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Extraordinary scenes at Synod as sacked ISB members are given a hearing

09 July 2023

Sam Atkins/Church Times

The former survivor advocate of the now-disbanded ISB, Jasvinder Sanghera, addresses the Synod during an informal session shoe-horned in on Sunday afternoon

The former survivor advocate of the now-disbanded ISB, Jasvinder Sanghera, addresses the Synod during an informal session shoe-horned in on Sunday aft...

THE two sacked members of the Church’s now disbanded Independent Safeguarding Board (ISB) have told the General Synod that they were “silenced” by the Archbishops’ Council for being “too independent” — and warned that survivors would pay the price for their dismissal.

Jasvinder Sanghera and Steve Reeves were unexpectedly given the opportunity to address the Synod during an informal ten-minute session on Sunday afternoon. This was created through a convoluted process of standing orders at the conclusion of a presentation on the ISB and the future of church safeguarding from a panel of four Council members.

This included the Archbishop of York, who described the fallout as a “watershed” moment for the Church that had changed the Council’s perception of what workable independence should look like — namely, that the Church “can no longer think that we can deliver these things ourselves”.

The Archbishops’ Council made the decision to sack two of the three ISB board members last month (News, 23 June) with two weeks’ notice — which ended two days before they were due to give a presentation to the Synod on Sunday afternoon. The slot was filled with a safeguarding item in three parts: a presentation from a survivor of church-related abuse, Jane Chevous; presentations from each of the four chosen Council members (Archbishop Cottrell, Canon Tim Goode, Alison Coulter, and Dr Jamie Harrison); and questions from the floor of Synod.

Ms Chevous, whose presentation was not named on the agenda, began by thanking the former ISB members for “doing what you were supposed to do”, and gave their side of the story. She has started a petition, now 400-signatories strong, asking the Charity Commission to intervene following what she described as the Council’s “recent failing” both in sacking the ISB and announcing this before survivors had been informed.

“I felt like my whole world had crumbled around me,” she said. “I had trusted the ISB. I had hope. And now that hope had been snatched from me and trampled underfoot.”

Since the announcement, many survivors had contacted her to say that the Church felt unsafe, she said. One had told her: “They have disbanded the only safety I have.” And another: “My trust in the institutional Church has been shattered.”

Ms Chevous said: “It’s not just the impact of the reputational damage to the Church, or the further trauma to victims: it’s the wider Church feeling complicit in this, which is a moral injury in itself. The safety of the Church has been impacted directly now and for the future.”

She then told the Council: “You could not have got it more wrong, and survivors have paid the price. . . Whatever happens now, it must not retraumatise.”

Archbishop Cottrell thanked Ms Chevous for her honesty, though it was “painful” to hear. He acknowledged that the Council had “made mistakes” and “wished we had done things differently”. Despite what the Archbishop of Canterbury had suggested the previous afternoon, the Council took “collective responsibility” for the decision, which had been “unanimous”, including the timing of the announcement.

He did, however, go on to apologise “for anything I or others said in the immediate aftermath of the announcement that was misleading” about the way in which current case reviews would be handled. Later, Ms Coulter explained that there were ten case reviews ongoing, and that the original plan to ask diocesan safeguarding panel chairs to offer a pool of independent reviewers for survivors to choose from was inadequate. A “trusted third-party organisation” was being sought to set up and manage this process independently.

Sam Atkins/Church TimesA panel of four Archbishops’ Council members present to the Synod (left to right: Tim Goode, Alison Coulter, Archbishop Cottrell, and Jamie Harrison)

Archbishop Cottrell also confirmed that the Council had already referred the débâcle to the Charity Commission on 26 June, and that — related to a following motion due to be moved by Gavin Drake on Monday (News, 7 July) — it had also agreed to implement an independent review of what had happened, with a report to be returned to the Synod in London in November.

“This is a watershed moment for us,” he said. “We can’t get this wrong again. We, the Archbishops’ Council, we, the General Synod, we, the Church of England can no longer think that we can deliver these things ourselves. That is the key learning.

