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General Synod digest: Concerns remain with new Clergy Conduct Measure

14 July 2023
Sam Atkins/Church Times

Canon Kate Warton introduces the motion on the Measure

Canon Kate Warton introduces the motion on the Measure

THE draft replacement for the Clergy Discipline Measure received first consideration by the General Synod on Monday afternoon.

Canon Kate Wharton (Liverpool) introduced the Draft Clergy Conduct Measure (CCM), reminding the Synod that it had already endorsed the proposals at a previous session (Synod, 15 July 2022). The aim was to design a system that provided a swift, proportionate, and efficient way of dealing with a wide range of complaints, while deflecting frivolous, malicious, or vexatious accusations, she said.

The Measure would be supplemented by rules passed as secondary legislation, which were not yet drafted, she explained.

The main feature of the new system was that complaints would be divided into grievances, misconduct, or serious misconduct, as the existing CDM could deal only with serious misconduct.

Grievances would be dealt with locally without any penalties, and the aim would be mediation. Misconduct would be investigated by assessors, operating regionally across the Church, but outside the diocese. When misconduct was proven, the bishop could impose a penalty, but not to the level of removal from office or deprivation of a licence. The highest level of serious conduct would be handled by a central investigations team, and could lead to the full tribunal process.

A complaint could shift from one track to another if it later emerged that it was more or less serious than had been first thought. Clergy would be able, for the first time, to self-refer if they wished, but would not be under any duty to do so. There would also be a new statutory duty on the bishop to consider offering pastoral support to any person with an interest in the complaint.

The CDM’s 12-month time limit was being abolished for all complaints of serious misconduct. Misconduct complaints would retain the one-year time limit, although this could be lifted with permission from a judge. Grievances would need to be brought within one year, there was no way to remove that limit.

New procedures had also been proposed for vulnerable and protected parties, such as a child or a person who lacked the capacity to bring a complaint. Taking no further action would no longer be a permissible outcome to a complaint. Tribunals would now comprise only three, not five, members, to streamline and speed up the process, plus a dedicated clerk. To protect clergy from malicious complaints, the CCM allowed for restraint orders to be applied against vexatious complainants.

Currently, when a cleric was suspended they could not exercise any function of their orders without a bishop’s permission, but the CCM allowed more flexibility to ban a priest from only specific acts rather than across the board, she explained. Suspension could also only now be proposed when it was necessary. Penalties would no longer need to be agreed with the respondent, and, implementing an IICSA recommendation, unfrocking (deposition from Holy Orders) would be reintroduced.

The Revd Neil Patterson (Hereford) supported the draft Measure, particularly the triaging of complaints into categories. But it would not solve the problem of clergy discipline, he argued. His main concern was about the standards that it presented and the definition of misconduct. For instance, it was right for the clergy to be expected to hold morning and evening prayer daily, but it would be unhelpful to discipline a cleric for failing to uphold this.

The Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Sarah Mullally, said that, as someone who had received complaints against clergy in her diocese, and against herself, she knew that the new Measure was long overdue. She often reflected that she was not properly trained to hear complaints, and echoed Mr Patterson’s comments. “I am glad to pass this over, particularly in cases of serious misconduct.”

She also questioned whether the timescales of the different parts of the process had been fully thought through, and why some were not mentioned in the Measure. There also needed to be appropriate pastoral care for all involved, and she suggested that the rules should specify what this looked like in practice. In her diocese, there was a cohort of “accompaniers” for people going through CDM proceedings, she said.

Canon Lisa Battye (Manchester) questioned the language of “reprimand” and “rebuke”, which the draft Measure used differently from the CDM. It might be better to replace the terms to avoid confusion, she suggested.

Carl Fender (Lincoln) said that delays in CDM processes were among the biggest problems, and hoped that the CCM would have robust rules about the prompt disposal of complaints. The benefit of self-referral meant that a cleric could call out a complaint that was hanging over them, if a potential complainant was “dithering”. He also said that the option of “no case to answer” might be a better standard of dismissing a complaint at the outset than “totally without merit”, as the current legislation had it.

The Archdeacon of London, the Ven. Luke Miller (London), welcomed the draft CCM. It was crucial that “laity and clergy together get this right”, as all clergy lives were touched deeply by disciplinary failures. It was important to distinguish between vexatious complaints and complainants’ trying repeatedly to find justice.

