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General Synod digest: Survivor and Archbishops’ Council present on safeguarding chaos

14 July 2023
Sam Atkins/Church Times

The Archbishop of York addresses the Synod

The Archbishop of York addresses the Synod

A SURVIVOR of church-based abuse and members of the Archbishops’ Council were among those who gave presentations to the General Synod on Sunday afternoon about the disbandment of the Independent Safeguarding Board (ISB).

In an unusual turn of events, brought about by a series of points of order, the Synod also heard from the two sacked board members, Jasvinder Sanghera and Steve Reeves, who were present in the chamber.

The Archbishops’ Council made the decision to disband the ISB and sack the board’s members last month (News, 23 June) with two weeks’ notice, which ended two days before they were due to be making a presentation to the Synod on Sunday afternoon. The Council said that the decision to abolish the ISB — the body established to hold the Church to account on safeguarding — was because of a breakdown of relations, which Ms Sanghera and Mr Reeves deny.

The presentation by four members of the Council — the Archbishop of York, Canon Tim Goode (Southwark), Alison Coulter (Winchester), and Dr Jamie Harrison (Durham) — was based in part on a background paper by the Secretary General, Sir William Nye, which gave an account of the ISB and the events that led to its demise. Contents of this paper have since been vigorously disputed by Ms Sanghera and Mr Reeves in their own background paper to members, published last week.

Before the presentations began, the chair warned the Synod to “use your words carefully”, because survivors were listening.

Before the Council members spoke, however, a presentation was given by a survivor of church-based abuse, Jane Chevous, who thanked the former ISB members for “doing what you were supposed to do” and gave their side of the story. She has started a petition, which now has at least 400 signatories, 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.”

Questions had been asked about who would take over the reviews, data control, and the implementation of recommendations of existing case reviews. This affected all survivors who were waiting for independent scrutiny and accountability. Many survivors had contacted her to say that the Church felt unsafe.

One told her: “They have disbanded the only safety I have.” Another said: “I haven’t felt safe since the announcement.” And another said: “My trust in the institutional Church has been shattered.”

Ms Chevous explained: “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.”

If Council members said that they were committed to independent safeguarding, “You will understand if I say, I don’t believe you,” she told the Synod. This was received with applause.

Sam Atkins/Church TimesThe four members of the Archbishops’ Council give their presentation

She hoped that the Council members would “hang their heads in shame” at the words of the Archbishop of Canterbury, quoted in the first independent report of the ISB on survivor experiences, that “Survivors must come first. The Church has to get it right. There are no excuses for us getting it wrong.”

Ms Chevous told the Council: “You could not have got it more wrong, and survivors have paid the price.” Survivors were asking for accountability, she said. Auditing was needed to ensure that this never happened again. “Whatever happens now, it must not retraumatise.”

Immediate support must be given to survivors whose cases were still open, she said. The only commendable way to do this was to ask Ms Sanghera and Mr Reeves to continue their work; they already knew the cases and were data-holders. She again spoke directly to the Council: “Whatever you do, don’t make a hasty announcement today. . . Survivors must be informed about plans about their reviews.”

Ms Chevous concluded by asking the Synod not to turn its back on survivors. Her address was received by a sustained round of applause.

A moment of silence was held before Archbishop Cottrell introduced the presentation from the four members of the Council. He thanked Ms Chevous for her presence and her honesty, although it was “painful” to hear. The situation was “not where any of us want to be”, he said. “We intend this afternoon to be as undefended as we can, first of all acknowledging our mistakes and that there are things we wished we had done differently.”

He thanked the three former ISB members — who were all in the chamber — for their good work. He did not want to be presenting on what had happened with the ISB and why, but it was owed to Synod, he said.

“We hope that you will hear our determination to move forward though I do understand some will find this hard to believe.”

Canon Goode would explain what had happened, he said, and Ms Coulter would speak about interim arrangements, “acknowledging that some of the announcements made, including by myself and others, in the immediate aftermath of this decision weren’t as clear as they should have been, in fact may have unintentionally been misleading”. Finally, Dr Harrison would address what was coming next.

