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Lambeth 2022: Provinces work to strengthen responses to abuse

02 August 2022

Neil Turner/Lambeth Conference

Lambeth Conference participants listen during the Safe Church plenary, on Sunday

Lambeth Conference participants listen during the Safe Church plenary, on Sunday

A SPOTLIGHT on “safe church” issues in the Anglican Communion and other church traditions sparked a key plenary at the Lambeth Conference on Sunday. It was presented by the Communion’s Safe Church Commission, established in 2016.

Its first work has been the preparation of the guidelines to enhance the safety of all people — especially children, young people, and vulnerable adults — within the 165 provinces.

It comes in the light of the World Health Organization (WHO) estimate that, in the past year alone, one billion children aged between two and 17 years old experienced physical, sexual, or emotional violence or neglect.

The Call associated with the topic notes that violence against children has lifelong effects on their health and well-being, as well as on their families and communities, and on nations.

One woman in three worldwide had been subjected to physical and/or sexual violence in her lifetime, either from a partner or a non-partner. Such violence has “serious short- and long-term physical, psychological, sexual, and reproductive health consequences for women”, the WHO concludes.

The text of the Call says: “We make this call fully aware of safeguarding/safe church issues in religious institutions including churches of the Anglican Communion, as highlighted by government inquiries in the media. Some religious workers have betrayed trust and abused children and adults for whom they had pastoral responsibility.

“Some religious leaders have denied or minimised this abuse and its consequences. Religious institutions have compounded the impact of the initial abuse by failing to effectively care for those who are being abused. The reputation of, and public trust in, many religious institutions has been damaged.”

The bishops were called to affirm: “A key part of the mission of the Church is to create communities in which all people are safe and cared for. This conviction must be a core component of our theology and must therefore characterise our identity, thinking, words and actions in being God’s Church for God’s World.

“We will take action to make churches of the Anglican Communion places of enhanced safety for everyone, where church workers act with integrity; victims of abuse receive care and a just outcome; church workers who commit abuse are held accountable; and church leaders do not conceal abuse.”

The Archbishop of Canterbury said to the assembled bishops: “I know the problem. It has had a huge effect on me — it is the biggest and most painful burden of this role that I have faced over the last ten years.

“I had to lose all my assumptions. Safe Church is nothing, nothing to do with human sexuality — the biggest scandal I have been dealing with is around a married conservative Evangelical” — a clear reference to John Smyth. “It is largely a problem with men, in the vast majority [of cases]. . . The biggest challenge has been to try and get the institution of the Church to be serious about it and never cover up.”

Archbishop Welby identified this issue at heart as “the fundamental misuse of the Church’s power — the ability to do what they like with someone who is weaker. And when they tell the church, the response is, ‘We could never let that be known!’ or ‘A bishop would never do that.’ It has been agonisingly painful. The last 40 to 50 years covered up what was wrong. It has terribly damaged the Church.”

The Archbishop of Cape Town, Dr Thabo Makgoba, apologised for “the sins of our former generations that have scarred so many people and undermined faith”. He described cases that had come to him as “very time-consuming and very tiring. The victims are pained and angry at the Church and distrustful of our processes.”

The worst thing the Church could do was not to take seriously those who came forward, Archbishop Welby said. Revealing that he carried a small card with four things to do if someone reported something wrong, he acknowledged, “The Church of England was told by IICSA [the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse], ‘You are marking your own homework’.” He continued: “I broke down on TV, because I was so ashamed of the Church.”

Central to the plenary was a video testimony by Dr Ann-Marie Wilson, who founded the campaigning organisation against female genital mutilation (FGM), 28 Too Many. She spoke of the “massive impact on my life — something beyond explanation” of the repeated abuse that she had suffered at the hands of a priest and others. She described it as “like a sliver of metal, a wound that stays with you for the rest of your life”.

She emphatically did not support the advice frequently given to survivors: “Forgive your abuser.” She said: “To be told to forgive them shows a lack of compassion and empathy. I vehemently stand against the Church saying that. It’s God’s business.”

The Church must show that it was serious about safeguarding, she said, “not just passing policies on it. For the Church to access the next generation, it needs to clear up its past. I would like to see the Church of the future have no place for abuse.”

Updates from bishops and participants from around the globe demonstrated the status of safeguarding — from Australia, which had conducted a national and very public inquiry, to Brazil, where abuse was happening in the context of violence and human-rights abuses, in a context where “once again, hunger hounds the most impoverished families”.

Abuse was described as a reality in Matabeleland, “but there is a culture of silence, lack of awareness”. In Jerusalem and the Middle East, it was “culturally one of the things we don’t talk about, to save the family honour”. The Province was working hard to open it up, to establish guidelines, a code of conduct, and training for clergy and churchgoers.

The Scottish Episcopal Church had taken a centralised approach 20 years ago, but “being a Safe Church will always be a work in progress”.

In West Malaysia, there had been no known reported cases, “but it cannot be denied that this is happening in the Church. It affects the reputation of the Church, so people hide it.” Mandatory reporting had been introduced.

The West Indies declared itself “not immune from incidents of abuse”. Disrespect led to abuse and not much attention had previously being paid to safeguarding issues. It was now on the House of Bishops agenda, amid cultural hesitation in reporting cases of abuse in dioceses.

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