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Review finds ‘lack of direction’ or accountability in London diocese contributed to death of Fr Griffin

06 July 2022

Fr Alan Griffin

Fr Alan Griffin

THE Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Sarah Mullally, has apologised unreservedly after an independent review of the circumstances surrounding the suicide of Fr Alan Griffin found “significant areas of learning” for the diocese of London and the Church of England.

The Archbishop of Canterbury has echoed her apology, wanting the Church to be “unflinching in confronting our mistakes and sins”.

The Learning Lessons Review — published on Tuesday — made 17 recommendations for improvement in policy and practice. The reviewer, Chris Robson, concluded his report by calling on “the entire Church community” to learn from Fr Griffin’s death. Bishop Mullally described the findings as “heart-breaking” and said that she was committed to ensuring culture change.

Fr Griffin became the Rector of St James Garlickhythe and St Andrew-by-the-Wardrobe in the City of London in 2001, in the Two Cities Area of the diocese of London. He retired from the Church of England in 2011 and was reordained as a priest in the Roman Catholic Church in 2012. On 8 November 2020, he took his life while he was being investigated over false allegations of child abuse.

Last year, the coroner who investigated Fr Griffin’s death issued a “prevention of further deaths notice”, an extremely serious statutory notice requiring immediate consideration (News, 23 July 2021). Both the diocese of London and Lambeth Palace accepted the concerns expressed by the coroner (News, 24 August 2021), and the independent review was commissioned.

The review analysed the issues raised by the coroner. It examined specific areas of practice that had a direct impact on Fr Griffin — including the way in which information was collected, assessed, and shared — alongside the leadership, systems, and culture in the diocese. In particular, it flags up a lack of accountability in diocesan structures at the time. “It is clear that the London Diocese should consider wholesale change in its approach to accountability,” the report says.

The allegations that caused Fr Griffin such distress emerged in February 2019 when the then Head of Operations for the Two Cities area of the diocese, Martin Sargeant, met senior colleagues with the purpose of “downloading his corporate memory” before he left his post. This entailed what has been described as a “brain dump” of safeguarding concerns from the past 22 years. During a series of meetings, he gave information on 42 named individuals, including Fr Griffin. The concerns included a suggestion — never substantiated — that Fr Griffin had used the services of “rent boys”.

In spite of there being no evidence of wrongdoing, unspecified allegations against Fr Griffin were investigated by both the diocese of London and the Roman Catholic Church for over a year. Confidential information about his HIV status was also passed on without his consent.

“The information passed regarding Fr Alan had a significant impact on him,” says the report. “The disclosures were uncorroborated, remained untested and did not amount to allegations of wrongdoing. The way in which the information was assessed and acted upon was disproportionate and opportunities to challenge and take responsibility for the investigation were missed at a senior leadership level.

“Despite representations from Fr Alan there was an unacceptable delay in disclosing allegations to him, leaving him with no idea what safeguarding professionals wanted to talk to him about. Information shared with the Roman Catholic church was inappropriate and failed to highlight welfare concerns including a previous suicide attempt. Of major concern is the way in which Fr Alan’s HIV status was considered and shared with other professionals.”

The terms of reference of the review were to “learn lessons” rather than to hold individuals to account. The report is, however, strongly critical of Mr Sargeant’s behaviour as Head of Operations. (He is not named in the report, but is described as “an influential senior member of staff”.)

Mr Sargeant was appointed by the previous Bishop of London “in his capacity as ‘corporation sole’” rather than through diocesan funds, the report says. “It is abundantly clear that this individual was allowed to function with little accountability or supervision during the tenure of the former bishop. Had such accountability and supervision been in place then many of the issues referred to in later interviews would have been resolved at the time they were allegedly taking place.”

The report suggests that Mr Sargeant chose to leave his post when the new Bishop came into post, partly because of her insistence on greater accountability. “The [post-]holder was not employed by the diocese, no personnel file appears to have been kept on him and it is difficult to understand where the role sat in terms of hierarchy and more importantly accountability,” the report says.

“It is important to acknowledge the issues that may arise if such employment arrangements take place: these include lack of adherence to safer recruitment policies, lack of supervision, accountability, codes of conduct, and lines of support for the individual.”

There is also criticism of the part played by the Archdeacon of London, the Ven. Luke Miller, over the management of the “brain-dump” meetings with Mr Sargeant. “It is clear that very little, if any, planning took place before the initial meeting with the Archdeacon. No one considered who should be present, what issues may be raised, how the conversation should be recorded and how the information should be managed,” the report says.

