independent Safeguarding Board or National Safeguarding Panel (NSP) delivered an update on safeguarding.

The Chair of the National Safeguarding Panel, Meg Munn, briefly reminded members what role her panel played. The NSP meetings explored an issue in safeguarding in depth, but did not address individual cases. The tension between independence in safeguarding while the Church maintains responsibility for its own safeguarding was a constant balance, she said.

The Chair of the Independent Safeguarding Board (ISB), Maggie Atkinson, said: “We are as busy as we could possibly be as an organisation that is six months and a week old,” she said. The ISB’s task was to consider the Church’s safeguarding work, then deliver its own judgement. Its first report, based on interviews with 60 victims and survivors, was shortly to be published, without any editorial oversight by the Church. All future feedback delivered to the Church would be in the public domain, unless doing so would identify those who needed to remain anonymous, she explained.

Ms Atkinson handed over to Steve Reeves, another member of the ISB, who said that he had spent his first months in post asking questions and exploring how safeguarding worked with diocesan safeguarding advisers, the clergy, and laity. “Safeguarding doesn’t happen by accident,” he said, but from “huge effort and wisdom”. Many well-resourced national initiatives filtered down to smaller, cash-strapped diocesan efforts, Mr Reeves said, which had even less to offer parishes.

Some parts of the Church still struggled to resource safeguarding to an “acceptable standard”, and relied on a few professionals, working excessive hours, to keep things going. Some were burning out and traumatised by trying to support survivors without being able to offer them what they needed. “There are”, he said, “standards below which no Church or church body can be allowed to fall,” regardless of the complex and historic challenges concerning the Church’s way of allocating resources in different areas. If the C of E could not find a way to resolve this, then the will clearly was not there.

The survivors’ advocate on the ISB, Jasvinder Sanghera, quoted the Archbishop of York’s presidential address about the Christian expectation of suffering, which was highly relevant, highlighting victims and survivors’ voices. It was time to redefine the relationship between the Church and survivors, which required honesty. “Be realistic. Tell us what you can do, but also what you can’t do,” she said.

She also pleaded with the people in contact with victims to remember their trauma and act with compassion. Most survivors she spoke to felt that the Church treated them as an “irritant”. The safeguarding journey that the Church had begun was authentic and real, but more consideration was needed of how to bring victims and survivors to the table, she concluded. Two examples stood out: the work of the Interim Support Scheme, which was welcomed, but which, she feared, was under-resourced, and the reforms to the Clergy Discipline Measure (CDM), which had suffered from a lack of in-depth consultation with victims.

Professor Helen King (Oxford) asked whether the ISB could hold anyone guilty of safeguarding misconduct to account in a meaningful way.

Canon Judith Maltby (Universities and TEIs) said that recent reviews had linked the Church’s teaching on homosexuality with safeguarding failures, and asked whether the panel shared this view.

Ms Atkinson said that the ISB did not have any quasi-judicial powers to hold people to account. Instead, it would offer such “trenchant and insistent recommendations that can’t be ignored”.

Ms Munn said that the Panel had not considered the question of church doctrine on sexuality and how it interacted with safeguarding, in part because they were aware that such issues were due to be reviewed soon through Living in Love and Faith.

Martin Sewell (Rochester) was concerned that the ISB had been given a “hospital pass” in taking up a review so early in its life. If somebody wished to sue the ISB for its work, which legal entity would accept that, he asked. Did they have their own insurance, or would it be the Church Commissioners?

The Archdeacon of Knowsley and Sefton, the Ven. Pete Spiers (Liverpool), passed on frustrations that he had heard voiced about the delay in publishing the Past Cases Review 2 (PCR2), which “smacked of hiding things”.

Ms Atkinson would not speculate on what would happen if there was a legal challenge, as she had not yet taken legal advice on the matter, she said. The PCRs were a diocesan issue and so far they had not been referred up to the ISB. Ms Munn’s panel had looked at PCR2 in depth and had discussed some frustrations about the timescale. She assured the Synod that there was no effort to hide anything or delay publication, however.

