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ISB was heading for trouble right from the start, Wilkinson review suggests

11 December 2023

SAM ATKINS/CHURCH TIMES

Members of the Archbishops’ Council face questions from General Synod members in July

Members of the Archbishops’ Council face questions from General Synod members in July

A “COMPLEX matrix of reasons” led to the disbanding of the Independent Safeguarding Board (ISB), says a report published on Monday.

Its author, Sarah Wilkinson, a barrister, identifies the Archbishops’ Council as responsible for “structural” issues with the way in which the ISB was set up and administered, which led to a situation in which the positions of the board members and Archbishops’ Council “were not clearly defined”.

Ms Wilkinson suggests that the termination of the contracts of the ISB members was made “almost inevitable” owing to their “breakdown in relationships” after Meg Munn was appointed as acting chair in March (News, 2 May).

The two other board members — Jasvinder Sanghera and Steve Reeves — expressed concern at not being consulted on Ms Munn’s appointment, and survivors and survivor-advocates suggested that her position as the independent chair of the National Safeguarding Panel, another body scrutinising C of E safeguarding practices, amounted to a conflict of interest.

In June, the Archbishops’ Council announced that Ms Sanghera and Mr Reeves’s contracts were being terminated, and that the ISB was being wound down — a decision that was criticised by survivors, General Synod members, and the deputy lead bishop for safeguarding (News, 21 June; News, 22 June; News, 28 June).

Ms Wilkinson, a public-law barrister, was appointed to lead an independent review of the reasons that the ISB members’ contracts were terminated. Her report, which runs to 185 pages and has seven appendices, was published on Monday morning.

Her report concludes that the ISB’s legal status and governance structure contributed to creating conditions in which the positions of the board members and the Archbishops’ Council were “not clearly defined”, and this caused tension both among the members, and between them and the Council.

As a result, the members “found themselves in an almost impossible position when disputes arose”, Ms Wilkinson argues, “because well-meant efforts to mediate disputes by the Archbishops’ Council staff and the Archbishops themselves simply exemplified and exacerbated the arguments about where operational independence ended and governance oversight began”.

The name of the body was also a contributing factor, Ms Wilkinson suggests. “The word ‘Independent’ also caused confusion between the ISB members and the Archbishops’ Council itself, as, again, neither party was clear as to where the ISB’s operational independence ended and the Council’s oversight as charitable trustees began.”

The “extreme time pressure” under which the ISB was designed was a contributing factor in this lack of clarity and effective governance; and the report says that this time pressure was “imposed principally by the Archbishop of Canterbury”.

The ISB was formed in September 2021, with a former Children’s Commissioner for England, Professor Maggie Atkinson, as its first chair (News, 30 September 2021).

Professor Atkinson resigned in March this year amid multiple complaints that she had mishandled personal data (New, 30 March). Professor Atkinson has described coverage of her departure as being subject to “misrepresentation”.

In the report, Ms Wilkinson suggests that, of several short-term reasons for the final breakdown in relations between the board members and the Council, the appointment of Ms Munn as the acting chair was the “most significant”.

The report gives no weight to suggestions that the ISB was terminated to prevent allegations against senior clergy coming to light in its case-review work. The reviewer writes that she has “not seen direct evidence or evidence from which I could infer” that this occurred.

“However, it is unsurprising that the subjects of those case reviews might consider that the terminating body also wished to terminate the case review work.”

In a section on “Lessons learnt”, Ms Wilkinson recommends that everyone involved in making decisions about safeguarding issues should receive “training on trauma-informed handling of complainants, victims, and survivors”. She suggests that, ideally, Synod members would also receive such training.

The establishment of new safeguarding bodies should not, Ms Wilkinson contends, be done by the Council, or any other C of E body, but be outsourced to “management or governance consultants who have safeguarding experience”.

Such a process “should not be rushed”, she says, and the legal status, governance structure, information-sharing, and data-protection protocols, and operating principles should all be published at the outset.

Ms Wilkinson’s final recommendation is that communication between all parties should be “courteous”: “Both complainants, victims and survivors, and those dealing with their cases, should be able to work towards solutions of long-running cases with dignity, and without fear.”

In a statement on behalf of the Archbishops’ Council, the Archbishops of Canterbury and York say that they “deeply regret the flaws exposed by this report, especially in the design and governance of the ISB which contributed to the ultimate breakdown in relationships and take our share of responsibility for that breakdown. We particularly regret the impact this has had on victims and survivors of abuse.”

The Archbishops say that the Council will “respond in more detail later”, after having a chance to fully discuss the 185-page report “over the coming weeks”.

“It is vital that we now learn lessons and do not lose sight of those for whom the delivery of independent oversight is crucial — the survivors and victims of abuse — and, more widely, all those who come in contact with the Church and who place their trust in us to deliver the highest standards of safeguarding,” the statement says.

The report has been sent to Professor Alexis Jay, to consider as part of her work in recommending the future of C of E safeguarding (News, 20 July).

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