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PCCs may have to foot the bill for abuse claims, Synod members warn

14 November 2023

Geoff Crawford/Church Times

The Bishop of Winchester, the Rt Revd Philip Mounstephen, introduces the draft measure

The Bishop of Winchester, the Rt Revd Philip Mounstephen, introduces the draft measure

THE next step in establishing a national redress scheme for survivors of abuse in the Church of England was taken on Tuesday morning, after a debate in the General Synod.

During the debate, concerns were raised about the balance of financial liability between the national Church and individual parishes, but members none the less voted overwhelmingly that the draft Measure should progress to the revision committee stage: 309 to 21, with 13 recorded abstentions.

Introducing the Measure for first consideration, the Bishop of Winchester, the Rt Revd Philip Mounstephen, emphasised that it was a work in progress that the Synod could help to develop. “We must learn from [our] failings, and work together to do better,” he said.

The redress scheme is being developed in response to a recommendation by the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) in 2020, and has been promised initial funding of £150 million by the Church Commissioners (News, 20 June).

A sticking point among Synod members was the burden of responsibility that could fall on the parish in which abuse had occurred. The draft Measure says that “contributions” from “one or more accountable bodies” could be requested, which would include the PCC of a church at which an offender worked.

A lay member from Chichester, Dr Simon Eyre, asked whether it was right to hold PCCs responsible in cases of historic abuse if none of the members remained the same. He also raised concerns about whether insurers would agree to meet claims if they had already paid out for a civil claim.

An explanatory note published with the draft Measure states that accountable bodies “cannot seek to avoid an obligation to contribute . . . by arguing that another person is vicariously liable at common law”.

A separate briefing note by the Church of England’s national director of safeguarding, Alex Kubeyinje, outlined the principles that the proposed Measure seeks to enshrine: that it be survivor-centred, consistent, and put forward a “whole-church approach that enables all parts of the Church to show contrition for our collective past failings”.

Mr Kubeyinje writes: “In this spirit of shared covenantal commitment to survivors and to one another, the Project Board has broadly agreed that, to be as meaningful as possible, at least some responsibility for offering redress should be taken as close as possible to where the abuse was perpetrated or harm was done.”

A call for a slight delay before sending the draft Measure to the review committee was urged by many. Clive Billenness, a lay member from the diocese in Europe, suggested that the Measure in its current form was like a cake that was not quite ready to come out of the oven.

The Revd Paul Benfield (Blackburn) said that he supported the principle of a redress scheme, but argued that the policy should be decided before the legislation was developed. The Archbishop of York, however, defended the process, saying that a more “iterative” approach meant that survivors and others would be able to contribute throughout the process.

Martin Sewell, a lay member from Rochester and a survivor advocate, said that some survivors supported the redress scheme in its current form, while others felt that it was not yet fit for purpose: there was not, he said, a single view from survivors on this matter.

Responding to some of the points made in the debate, Bishop Mounstephen reiterated a statement made by several members: that redress “is about much more than money”, and involved repentance and apology.

“This is not about creating liability, but managing it and sharing it together,” he said: “We cannot outsource our responsibilities, [and] we can be responsible for something without it being our fault.”

Bishop Mounstephen said that a delay would be unhelpful, and that rejecting the Measure at this early stage would send a “catastrophic” message to survivors. Members accordingly voted overwhelmingly for it to progress to the next stage.

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