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Information Commissioner’s Office upholds survivor’s complaint against chair of ISB

22 July 2022


A COMPLAINT by a survivor of clerical abuse that the first chair of the Independent Safeguarding Board (ISB), Professor Maggie Atkinson, broke data-protection rules during their correspondence, has been upheld by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO).

The ICO is a non-departmental public body set up to uphold information rights.

The complainant, the Revd Graham Sawyer, is a former Anglican incumbent and a survivor of abuse by a former Bishop of Gloucester, Peter Ball, about which he gave evidence to the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (News, 27 July 2018). Mr Sawyer, who left the C of E in 2018 and is now living in Ireland, suffers from complex PTSD.

In February 2021, he had been in correspondence with the administrator of the Church’s interim redress scheme, which allows any victim of the church-based abuse to have a paid solicitor advocate. It is run by the National Safeguarding Team (NST). Like other survivors, Mr Sawyer has been unhappy with this service (News, 9 July 2021), and passed on his concerns to Professor Atkinson, who chairs the ISB (News, 1 October), which is tasked with overseeing the NST.

SAM ATKINS/Church TimesThe chair of the Independent Safeguarding Board (ISB), Professor Maggie Atkinson, addresses the General Synod in York earlier this month

Earlier this year, Mr Sawyer complained to the Commissioner’s Office that Professor Atkinson had copied at least one of his communications to the head of the NST without his permission, before she incorrectly told the NST that he no longer wanted any communications from them.

He also says that she did not apologise for error, which she denies.

In its judgment of the case, sent to Mr Sawyer and seen by the Church Times this week, the Lead Case Officer at the ICO, Roy Birch, writes: “We have considered the issues you have raised with us. Based on this information, it is our view that the ISB has not complied with their data protection obligations. This is because it disclosed your personal data despite you advising it that you wished the content of the complaint remain private and confidential, infringing on your rights under Article 5(1)(f) of the UK GDPR.”

The Commissioner’s Office had written to the ISB about its information-rights practices, to prevent future infringements, Mr Birch said. “I note in your complaint form you have raised the desire to receive an apology from the ISB regarding this matter. We are unable to instruct the organisation to do so and, as such, that would be an aspect to take up with the ISB.”

He concludes: “You may have a right to an effective judicial remedy/right to compensation and liability.”

Mr Sawyer said on Tuesday: “This is clear proof that the ISB . . . is neither safe nor independent. Professor Atkinson has not communicated any remorse for doing something so exceptionally unkind and wrong, or acknowledged the great distress she has caused. Neither the ISB nor the NST will ever have any credibility in the eyes of the Church’s many abuse victims while Professor Atkinson remains in post. Meanwhile, the Archbishops and those responsible for safeguarding in the Church continue to remain shamefully silent.”

Professor Atkinson said on Tuesday, however, that she had apologised to Mr Sawyer for the error. “Forwarding (the message) to one senior NST staff member only was done with the intention of ensuring I knew what the issues were, and could respond appropriately. I realised my error, and contacted that person urgently; they deleted without opening and confirmed that action in writing.

“I apologised unreservedly and sincerely, in writing by email, twice — once immediately, once as part of a further exchange — which Rev Sawyer acknowledged and accepted, and also in writing. The ICO now has that exchange as part of my response to its correspondence with me.”

She continued: “The ICO has written to ask the ISB to strengthen its approach to issues it oversees. This is in hand. The ICO is aware ongoing professional development of all ISB members is in place. Rev Sawyer has remained in constructive dialogue and contact with me since this occurred. This has not included his informing me of an approach to the ICO with a partial account, given he claims no apologies have been made. They have, and he has accepted them.”

A C of E spokesperson said: “While we cannot comment on the details of this case, the rights of survivors and victims to protect their data and our duty to use that data properly in any aspect of our work is paramount. We will continue to unreservedly apologise for the Church’s poor response to survivors and victims, as highlighted at IICSA, and are committed to engaging with them to inform our future work.”

The interim pilot scheme for survivors was announced in 2020 (News, 2 October 2020), and was to inform the creation of a full redress scheme. Owing to a planned procurement process and possible legislation, the full scheme is due for final completion in 2024 or 2025, with a pilot phase to be completed in 2023.

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