“Not only do we need independent oversight and scrutiny of safeguarding, we need independent help on deciding how best to do it and [how to] implement it once it is decided. . . I can’t tell you how sorry I am that it has taken this long to see it with such clarity.”

Canon Goode’s presentation that followed, however, was closer to the background paper written by the secretary-general, William Nye, which laid blame on the ISB members. In a “short history” of its creation, responsibilities, funding, phases, and work, Canon Goode told the Synod: “From the beginning, the Archbishops’ Council were concerned by the lack of collegiality expressed within the ISB’s working relationship, and a lack of clarity of the ISB’s priorities.

“The ISB’s primary directive was to help the Church improve its safeguarding practice by examining policy and practice across the whole Church. But as time passed, the ISB focused more on individual cases and survivor support” and “neglected the primary objective, which was the scrutiny of our national safeguarding system”.

The Council found itself “frustratingly” spending more time tackling governance issues within the ISB than on “all other vital safeguarding issues”, he said. This was owing to issues with the former chair Professor Maggie Atkinson, who, he said, the remaining ISB members refused to meet. (She had, in fact, stepped back over suspected data breaches.)

This had led to the Council to issue a dispute notice. Professor Atkinson later resigned, and Meg Munn was appointed acting chair until the end of 2023.

Ms Sanghera and Mr Reeves refused to meet Ms Munn, issued a dispute notice to the Council, and “briefed the press”, Canon Goode said. It was the view of the Council that the relationship was “beyond repair”, so the contracts were terminated.

Finally, Dr Harrison gave a brief overview of the future: pace, scope, and method of independence. Wide consultation was needed to design this, he said. “It is a difficult balance of going ahead with great speed and great care.”

An independent complaints process and scrutiny “from outside” was needed, and while inspection bodies such as Ofsted and the Care Quality Commission had “significant limitations and are extremely expensive . . . that does not mean we should not consider it. Finance should not come into the calculation.”

The presentations were met with intense questioning from Synod members, at the end of which several points of order were raised to allow Ms Sanghera and Mr Reeves, who were present in the chamber, to respond.

Mr Drake asked who had selected and appointed Professor Atkinson and Ms Munn. Dr Harrison said that survivors were involved with Professor Atkinson’s appointment. On Ms Munn, he said that the emphasis had been on “speed”. “In the event it didn’t work, and we’re very sorry about that.”

Alex Frost (Blackburn) asked what Jesus would think of the situation. “I imagine Jesus weeps,” Archbishop Cottrell responded. “I don’t believe there’s a payoff between justice and mercy. We humans fail but God alone is just and merciful.”

The Revd Robert Thompson (London), speaking on Zoom, wanted to know about the terms of reference and scope of the review of what had happened. He also asked for a clarification of facts, including about what Archbishop Welby had said the previous day. Canon Goode said that the reason that the Council was supportive of a review was because it wanted to hear the stories of all parties — including Ms Sanghera and Mr Reeves, and survivors — and because the Church wanted to learn from its mistakes.

Martin Sewell (Rochester) said that the Council had chosen not to use their powers to appoint additional members of the ISB during the eight months that Professor Atkinson was stood back under investigation. “Do you seriously attempt to blame —or should I say, frame — the independent members for delays in conceptualising phase two of the ISB?”

Responding, Ms Coulter said that the Council did not blame ISB members, that their work was “excellent”, and that it was “a breakdown of our understanding of that work” which had been unclear in the terms of reference. “That put a strain on our working relationship. . . We take the blame ourselves in that.”

Canon Goode said that there had been “a tension between governance and operational independence. There were many times we did not get that balance right,” including weighing in on governance “that looked like interfering”.

Jayne Ozanne (Oxford) asked to whom was the Archbishops’ Council accountable? Dr Harrison said that it was the Charity Commission. It was also the Synod, who “elected over half of us”.

