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Row over Church’s Independent Safeguarding Board continues

28 June 2023

Sacked members give their side of the story, disputing Archbishop of York’s account


THE sacked members of the Independent Safeguarding Board (ISB) have this week given their side of the story, disputing the version given by the Archbishop of York last weekend.

On Wednesday of last week, it was announced that the Archbishops’ Council had terminated the contracts of two of the three members of the ISB, and was moving to disband the body entirely (News, 23 June).

Archbishop Cottrell defended the decision in an interview on Sunday on Radio 4, in which he blamed “a breakdown in communication” for the ISB’s demise. On the same programme, however, the ISB’s lead survivor advocate, Jasvinder Sanghera, said: “It is not true to say this has happened because of a breakdown in relationships.”

On Tuesday, the other sacked ISB member, Steve Reeves, questioned the view that there had been a breakdown of trust, as suggested by Archbishop Cottrell and the secretary-general of the Archbishops’ Council, William Nye.

“When they say ‘trust’, I don’t think they mean trust in the way that your average person on the street does. What they mean is obedience,” Mr Reeves said.

Ms Sanghera and Mr Reeves had just initiated a dispute resolution process with the Archbishops’ Council, referring to difficulties that they had about the appointment of the third ISB member (Meg Munn, who became acting chair in March), and the lack of a formal information-sharing agreement with the C of E (News, 24 May).

“We were using mechanisms in place, we were communicating perfectly respectfully with the Church, we were raising our issues with them, and they were giving every indication that they were willing to at least acknowledge those difficulties,” Mr Reeves said on Tuesday. “Our expectation was that there would be a process to try and sort out these points of dispute.”

He noted that a meeting with the Bishop of Stepney, the Rt Revd Joanne Grenfell, who is the lead bishop for safeguarding, had been planned for last Thursday.

Speaking on Monday, Ms Sanghera told the Church Times that she and Mr Reeves had been “shocked” to receive notice — at 12.03 p.m. last Wednesday — that they were being fired, and had requested that the news not be made public until they had been given time to inform the survivors with whom they were working. The news was made public an hour later.

A source in Church House insisted that efforts had been made to contact survivors in advance of the announcement. A survivor has written to the Church Times, however, to describe the moment they read the news online, saying that it left them “completely stunned”.

As a result, the survivor says: “Without thinking, I walked blindly into a busy road. Had the traffic been moving faster, this would have caused harm to me and motorists.”

They write: “The calls from the ISB for time to warn survivors before the announcement was made should have been acted on. The failure to do so demonstrates how completely negligent the Archbishops’ Council is.”

A separate group of seven survivors have also written to express their “devastation” at the decision taken by the Archbishops’ Council. “So far, all of the blame for this débâcle has been pinned on the only two people who tried to support us,” they write. And they ask why survivors should trust that the Council will move forward.

“Survivors have been emailing in their droves,” Ms Sanghera said, and quoted one who has “been so affected that she had to go to her mental-health rapid response after hearing the news, and she said to me, quite rightly: ‘Why didn’t you tell us about this?’ Well, we didn’t have time, and we asked the secretary-general to give us time, but he wouldn’t.”

ARCHBISHOP COTTRELL said on Sunday that there had been “a huge amount of misunderstanding over what’s happened”; and he reiterated: “The Church of England needs full independent safeguarding scrutiny.”

Asked whether safeguarding in the Church of England was a “complete mess”, he said: “We must move towards proper independent scrutiny as soon as possible.”

He suggested that it was ironic that, “until recently, the letters I tended to get from survivors and survivor-advocates was about how the ISB in its current form wasn’t fully independent.”

Such comments “had a point”, he said. “When we set this up last year, it was always going to be a two-stage process, of which this was stage one, and it would lead to the fully independent scrutiny and fully independent safeguarding scrutiny in stage two. . .

“Paradoxically, the position we find ourselves in is [that] in order to reach the full independence — you know, it breaks my heart that this had to happen — but actually it [the ISB] was getting in the way of this. So, we’re doing a reset.”

Ms Sanghera and Mr Reeves had been due to provide an update on the ISB’s activities and its pathway to full independence at the July meeting of the General Synod. Both suggested that it felt as if that the timing of their dismissal was related to this: their two-week notice period will end two days before the Synod is due to meet in York.

In their absence, a representative of the Archbishops’ Council will give a presentation on “developments relating to the Independent Safeguarding Board” (News, 23 June).

Mr Reeves dismissed any anxieties that they were planning to be disruptive: “We were not going to jump up there and start insulting individuals inappropriately. It would have been a conversation about where the challenges are, where we think improvement needs to happen, and where Synod might want to focus its attention on supporting that.”

THE decision to disband the ISB seems to have been reached only very recently. In documents shown to the Church Times by a third party, Mr Nye writes to Ms Sanghera and Mr Reeves on 6 June, in response to their dispute notice of 24 May.

Mr Nye writes that “the Council is happy to consult all three members of the ISB in connection with its future decisions regarding the ISB,” and that the Council is “willing to consider how contractual effect might be given to standing orders and terms of reference which might govern an onward working relationship”.

