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General Synod digest: independent scrutiny of Church’s safeguarding still the vision for survivors

17 February 2023
Geoff Crawford/Church Times

The Church’s director of safeguarding, Alex Kubeyinje

The Church’s director of safeguarding, Alex Kubeyinje

MOST of the Church of England’s safeguarding work is done behind the scenes and below the radar, the Bishop of Rochester, Dr Jonathan Gibbs, who is the outgoing lead bishop for safeguarding, told the General Synod on Thursday.

Reflecting on the context — the “aftershocks” of the report from the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) — and why safeguarding sometimes proved so difficult, he said: “We are meant to be a sacred space, safe for all. When things go wrong, there is a deep sense of betrayal. . . It is a matter of deep regret that this is taking far longer than I anticipated.”

Beginning a presentation on the work of the Church’s National Safeguarding Team (NST), Dr Gibbs urged the Synod not to lose sight of the crucial work being carried out, which he said represented “a sea change”. He acknowledged that changes in the past three years had placed greater expectations on clergy and parishes now facing a cost-of-living crisis. “Keep working together in the Church of England to continue creating a safer and healthier culture for all,” he asked.

The Church’s national director of safeguarding, Alex Kubeyinje, began his update with an apology for what he described as a “miscommunication” in his Synod paper about the treatment of Church House staff by survivors of abuse, which had been perceived by some as an attempt to reverse the perceptions of victim and offender (News, 31 January).

He had written: “I have been taken aback with the amount of abuse, bullying and harassment that colleagues receive, and threat to life on occasions. This has predominately been from a small number of survivors, advocates, and others, who have concerns with regard to safeguarding.”

Mr Kubeyinje told the Synod that the intention had been to highlight an issue, and acknowledged that, without the input of survivors and advocates, the job would be impossible. “But the Church also has a responsibility to protect staff,” he said. “As a Church, we do have the best intentions, but we do not always take into account complexity and the length of time things may take.”

In his report, he commends the hard work and commitment of diocesan safeguarding advisers, clergy, bishops, and diocesan secretaries.

During a short period of questions, concerns were repeated about the pace of progress of the IICSA-recommended redress scheme for victims and survivors of church-related abuse.

Penny Allen (Lichfield) wanted an update on progress, and Michaela Suckling (Sheffield) was concerned whether the Church was considering therapy for victims as well as financial redress. She was assured that it was.

Canon Judith Maltby (Universities and TEIs) returned to an issue that she had raised in the earlier debate on Living in Love and Faith, on the connection between sexuality and safeguarding. She also asked about the process of learning from NST reports.

A take-note debate on the main NST paper followed.

Canon Mark Bennet (Oxford) said: “The fact that we have moved so slowly on redress should shock and shame us. It is under-financed. We need to do better. We can’t afford to inflict a complex system on survivors. . . It simply will not do.” he could not take note of a report that did not show enough progress.

Peter Adams (St Albans) said: “Safeguarding has gone wrong in our midst. As diocesan safeguarding officers [are put] into place, there is strong accountability up to national level. Can we try and create a good dynamic working relationship at diocesan level?” He hoped that the NST could “help create new cultures”.

James Cary (Bath & Wells) spoke about safeguarding training, and the Church’s vision of “doubling the number of children and young people in our churches. It is vital that children can enjoy our churches in safety. Do the training: do it with joy. You may be instrumental in preventing the abuse of a child.”

The Bishop of Truro, the Rt Revd Philip Mounstephen, said: “We have a clear commitment to produce a robust [redress] scheme in as timely a manner as we can. We are committed to co-creating it with survivors. Staff working for us do a thorough job. We have discussed subsidiarity. It is not the case that we are designing a scheme that will delay people-redress.”

Ms Allen said that survivors had expressed a desire for an all-faith group, which, she said, indicated of lack of confidence in the Church of England. She hoped that faith groups could be contacted to move this forward. “We should be keen to see it expedited.”

Dr Gibbs assured the Synod that the redress scheme would be “a one-stop shop for survivors”.

Concluding the debate, the Archbishop of Canterbury thanked Dr Gibbs for carrying out the “extraordinary, painful, and difficult task” of church safeguarding during his three-year tenure as lead bishop. “People come with very good reasons for not trusting the Church,” he said.

The Bishop of Stepney, Dr Joanne Grenfell, will become the new lead bishop for safeguarding from April 2023 (News, 20 January).

Archbishop Welby also thanked Mr Kubeyinje for his “transparency. We need to bear in mind that junior and clerical staff in particular on the National Safeguarding Team need our protection. [There] is no reason for death threats or to be screamed at. Alex has difficult [things] to deal with. . . This is a very strange institution.”

The Synod voted by show of hands to take note of the NST reports.

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