“We do take collective responsibility for what has happened. . . We do all want the same thing,” the Archbishop said. “But we acknowledge that we have failed to get there. The decisions we took were unanimous.” These were “some of hardest decisions certainly in my life and work”, he said, though he believed them to be “the right decisions for the safeguarding of the Church. Could we have communicated them better? Could things have been different in the past? Well, they are things we will discuss and certainly things we will learn from.”

Sam Atkins/Church TimesCanon Tim Goode (Southwark)

Canon Goode gave a “short history” of the ISB’s creation, responsibilities, funding, phases, and work. He said: “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, both vital aspects of their work, but, in doing so, neglected the primary objective, which was the scrutiny of our national safeguarding system.”

Concerns had been raised that initiatives were being started without budget, terms of reference, preparation, or clarity of outcomes, he said. The Council found itself “frustratingly” spending more time tackling governance issues within the ISB than on “all other vital safeguarding issues” and “still without rigorously thought-out proposals for phase two”.

This was because of issues with the former chair Professor Maggie Atkinson, whom, he said, the remaining ISB members had refused to meet. This led to the Council’s issuing a dispute notice. Professor Atkinson later resigned, and Meg Munn was appointed acting chair until the end of 2023.

Ms Sanghera and Mr Reeves also refused to meet the new chair, he said. “The ISB’s working relationship was still at an impasse.” Before a subsequent meeting, the ISB members had issued a dispute notice to the Council and “briefed the press”. It was the view of the Council that the relationship was “beyond repair” at this point, and so the contracts were terminated.

Ms Coulter said that there were ten case reviews ongoing. The Council, she said, “does not know, nor should it know, who individuals are, and we don’t have access to their data.”

The original plan — that the chairs of diocesan safeguarding panels be asked to offer a pool of independent reviewers for survivors to choose from — was inadequate, she said. An alternative was needed, and a “trusted third-party organisation” was being sought to set up and manage this process independently.

“We recognise the urgency of the need to move on for those waiting for case reviews, but also recognise the need to do so in a way that has the agreement of victims and survivors waiting for reviews.”

Archbishop Cottrell “reiterated” his apology “for anything I or others said in the immediate aftermath of the announcement that was misleading” about how case reviews would be handled. “We are now addressing this matter in a way that is appropriate.”

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

No institution had got it right, he said. Other inspection bodies, including Ofsted and the Care Quality Commission, had “significant limitations and are extremely expensive. But that does not mean we should not consider it. Finance should not come into the calculation.”

He agreed with Ms Chevous that independence meant a body that was “financially independent of the Church, its own legal entity, completely separate with its own external accountability. . . We need to know that we are not the accountability structure for that particular body.”

Good leadership was needed from “outside” to help — to consider culture, leadership, design, and the complexity of the church settings. “This is no easy solution, but that does not mean we should not try it. . . The Church must have a system which can be stress-tested in real time.”

Before questions, Archbishop Cottrell confirmed that the Council had already referred the issue to the Charity Commission on 26 June, and that — with reference to a following motion which Gavin Drake (Southwell & Notttingham) had been due to move on the Monday (News, 7 July) — it had recommended an independent review of what had happened, to report to the Synod in November.

Sam Atkins/Church TimesGavin Drake (Southwell & Nottingham)

“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 implementing 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.”

The first question was from Canon Ruth Newton (Leeds), who asked whether this was a crisis of safeguarding or of governance. Archbishop Cottrell said that this was “a point well made”: it was both in the desire to move quickly. “I don’t think it could have been foreseen,” he said.

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

Nadine Daniel (Liverpool) asked why the Council “could not do what the L’Arche community did: hold up your hands and say we have failed, we have made a mistake,” and then accept and act on all the recommendations given to it.

Canon Goode said that the Council had wanted an independent review.

Ms Coulter said: “We have failed. We have got it wrong. We don’t want it to happen again.”

