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Church of England responds in more detail to IICSA’s challenges on confession and redress

12 January 2023

IICSA

THE Archbishops’ Council, the House of Bishops, and the National Safeguarding Steering Group of the Church of England have issued a formal response to the recommendations set out in the final report from the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA).

When the IICSA report was published last autumn (News, 21 October 2022), the national Church responded with a series of statements. On Thursday, a more detailed response was published on the C of E’s website which refers to specific recommendations.

The Inquiry made three key recommendations, asking for mandatory reporting to the statutory authorities of suspected or known incidents of child sexual abuse; the creation of Child Protection Authorities; and a national redress scheme for survivors of abuse.

In his foreword to the latest church response, the Bishop of Rochester, the Rt Revd Jonathan Gibbs, lead bishop for safeguarding, writes that all three recommendations had been addressed because they “are directly relevant to the Church’s ongoing safeguarding work and commitment to make it a safer place for all.”

He remarks: “Safeguarding is a key part of the Church’s mission, and it is vital that we respond to these recommendations in an open and transparent way.”

Currently in the UK, there is no legal requirement to report an allegation of sexual abuse to authorities — even if the victim is a child. In the document, the Church bodies reiterate their commitment to reporting any concerns, a practice which they say is “enshrined in the House of Bishops policy”. The wording of this policy had previously been criticised by IICSA and survivors for its ambiguity about accountability.

The recommendation for mandatory reporting touches upon confidential disclosures made to a priest during the course of sacramental confession, the absolute nature of which was found by IICSA to be problematic. The Church’s response this week confirms the establishment of a working group to decide whether the seal should be abolished, upheld, or amended in line with this recommendation.

The report says: “The group, which will meet over the next 12 months, will bring together theologians, church leaders, and safeguarding professionals along with other advisers as part of the wider reference group. The voices and experiences of survivors will be critical to this work.”

On redress, the church bodies said that rather than participating in a national scheme as recommended, the Church would be continuing the ongoing and much-delayed development of its own redress scheme for survivors of abuse in a church context, but would “carefully consider the Inquiry’s suggested approach”. Delays and continuing questions about how the Church’s scheme will be funded have drawn criticism from survivors, however (News, 22 July 2022).

The administration of an interim pilot scheme — announced in 2020 in response to an earlier IICSA recommendation (News, 2 October 2020) — has also been criticised by some survivors who have said that the anxiety prompted by contact with the scheme had compounded the original abuse (News, July 2021).

On establishing a Child Protection Authority to improve practice, provide advice and policy recommendations to the Government, and inspect institutions, the Church bodies state that they would “welcome the opportunity” to work with agencies to consider how such an authority could “provide independent oversight for safeguarding and hold the Church and other institutions accountable for implementing” its recommendations.

“We trust that any such body established in law would have a clear and specific duty related to safeguarding and would act consistently with the protection of freedom of religion and belief set out in the Equality Act 2010.”

In the past, the Church had resisted outsourcing oversight of its safeguarding practices to an independent body; it has since established the Independent Safeguarding Body, although its independence has been questioned (News, 4 November 2022).

IICSA also recommended that time-limitations for personal injury claims should be removed. “From the perspective of the national Church, this recommendation would principally apply to claims brought against the offices of bishops which may in certain circumstances be met by the Church Commissioners.

“Where they meet such claims, it is the existing practice of the Church Commissioners to take a limitation defence in exceptional circumstances only, for example where a fair trial is not likely to be possible. The Church welcomes the spirit of this recommendation, as being consistent with its existing practice, and will study the detail of any proposed legislative change in due course.”

In response to other recommendations, the church bodies confirm their existing practices, such as the requirement for DBS checks for staff and volunteers. On a further IICSA recommendation to extend DBS checks to people who move abroad, the response states that this “may be particularly relevant for clergy who move to another country to practise their ministry. We support this recommendation as an important part of international safeguarding work. We would work with Anglican Communion members and other relevant bodies to ensure awareness of this very important check.”

The Church will also increase the retention of clergy records on safeguarding concerns from 70 to 75 years in line with another recommendation on access to national records.

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