Sam Atkins/Church TimesThe Bishop of Huddersfield, Dr Jonathan Gibbs

The Bishop of Huddersfield, soon to be Bishop of Rochester, Dr Jonathan Gibbs (Northern Suffragans), who is the lead bishop for safeguarding, introduced his motion responding to the update from the ISB and NSP. He praised their efforts to challenge the Church and thanked victims and survivors for their willingness to continue engaging. All work in this area had to begin with a frank acknowledgement of past failures, said, especially when abuse was disclosed. It was also important to acknowledge the widespread improvement across parishes and dioceses, Dr Gibbs said: “We have come a long way.”

The safeguarding authorities in the Church were too often lightning rods for anger, not just when they got things wrong. It was vital to keep pressing on, though, particularly in establishing a comprehensive redress scheme for victims. The subject of safeguarding would always be fraught and difficult.

Dr Gibbs acknowledged the anger and disillusionment about the slow pace of change, and had hoped to achieve more during his term as lead bishop. But change was happening, nevertheless. He asked the Synod to back his motion as an affirmation of their commitment to safeguarding.

The Revd Tim Bateman (Birmingham) spoke of the “grey areas” that the clergy encountered, such as the overlap between pastoral issues and safeguarding concerns. How could pastoral meetings about mental health be recorded well, in case they later became a safeguarding issue, he asked. Clear advice from the national team would be helpful.

The Bishop of Blackburn, the Rt Revd Julian Henderson, said that some whistle-blowers and victims’ advocates had themselves become victimised by the system. Safeguarding complaints often took far too long to resolve, often more than a year, without proper support for the complainant or respondent. He spoke about the handling of low-level abuse that failed to reach the threshold for either police action or a CDM, but remained inappropriate behaviour for a cleric. All that could be done was to order a risk assessment, which had mostly failed to address concerns. This was a “gaping hole” in safeguarding provision, despite being identified many years ago, he said.

The Revd Claire Lording (Worcester) was grateful that the Church’s safeguarding culture had improved so much during her career, and wholeheartedly backed the motion.

Gavin Drake (Southwell & Nottingham) said that victims and survivors had felt “stabbed in the back” when a debate on his previous safeguarding motion had been cut short at the previous group of sessions (News, 18 February). Failings were not just in the past, he said. The Church was still failing victims today. Currently, there was no national body that could intervene to tell a diocese or bishop their own safeguarding errors.

Jayne Ozanne (Oxford) said that safeguarding was not only a matter of child abuse: it also affected the LGBT community, many of whom did not feel safe to be themselves in their churches.

Canon Simon Butler (Southwark) asked how the Church would receive an independent voice in safeguarding processes, not just for national church bodies, but locally, too.

The Archdeacon of Lewisham and Greenwich, the Ven. Alastair Cutting (Southwark), said that concerns about clergy behaviour were sometimes dealt with as a safeguarding concern when they were better addressed through a different process. This also applied to the area of spiritual abuse, which remained difficult to define. It was important that things did not fall between stools.

Peter Adams (St Albans) said that much of the friction in safeguarding debates could be dealt with if there was a more “frank, honest, and loving” conversation.

The motion was carried overwhelmingly.


That this Synod:

(a) acknowledge and deeply regret the safeguarding failures of the Church of England and especially their effect on victims and survivors, noting the vital importance of their voice in the Church’s ongoing safeguarding work;

(b) recognise the challenges involved in changing the culture and practice of safeguarding across the Church of England as well as the effort that is being put into this nationally and in dioceses and parishes;

(c) urge the Archbishops’ Council to ensure that IICSA’s recommendations for the Church of England are fully met as soon as possible; and

(d) request regular updates on progress at each group of sessions, especially concerning the strengthening of independent accountability and oversight of the Church’s safeguarding work at all levels.

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