The Revd Dr Sean Doherty (Universities and TEIs) questioned Archbishop Cottrell’s use of the term “the safeguarding of the Church”, which, he said, sounded as if the priority was protecting the Church. Archbishop Cottrell apologised and said that he was “absolutely” talking about making the Church safer.

The Revd Professor Morwenna Ludlow (Exeter) asked whether the Council would be reflecting on previous work on governance and confidentiality rather than a lack of transparency.

Dr Harrison said that the Church had multiple responsibilities to multiple groups and that it was important to balance these.

The Revd Alex Frost (Blackburn) asked what the Council thought Jesus would make of the situation.

“I imagine Jesus weeps,” Archbishop Cottrell said. “I don’t believe there’s a pay-off between justice and mercy. We humans fail, but God alone is just and merciful.”

The Revd Robert Thompson (London), speaking on Zoom, was glad about the independent review of what had happened, but wanted to know about its terms of reference and scope. He also asked for a clarification of facts, including what the Archbishop of Canterbury had said the previous day: that “both Archbishops had wished to wait a bit” before making a decision to sack the two ISB members.

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 — to learn from the mistakes made.

Martin Sewell (Rochester) said that the Council had chosen not to use its powers to appoint additional members of the ISB during the eight months that Professor Atkinson had 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?”

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

Canon Goode said of the ISB: “We did not look after you. We did not build the relationships we needed to build. The challenge we had was the tension between governance and operational independence. There were many times we did not get that balance right. We . . . erred on [the side of] governance, and that looked like interfering.”

Jayne Ozanne (Oxford) said that the nature of abuse involved power, and that this was what survivors had seen from the Council. To whom was the Archbishops’ Council accountable, she asked.

Dr Harrison said that this was the Charity Commission. It was also the Synod, who “elected over half of us”.

Sam Margrave (Coventry) asked who would resign over “the misleading” of the Synod concerning what Archbishop Welby had said on the previous day.

Archbishop Cottrell said that Mr Margrave’s question had been answered already.

A former Council member, Canon Simon Butler (Southwark), pointed out that there were survivors on the Council. He 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.” It should be five, six, or seven to ensure a breadth of voice, he said.

Dr Harrison said that the structure should not be pre-empted without consultation.

Canon Douglas Machiridza (Birmingham) asked whether the Council had been made aware of the reasons that Ms Sanghera and Mr Reeves had not wanted to meet Professor Atkinson, and why they had issued the dispute notice.

Dr Harrison said that the Council wanted to hear from the ISB members about this in the review. “We’re just giving you our side of this.”

A point of order was raised by Clive Billenness (Europe) in an attempt to allow Ms Sanghera and Mr Reeves to speak to the Synod, given how much they had been referred to in the presentations and questions.

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 SO that prevented the chair’s calling non-Synod members. This was met with applause.

The chair said that Mr Drake had the right to do so, but could not speak again himself. Another member was needed to move the procedural motion to effect what was required.

Three more questions were taken while this was under consideration.

Caroline Herbert (Norwich) asked how the consultation on moving forward would be conducted.

Dr Harrison said that the Council did not want to “jump the gun” and wanted to get the consultation right, including contact with other organisations.

Archbishop Cottrell emphasised again that what happened next needed to be set up, implemented, and operated independently.

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 (Northern Suffragans), 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 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 a 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. He was also mindful of timing, and the next business on redress.

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 ill mother.)

A further point of order was raised for the chair to be allowed 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 point of order was therefore used to suspend the session for ten minutes to allow for this.

Robert Hammond (Chelmsford), who chairs the Business Committee, invited Ms Sanghera and Mr Reeves to speak, but emphasised to the Synod that this was now “an informal meeting of the General Synod, not a General Synod meeting”, meaning that Standing Orders did not apply. The live stream, he said, could continue.

