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Leader comment: How radical will Professor Jay need to be?

18 August 2023

THERE is nothing that says “clean slate” more clearly than a survey. We commend the speed with which the Future Church Safeguarding Programme website has been set up, with its straightforward request for contributions and views, and the tight deadline for formulating a plan by the end of December. The person in charge of devising an independent safeguarding body for the Church of England, Professor Alexis Jay, will by now have discovered how bruised everyone in this field is feeling — survivors, safeguarding personnel, those who have been accused of wrong-doing, and the senior clergy trying to deal with the mess. But it is remarkable how much encouragement can be gained from speed, efficiency, and open consultation.

The questions in the online survey are instructive, however, about the size of the task. In a key section, respondents are asked to rate a range of tasks that the new body might undertake. Most of the options indicate a supervisory approach, using phrases such as “making recommendations”, “reviewing”, “inspecting”, and “setting standards”. It is hard to know, however, how Professor Jay might respond if those completing the survey show a preference for two other options: “responding to individual safeguarding complaints” and “providing support to victims and survivors of abuse”. Incidentally, each section of the survey has a further panel asking whether there is anything else that the respondent would like to see included. Given the nature of many of the safeguarding stories that we have covered over the years, and looking at this week’s letters page, we expect a number of respondents to add “providing support to people accused of abuse”. It is possible that the new clergy disciplinary processes, when finally in place, will improve matters, but at present many clergy and office-holders are suffering under the “guilty-until-proved-innocent” approach where safeguarding is concerned.

This degree of close involvement is not on the cards at present, however. The existing safeguarding set-up, with its network of diocesan safeguarding officers and a national safeguarding team, is predicated on an understanding that the day-to-day running of the Church’s safeguarding efforts — i.e. the organisation of training, plus the investigation of cases, adjudication, disciplining of wrong-doers, and the support of survivors — will remain in the hands of church officials. The members of the now defunct Independent Safeguarding Board found, however, that many survivors had lost confidence in the Church’s ability to police itself, even when some in the Church find the safeguarding regime overly intrusive. We suspect that a key question for Professor Jay is whether the establishment of a respected supervisory body will give the Church’s set-up the legitimacy it needs — or whether the slate really does have to be wiped clean.

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