Sam Atkins/Church TimesThe Archdeacon of London, the Ven. Luke Miller

The Revd Dr Sean Doherty (Universities and TEIs) welcomed the report, but said that the beginning of the process was the same for all three tracks. Could the complainant not be given the autonomy to choose which level of process to pursue? He also questioned what the qualifications of the assessors would be for those running the middle track of misconduct. He believed that they needed legal qualifications, and questioned why they would be unpaid. The CCM stated that all findings needed to be published, and he questioned whether this was wise.

Amanda Robbie (Lichfield) said that her husband had been accused of misconduct simply because a person had “felt upset”. A clearer definition of standards of behaviour was needed, she said. An unsuitable assessor, a property lawyer, had exacerbated the issue. Respondents should be able to reject a proposed assessor or designated person, she said.

Sam Margrave (Coventry) commented on the aim to start 10,000 new lay-led churches, and asked why these leaders would not be subject to this draft Measure. He also wanted to see more support — such as independently commissioned advocates — for complainants. He asked whether survivor groups had been consulted, and asked for further theological work on discipline in the Church.

The Revd Julian Hollywell (Derby) asked whether there could be a national benchmark for pastoral support, to avoid a postcode lottery. There also needed to be clarity about who the respondent was and was not allowed to contact during the process, to avoid damaging ostracism.

Professor Lynn Nichol (Worcester) said that the CDM would not be missed. For all parties, the process could be stressful, and more reasonable timescales at the start of any proceedings would be helpful.

The Revd Jack Shepherd (Liverpool) was reassured by the direction of travel, but asked whether the list of those eligible to complain was comprehensive enough.

The Revd Stephen Corbett (Blackburn) reminded the Synod that it had voted to replace the CDM, not reform it. Could that be made explicit in the Measure? A code of conduct for lay officers was also required, he said, urging members to sign a private member’s motion on this issue.

The Bishop of Leeds, the Rt Revd Nick Baines, said that he was unconvinced that the CCM would improve on the CDM. The main problem lay in its implementation, not in the legislation itself, mostly around delays by bishops and registrars. Rules on timings existed in the CDM, but were widely flouted. Why would the CCM be any different, he asked.

The Revd Dr Brenda Wallace (Chelmsford) had seen the anguish caused by drawn-out investigations. Sometimes, CDM cases themselves had caused clergy marriages to break down. Priests were required to disclose a divorce only 28 days after it was granted, which could be as much as two years after the presenting events. The needs of spouses and families were too often sidelined, and information on the support available was mostly invisible on diocesan websites.

The Revd Martin Thorpe (Liverpool) said that he had received vexatious CDM complaints and supported others going through similar scenarios. Those drawing up the CDM in 2003 had not intended the harm that had been done in its name, he said. So, he urged the Synod to build in a review of the CCM after three years, reporting to the Synod, to avoid unintended consequences. He was also concerned that the CCM had fewer options for appeal than the CDM; and investigations were too important to rely on volunteers rather than paid professionals.

The Revd Paul Benfield (Blackburn) said that the principles of natural justice ran throughout the CCM. He contrasted this with safeguarding investigations, which were often “very opaque” to the clergy involved.

The Revd Joy Mawdesley (Oxford), a former complaints manager for children’s social work, said that the process had to link in with other procedures in local government. Did every complaint have to lead automatically to a disciplinary procedure, which was not how it worked in social work? “Complaints are the sign of a healthy Church, where power can be challenged.” She also questioned the language of grievance.

Canon Andrew Dotchin (St Edmundsbury & Ipswich) said that the CDM was like using the “hammer of Thor” to crack a nut. He urged members to avoid pejorative language against complainants, whose complaints might not be vexatious even if they felt like that. He also asked whether every small grievance was entered into a clergy’s permanent blue file, and for how long.

The Revd Robert Thompson (London) said that it appeared that case assessors were being asked to do a lot on their own, from investigating complaints through to making decisions on outcomes. It was a mistake, he said, to rely on volunteers for this highly specialised and complex work. He also said that a multiple-member panel of assessors would be helpful in managing conflicts of interest.

The Archdeacon of Leeds, the Ven. Paul Ayers (Leeds), echoed earlier comments about remaining focused on outcomes: asking complainants what they actually wanted. Sometimes there was no outcome that would satisfy them; sometimes they just wanted to be heard, he said.

Canon Wharton said that qualifications for assessors would be covered in the code of practice, and confidentiality would be covered within the rules. She also said that she would be happy to include a review period in the legislation, if members wanted.

The Measure now stands referred to the revision committee.

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