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Leader comment: Delays to disciplinary investigations can be fatal

08 July 2022

THE latest attempt to repair the Church of England’s complaints and disciplinary procedures will be discussed in the General Synod next Tuesday. These are outlined in Under Authority Revisited, a report by the Clergy Conduct Measure Implementation Group (News, 24 June). The report refers to “swift access to justice”, and sets time limits for two of the three tracks: 28 days for grievances, 90 days for misconduct. There is no mention of a timetable for the most serious cases. This is an astonishing omission. There are, of course, timetables built into the existing system. One reason that it is so discredited is that they have been routinely ignored. When the talismanic term “safeguarding” is invoked, the clock can appear to stop.

Chris Robson’s review of the circumstances surrounding the death of Fr Alan Griffin (News and Leader comment, 23 July 2021), published this week, reveals that Fr Griffin knew for the best part of a year that he was being investigated without being told why. The diocese of London is no evil totalitarian state, playing mind-games on its citizens, but, in terms of the cruelty inflicted on Fr Griffin, it might as well have been. Senior officials have apologised, but there is still too little evidence that the Church as a whole grasps the existential damage that being under investigation can trigger. In an instant, vocation, career, relationships, and reputation are put in the balance — and can be kept there for months while poorly resourced officials follow procedures that are acknowledged to be inadequate. Yes, Fr Griffin took his own life — but not until an uncaring and incompetent bureaucracy took it from him.

It is to be noted that Mr Robson’s review would not have been commissioned had not the diocese been put on notice by the coroners’ system. It is reassuring that he is able to list significant changes that the diocese has made to improve its performance. But if lessons-learned reviews are not to be seen as mere attempts to divert criticism, the church authorities must demonstrate an entirely different way of thinking and behaving. The lesson to be learnt from the Griffin review is, first, that people should be treated as innocent until a complaint has been proved. The temptation to “other” people once an allegation has been made — to hold them at arm’s length, limit communication, withdraw support — should be resisted.

The second lesson is that there is another way to demonstrate that the person making the allegation is taken seriously. It is simply this: speed. Complaints should be swiftly and rigorously tested. The accused should be fully briefed. Both sides should be supported, and it is good to see this element and the triple-track approach in the new proposals. But the system should produce an outcome in days, not weeks. Strict timetables should be set, with the threat that an allegation will be dismissed if they are not adhered to. “Justice delayed is justice denied” is not an empty saying.

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