“The fact that this matter was dealt with by an archdeacon, an individual with authority and seniority within the Church, but no specific safeguarding training or background, has also been perceived to be significant by the family [of Fr Griffin].”

The report found that there was insufficient understanding of appropriate practice when it came to handling safeguarding allegations. “Given the fact that the Archdeacon believed there might be safeguarding issues within the information he received, good practice would have been to hold a strategy or planning meeting about how to take this matter forward. This meeting (a core group meeting) should have included HR, safeguarding, legal and pastoral professionals who could have assessed the information given, planned the next necessary steps, considered policy/guidance and dealt with pastoral care for all involved.”

There was “a lack of direction” by senior staff, the report says. “The entire process lacked planning, direction and leadership.”

The report also found the Church of England’s stance on homosexuality to be a factor contributing to the mishandling of the case. “There is clear evidence that the way Fr Alan was treated was, in part, influenced by the Church and individuals’ conscious and unconscious bias around his sexual orientation,” it says.

“The initial disclosure given to the Archdeacon was full of supposition and interpretation that was influenced by Father Alan’s sexual orientation. Terms such as rent boy, always having a different man on his arm, being a risk to others because of his HIV status and the presumption that he would have a short life expectancy all fall out of individuals’ views of his sexual orientation.”

The recommendations of the report include strengthening recruitment and employment practices in the diocese, with clear lines of supervision and accountability; and that all information with safeguarding implications should be referred to the diocesan and national safeguarding teams for assessment, and handled according to appropriate protocols.

They also include training on the use of appropriate language and on anti-discriminatory practice, including unconscious bias; and better pastoral support for those suffering serious illness and for those under investigation in safeguarding matters.

Responding to the report this week, Bishop Mullally said: “I am profoundly sorry for all that Fr Alan Griffin endured and apologise unreservedly to his family and friends. Homophobia and bias, conscious or unconscious, have no place our Church — the culture has to change.

“It is heart-breaking to read of the failings that occurred in the lead-up to November 2020, dating back to the lack of understanding and proper pastoral care at the time of his HIV+ diagnosis and non-fatal suicide attempt in 2010.

“Chris Robson’s report clearly identifies our past mistakes, alongside the improvements which have since been made, and the areas where work is still required. I am grateful for his approach and honesty, and for the efforts of the Review Steering Group in informing our response. We owe it to Fr Alan Griffin to ensure what happened to him can never happen to anybody else.”

Archbishop Welby added his own apology. “I join Bishop Sarah in apologising unreservedly to Fr Alan’s family and friends on behalf of the Church that so severely let him down. It is clear from Chris Robson’s rigorous and thorough report that we have more work to do to unearth and address homophobia and bias — conscious and unconscious — in the Church, where it has absolutely no place. The report also rightly identifies past safeguarding failures that are being tackled under Bishop Sarah’s leadership.

“As we rightly learn the lessons from this appalling situation, let us keep in our minds the vulnerable person who we failed to support and pastorally care for — and let us repent of those aspects of our culture that led to him feeling marginalised, stigmatised and alone. I pray that we continue to learn to be a Church that is honest and unflinching in confronting our mistakes and sins — and committed to being a Church where everyone is safe, and everyone is welcome.”

The Independent Reviewer, Mr Robson, said that he believed that the senior leadership in the diocese recognised the issues raised in the review. “I am encouraged by their response,” he said.

“Whilst it is very clear that improvements to practice are necessary, I acknowledge that significant progress has already been made. In particular, the diocese has a strong leader in Bishop Sarah and I can see she is driving that positive change. It now requires collective effort across the entire diocese with new and improved practice being ‘lived and owned’ by the whole church community.”

The diocese of London says that improvements have already made in its approach to safeguarding. The diocesan safeguarding team has increased from 4.4 full-time equivalent staff in 2019 to 9.2 in 2022, including the new post of Head of Safeguarding. Allegations are now triaged by a safeguarding expert. An LGBT+ Advisory Group is being established to focus on the pastoral care. Mandatory unconscious-bias training for all staff is being updated, and formal recruitment processes are now in place for all posts.

New information-sharing agreements will be implemented nationally, after the publication of Church of England guidance and an ongoing consultation with dioceses. There is also awareness training on the coronial process.

The diocese’s Head of Safeguarding, Martin Goodwin, said: “Over the last year, we have made significant practice improvements across the diocese as safeguarding is everyone’s responsibility. We have improved the way we review safeguarding referrals and ensure support is provided to all those involved along every step of the way, recognising the profound effect such a safeguarding concern or allegation can have on an individual.”

The report is available in full at: www.london.anglican.org

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