PROPOSALS for a new clergy discipline process will come before the General Synod next month. Central to the recommendations of the Clergy Conduct Measure Implementation Group is a new system that separates minor complaints from allegations of more serious misconduct (News, 5 November 2021).
The proposals are set out in a new report, Under Authority Revisited, published this week. If they are approved, minor grievances will be dealt with at a local level outside the formal tribunal process. The report also calls for an end to the practice where a diocesan bishop has to serve as both pastor and judge in a case.
Reform of the 2003 Clergy Discipline Measure (CDM) legislation — which was based on the 1996 report Under Authority — was triggered in part by the Church of England’s participation in the IICSA process, which raised issues around clergy discipline and safeguarding. In 2020, the House of Bishops recommended a complete overhaul.
The authors of the new report argue that the Church must also approach discipline in a “flexible and pastorally minded” way.
“Not every cleric should be disciplined in the same fashion,” the authors write. “It is clearly disproportionate to engage in a formal disciplinary process each time something goes wrong. The Group are of the view that the principal failing of the CDM as a piece of legislation lies in its procedural inflexibility to respond appropriately to different levels of misconduct and complaint.”
Reform is needed for three main reasons, the report says. First, the landscape in professional discipline has changed dramatically. While the CDM was designed to deal with misconduct of the utmost seriousness, the world has become more focused on complaints. Not only has the number of complaints that fall short of serious misconduct risen, but the CDM is not the right vehicle for handling them.
Second, the secular authorities are less willing to prosecute certain criminal offences, which means that survivors and victims now refer complaints on criminal matters to the Church. Again, the disciplinary infrastructure is not designed to deal with such cases.
Third, the responsibilities that clergy now hold in relation to safeguarding have led to a new category of discipline concerning failures of process, such as not following a policy, as opposed to the “personal failings”, such as adultery, for which the CDM was designed.
One of the problem areas that the authors identified through their consultations is what they call “the fractured relationship” between the bishops and those they discipline. “It is clear to the Group that the bishop exercising the role of both pastor and judge has caused conflict,” the authors write. This conflict undermines confidence in the decision-making and procedures of the CDM, and impedes reconciliation. Under the new proposals, the bishop’s remit will be redefined to: receive the complaint, support the parties, and implement the outcome.
The report proposes a Clergy Conduct Measure setting out the statutory framework of the system and establishing jurisdiction, supported by the Clergy Conduct Rules and a Code of Practice. Complaints are graded according to their seriousness.
The three levels — to be defined in more detail in the Code of Practice — are: “grievance” (such as the pastoral breakdown in relationships or lateness for services); “misconduct” (such as minor breaches of safeguarding policy, inappropriate text-messaging with another adult, or aggressive rudeness); and “serious misconduct” (such as prolonged failure to comply with safeguarding policies, or sexual, spiritual, or domestic abuse).
As before, anyone with a “proper interest” will be allowed to bring a complaint. But the proposals also include a recommendation that clergy be able to self-refer. This is both to encourage self-reflection and offers the chance to bring to a head the situation where the threat of bringing a complaint against a cleric becomes weaponised.
Once a complaint has been made, the bishop will make provision for someone to receive the complaint, which will be referred to a Regional Lead Assessor, who will allocate the case to the appropriate “track”. The bishop will be under a statutory duty to offer support to both the complainant and the respondent.
Where the matters complained of are subject to secular criminal processes, the disciplinary process will not be stalled, unless the police believe that this would interfere with their investigation.
Allegations of misconduct and grievances would have a 12-month limitation period; but there would be no limitation period on allegations of serious misconduct.
In the case of a grievance (“Track A”), the bishop will appoint someone from the diocese to resolve the issues. Allegations of misconduct (“Track B”) will be referred to a case assessor who will handle the case, unless it is assessed as constituting “serious misconduct” (“Track C”), in which case it would be referred to the Office for Investigation & Tribunals (OFI&T), which will be part of the NCIs structure. The current system that refers cases to the President of Tribunals is yet to be resolved.
The report points to the importance of repentance. “A system of discipline must allow for those who admit wrongdoing to be dealt with in a sensitive and swift manner in order to encourage the process of reconciliation and healing,” it says. “It will be open to a respondent to admit the case at any stage.”
Penalties for misconduct should be both punitive and restorative; they vary from injunction or reprimand, for misconduct, to deposition from Holy Orders or prohibition for life for serious misconduct.
The role of “assessor” is a new one. The remit of the Clergy Discipline Commission will be expanded to issue guidance and make an annual report to the General Synod. This — together with the resourcing of the OFI&T — will incur extra costs of about £400,000 per annum, plus an initial implementation cost of £200,000. The costs will be met by the Archbishops’ Council.
“The Implementation Group are of the view that these reforms will establish a proportionate, efficient, and fair system,” the report concludes. “However, the reforms alone cannot address all of the issues concerning clergy discipline. Alongside these steps a re-adjustment of culture, embedded in the early stages of discernment, training and ministry will be required to take place.”
The Church of England Employee and Clergy Advocates (CEECA) welcomed the proposals this week and called on Synod members to vote in favour. In a press release, Sam Maginnis, who chairs CEECA, said: “The final report . . . appears to acknowledge that certain of its recommendations which did not make it into the CDM should have been incorporated into the C of E’s clergy discipline procedures — most pertinently a procedure for dealing with minor complaints at the local level and outside the formal tribunal process. The Implementation Group has finally addressed this glaring omission.”
The proposals would be “fair to both sides”, Mr Maginnis said.
“We also welcome the Implementation Group’s acknowledgement that — for these reforms to achieve their true ends — the culture and expectations surrounding clergy discipline will need to change alongside the legal process.”
The Synod will be asked to welcome the report, and to request that the Archbishops’ Council introduces legislation to give effect to the report’s recommendations.