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Reforms to safeguarding and clergy discipline should be co-ordinated, says Vicar-General

07 January 2022

YouTube/Ecclesiastical Law Society

The Vicar-General of the Province of York, the Rt Worshipful Peter Collier QC (left), delivers a lecture, online, to the Ecclesiastical Law Society, last month

The Vicar-General of the Province of York, the Rt Worshipful Peter Collier QC (left), delivers a lecture, online, to the Ecclesiastical Law Soci...

REFORMS of safeguarding and clergy discipline — both viewed with “great suspicion by lawyers, whether ecclesiastical or otherwise” — should be co-ordinated, the Vicar-General of the Province of York, the Rt Worshipful Peter Collier QC, has said. Both are urgently in need of a commitment to “early and speedy investigation”.

In a lecture to the Ecclesiastical Law Society (ELS), published online, Judge Collier noted that safeguarding policies and practices had developed “quite independently of clergy discipline processes. Perhaps the time has come for them to come much closer together.”

Judge Collier chaired the Society’s working group on the Clergy Discipline Measure (CDM), which reported last February (News, 26 February 2021). He is a member of the implementation group given the task of bringing proposals for reform of the Measure back to the Synod, expected to take place in 2022.

On the matter of safeguarding, he expressed concern that the Church’s guidance on responding to safeguarding concerns (Practice Guidance: Responding to, assessing and managing safeguarding concerns or allegations against church officers, 2017) was “confusing”. A “substantiated concern or allegation” was defined as “one which has been investigated and credible supporting evidence has been found”.

Examples of substantiated allegations would include: “a criminal conviction or a finding of fact in a civil court or, where there has been no conviction or finding of fact, where credible and identifiable evidence has been found (without implying guilt or innocence).” Risk assessors, he said, were told that they must make “no determination about whether something has happened or not, which I find a remarkable basis for any proper risk assessment”.

His view was that the first step in any risk assessment must be “a proper fact-finding exercise about the past conduct. . . An allegation is not proof. Suspicion is not proof. Judges have said that time and again. At the moment, there are many cases where the church is trying to resolve these issues on an unsatisfactory basis. Proposals that will affect someone’s life, ministry, and much else in the long term are being founded on what is not expressed as more than an allegation.” Changing this would require money, he said. “Should that money be spent? I would undoubtedly say ‘yes’.”

He went on to suggest that the reforms to the CDM proposed by the Society could help to resolve this issue. In less than serious cases of misconduct, a report would be produced within 28 days of the laying of the complaint, setting out the investigator’s findings of fact. In serious cases, a conclusion would be arrived at in six months, “with a narrative verdict about what has been found to have happened or not happened”. A forensic psychologist might be the right person to carry out risk assessments drawing on this information, he suggested.

He also proposed the reversal of the Church’s policy of waiting for secular proceedings to conclude before undertaking its own disciplinary process. He noted that the current backlog in the criminal-justice system meant that a case of sexual assault arriving at the Crown Court was likely to be heard in late 2022 or 2023, and that this followed a wait of about a year from the first report of a crime to a charge.

“We cannot, and should not, wait that long to deal with disciplinary matters,” he said. “It’s in no one’s interest to do so. . . We have a different purpose and a different standard of proof. It is in everyone’s interest that we move quickly to a conclusion that will resolve questions about the cleric’s future and bring closure for all, including the complainant and the parish.”

He lamented that much of the content of the 1996 report Under Authority had not been implemented in the 2003 CDM, including its emphasis on speedy investigation of complaints. The average time that it took from the laying of a complaint to a tribunal hearing was 21.5 months.

Many current safeguarding cases had arisen because clergy had failed to abide by guidelines, he noted. “The vast majority of those cases are clearly not serious misconduct. They are never going to call into question whether ministry should continue.”

“It seems to me that it would be to the benefit of both if the early and speedy investigation that discipline requires could also encompass an early and speedy investigation properly to inform risk assessments and the associated issue of suspension,” he concluded.

“We shall have to see whether these two work streams can come together, talk together and design something together that will transform both clergy discipline and safeguarding, each of which are currently viewed with great suspicion by lawyers whether ecclesiastical or otherwise.”

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