Sam Atkins/Church TimesSteve Reeves speaks to the Synod

A former Council member Simon Butler (Southwark) asked what steps would be taken to ensure that the new ISB would have more than three members. Canon Goode said that the context of “coming out of Covid and cuts” had resulted in a “pressure” on the number of people employed on the board. “We chose three, and that proved to be problematic.”

At this point, Clive Billenness (Europe) raised a point of order in an attempt to allow Ms Sanghera and Mr Reeves to speak, given how much they had been spoken about. But the chair said that she had no power beyond what the standing orders provided.

Mr Drake immediately raised another point of order saying that there was a power under standing orders to override the standing order which prevented the chair from calling them. This was met with applause.

While this was considered by the lawyers, more questions were taken.

Jane Rosam (Rochester) asked whether the 76 survivors who had perceived a conflict of interest over the appointment of Ms Munn were seen as “reasonable” members of the public, as would be the case if just one person raised a conflict of interest with a judge. Archbishop Cottrell agreed that “perception is reality” in this case, and that Ms Munn had been put in a difficult position. He said that Ms Sanghera and Mr Reeves had welcomed this appointment at first.

The Bishop of Birkenhead, the Rt Revd Julie Conalty, who is the deputy lead safeguarding bishop, was concerned about losing survivor focus. “What is happening, what is available, and what more can we do?” she asked. Ms Coulter said that time was needed to consult with survivors and their advocates, but was grateful for the reminder.

The point of order was then raised to ask Archbishop Cottrell to use his powers as president of the Synod to invite Ms Sanghera and Mr Reeves to speak. Archbishop Cottrell agreed, but said that Ms Munn ought to be invited to speak as well.

After a pause, however, the chair announced that she had been advised that it was not lawful for one and not both of the presidents to suspend Standing Orders. (Archbishop Welby had left the Synod the previous afternoon to attend to his dying mother.)

A further point of order was raised for the chair to be given the power to call the former ISB members to speak. This, the chair explained, could not be done unless the non-Synod members concerned were making an informal presentation under which the rules of a formal session did not apply. Another Standing Order was therefore used to suspend the session for ten minutes to allow for this.

Mr Reeves used his five-minute slot to express his gratitude for the support he and Ms Sanghera had received. But, he said: “This isn’t about us. . . It’s about the broader approach the Church adopts for itself” on safeguarding, on which it had “failed year after year” for decades.

One of the challenges of working with the Church had been language, he said. The Church had a different understanding of the word “independence”: “They mean semi-detached.” When they talk about “trust”, “they mean obedience,” he said. When they talk about “communication”, “they mean loyalty.”

Despite having presented a path to independence to the Council, “obstacles” had been thrown in their way, Mr Reeves said, including the disconnection of the ISB telephone number that took five months to reinstate. There were many other instances like this, he said. “We’re not hiding anything.”

Following on, Ms Sanghera said that she and Mr Reeves had been told to welcome Ms Munn’s appointment, despite having expressed their concerns to the Council.

She told the Council: “You are listening, but you are not actually listening and acting.”

Ms Sanghera had turned to social media, she said, because they had had no other choice. When they had attempted to raise issues directly, “We are silenced.”

She had applied for the position of survivor advocate for the ISB after 25 years as CEO and founder of a charity, and as a survivor of a forced marriage, she said.

“I looked at the advert and I wanted to make a difference because I saw the Church was on a journey.”

After hearing the Council say during their presentation that they wanted to invite independent people to do independent work, she asked: “Is that not what we were doing? That is exactly what we were doing, and I now think that we were too independent; we were doing our job too well. . . When I’m being told we’re too survivor-focused and too survivor-led, I think the Church has a problem.”

In her concluding remarks, made with obvious emotion, she urged the Synod to read the dispute notice that she and Mr Reeves had submitted before their dismissal. “I personally feel a responsibility to those survivors who trusted us with their stories.” She described the Church’s review process as “the dead end of a road”, and said: “We took months gaining their trust, and you have just ripped that away from them. Do not allow victims and survivors to have to retell their stories to new people again.”

She received sustained applause and a some members stood to applaud, before the session was resumed by the chair and immediately closed.

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