Mr Reeves spoke first. “It is really clear that we would rather not be in this position,” he said. He was grateful for the support that the pair had received since their dismissal, but said that “this isn’t about us. . . it’s about the broader approach the Church adopts for itself” on safeguarding, on which, he said, it had “failed, year after year”. Solidarity with survivors worked to a degree, he said, but action needed to follow.

Sam Atkins/Church TimesSteve Reeves

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

The reason that the Church was in this situation was because “someone had a very clear blueprint” of what independent safeguarding meant, he said, and when this was not met, “they recoiled. They pulled back.” He and Ms Sanghera had presented a path to independence to the Archbishops’ Council, including an interim arrangement while the original chair had stepped back, he said. This had been rejected, and a new acting chair had been appointed instead, he said, “in contravention of the terms of reference”.

“Obstacles” had been thrown in their way, Mr Reeves said, including the disconnection of the ISB telephone number, which it took five months to reinstate. There were many other instances like this, he said. “We’re not hiding anything.”

Ms Sanghera followed. She acknowledged the survivors whose trust it had taken time to earn. “It took me courage to come here this morning,” she said, speaking as someone who had been sexually abused by a peer in the House of Lords. “I was told, ‘You’re never going to dismantle that; nobody is going to listen to you. It’s a powerful institution; they look after their own.’ I still carried on. They didn’t have a process, but they created one.”

Pointing at the gallery of the Synod, she said: “Sitting up there today, I felt like I was in the first debate in the House of Lords . . . when they were all speaking about me. I felt like the ghost at the banquet; so I appreciate standing here today. . . It’s been really difficult not being able to tell our side of the story.”

The decision to serve a dispute-resolution notice to the Council had not been taken lightly, she said. “The title is ‘dispute-resolution notice’; ‘resolution’ is the word.”

The Council had served them a dispute notice in February, she pointed out, “telling us we were not doing the job we were meant to be doing. . . We read it in the press.”

She said that they had been told to issue a statement welcoming Ms Munn on her appointment, despite having expressed their concerns about perceived conflict of interest to the Council. She told the Council: “You [say you] are listening, but you are not actually listening and acting.”

Ms Sanghera had turned to social media to air their complaints because they had no other choice, she said. They had tried to speak directly to the Council, but “We are silenced.” She had applied for the post of survivor advocate of the ISB after 25 years as chief executive and founder of a charity and as a survivor of a forced marriage.

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

Sam Atkins/Church TimesJasvinder Sanghera

After hearing the Council tell the Synod that it 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, with emotion, she urged the Synod to read their dispute notice. “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”.

“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 some members stood to applaud.

Mr Hammond concluded the informal meeting. The chair then resumed the item on safeguarding and closed it with a period of silence.

 

DISCUSSION of the ISB continued in the questions following the presentation of the Archbishops’ Council’s audit committee’s annual report on Monday.

It had initially been identified as deemed business, but was being heard after a sufficient number of members requested a debate.

The chair of the committee, Maureen Cole, presented the report, which was included in the Synod papers. “It may not be the most glamorous of committees, but we do take our responsibilities seriously,” she said, and explained that the committee had not initiated an audit of the ISB because it had been concluded that doing so would not be constructive.

Julie Dziegiel (Oxford) expressed gratitude for the work of the Committee, before Professor Helen King (Oxford) asked about a question she had submitted before the February meeting of Synod. She had asked whether the ISB had been subject to audit, and was told that the Audit Committee didn’t have the ability to do so, only to later be informed, by Ms Cole and the secretary-general of the Archbishops’ Council, William Nye, that this was actually incorrect, though this response was not published.

“Have you got anything you’d like to do in the future in the light of what’s now happened with the ISB?” she asked.

Gavin Drake (Southwell & Nottingham) asked why the report suggested that the state of the ISB was a matter of “low risk”, when the discussions that the committee had on the matter indicated an awareness that the risk level was “actually quite high”.

Responding, Ms Cole apologised to Professor King for giving the wrong answer in February, and said that it wasn’t a “conspiracy” that prevented the correction being published to the entire synod, but merely an oversight.

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