He dismisses the suggestion, however, that a group could be set up “under the auspices of the ISB” to explore its future direction. A group could be set up for that purpose, he suggests, but it “cannot be a reference group under the auspices of the ISB because of the Council’s interest in governance”.

Some of these issues were reportedly discussed at a meeting on 12 June — nine days before the Council gave notice that the ISB was to be disbanded.

Speaking to the Church Times on Monday, Ms Sanghera said that, at the meeting, the director of the National Safeguarding Team, Alexander Kubeyinje, had criticised the ISB, saying “you’re always survivor-led”.

Mr Reeves corroborated Ms Sanghera’s account, and both described Mr Kubeyinje complaining that the ISB gave deference to survivors but no “favour” to the Church.

A spokesperson for Church House said that this conversation had been misrepresented. 

ON MONDAY morning, Mr Reeves published a document outlining the dispute notice that had been sent to the Archbishops’ Council. It claims that the ISB was working according to terms of reference that had been approved by the National Safeguarding Steering Group (NSSG), but that the Archbishops’ Council said that it was unaware of this.

Mr Nye’s response on 6 June, which Mr Reeves did not share, argues that the contracts of the ISB members “do not make provision for any terms of reference”, and that he did “not recall” their being shared with the Council.

The notice outlines ways in which the Council allegedly frustrated the work of the ISB, including withholding information from the C of E’s National Safeguarding Team, and the appointment of Meg Munn as acting chair despite her already being the chair of the C of E’s National Safeguarding Panel and sitting on the NSSG.

According to Ms Sanghera, the appointment shook the confidence of survivors, and the ISB had 75 requests not to share information with Ms Munn.

“These are not personal issues, and they’re not purely administrative things: there are very serious implications,” Mr Reeves said on Tuesday.

He argued that part of the ISB’s function was to be able to criticise the culture and structures of safeguarding in the Church of England, but that the NSSG was central in establishing these.

In his 6 June email responding to the dispute notice, Mr Nye writes: “I must challenge any suggestion that Meg Munn is conflicted or insufficiently independent. The National Safeguarding Panel is a body which is itself independent of the institutions of the Church and provides scrutiny and challenge.”

He says that she also sits on the NSSG as part of an attempt to avoid “the kind of antagonism that invariably results from a ‘them’ and ‘us’ approach”, and says that Ms Sanghera and Mr Reeves had been previously been invited to join the NSSG.

In May, the ISB released its first case review (News, 31 May). It concerned a survivor referred to as Mr X, and concluded that there had been a lack of communication and poor pastoral support in the Church’s response to Mr X.

Such a review directly criticised a framework that had been established by the NSSG, Mr Reeves said, illustrating why it was a conflict of interest to have a chair of the ISB who also was also a member of the NSSG.

On Tuesday, Ms Sanghera alleged that the Council “didn’t like” the ISB’s review into Mr X’s case, “because we were challenging them”.

DURING his interview on Sunday, Archbishop Cottrell said that the Church had “put in place this week independent scrutiny; so it’s not that independent scrutiny has stopped: it’s happening in other ways. We will move swiftly towards that full independence.”

A statement published on the ISB website on Monday afternoon said:We will continue to honour any reviews or complaints that are under way or are due to start. We will be in contact as soon as possible with survivors and complainants and reviewers to ensure these are completed.

“The ISB is working with the Archbishops’ Council to put in place alternative arrangements to handle complaints while work is undertaken to develop an independent oversight body for safeguarding. Once the detail is in place an announcement will be made.”

Mr Reeves and Ms Sanghera, who remain members of the ISB until their notice period has expired, had been unaware of the statement before it was published, and queried how much of the work could continue without their co-operation.

“They’ve got a misunderstanding about the way things operate,” Mr Reeves said. Personal details couldn’t be shared between different people in the ISB without the explicit consent of the survivor in question, he said, while the reviewers contracted on a case-by-case basis worked collaboratively with him on each report.

“It’s not simply about the individual who asks the questions: it’s about the process in which they ask the questions, and how that’s managed and how conclusions are formed. That is critical when it comes to this work,” he said.

Data-privacy protocols, and the distrust felt by many survivors, meant that it would be impossible for the ISB to continue its work, Ms Sanghera suggested on Wednesday, and victims of church-based abuse were now faced with having to start the process again from the start.

DESPITE what has passed, Ms Sanghera indicated on Monday that she would be willing to continue working with the Archbishops’ Council if it committed itself to independent mediation.

Mr Reeves acknowledged that his “part in this is passing”, but said that he wanted people to “understand what’s happened”.

He continued: “We really need to make sure that our successors, whatever this might look like, have got a firmer foundation. This is not a political issue: this is a people issue. This is about whether your child who goes to Sunday school this weekend is safe in their church.”

Mr Reeves said that he had worked in safeguarding in a range of sectors, both in the UK and abroad, and that, in his view, “the way the Church responds is not normal. . .

“No organisation is safe by default, and so you judge the effectiveness of the organisation by how well they identify and mitigate risk, and how consistently they apply that mitigation. The problem with the Church is that whenever we get to that point, it recoils.”

Read more on the safeguarding story in this week’s Letters and Press column

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