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Synod agrees to devote more time to getting safeguarding right

08 July 2024

Sam Atkins/Church Times

The Bishop of Stepney, Dr Joanne Grenfell, introduces her motion

The Bishop of Stepney, Dr Joanne Grenfell, introduces her motion

SLOW but steady progress towards safeguarding reform was endorsed at the General Synod on Monday morning. Efforts to move immediately towards independent scrutiny were cut off.

A motion brought by the Bishop of Stepney, Dr Joanne Grenfell, who leads on safeguarding for the Church of England, was carried comfortably.

It praised an update from the Response Group which has been exploring options following two reviews earlier this year by Professors Sarah Wilkinson (the disbanding of the Independent Safeguarding Board) and Alexis Jay (the future of safeguarding).

Professor Jay recommended creating two new independent bodies: Organisation A, which would do operational safeguarding, and Organisation B which would offer scrutiny of this work. Both would be legally separate from the church hierarchy (News, 21 February).

In February, many Synod members had argued for an immediate acceptance of these recommendations; but, in the end, Synod had endorsed a plan for Dr Grenfell and her team to run a consultative process to consider different models of safeguarding reform (News, 24 February).

The results of this process were presented in a paper produced for this group of sessions. It outlined some “indicative models” and had tried to find areas of consensus, and to ensure the final outcome was not considered “unworkable” by any group in the Church.

The independent co-chair of the Response Group, the experienced businesswoman and NGO leader Lesley-Anne Ryder, said that she had been been “struck by how complex the systems and processes” of the Church are. “Seriously — I cannot easily find out whose job it is to take governance decisions here,” she told members, to an uneasy ripple of laughter in the chamber.

Her focus was on making safeguarding simpler to navigate, especially for victims in crisis who were trying to get help, and for ordinary parishes without huge resources.

But it was critical to decide what functions new safeguarding organisations should hold first, and only then what form they should take. “No change is not an option,” she warned members.

There was a second motion on the order paper from Clive Billenness (Europe), which called for immediate movement towards setting up Organisation B, which, unlike Organisation A, had found broad support across the Church. But the chair ruled that it contradicted Dr Grenfell’s motion, and so would fall if the first motion was passed.

Mr Billenness urged members to, reluctantly, vote down Dr Grenfell’s motion — despite his agreeing with most of it — in order to facilitate more rapid reform.

In the debate, several members praised the caution and careful approach of the Response Group, warning that excessive haste would lead to more mistakes that had to be unpicked painfully in the future.

The Bishop of Blackburn, the Rt Revd Philip North, said that he had previously supported full operational independence for safeguarding, but had changed his mind after conversations with safeguarding professionals in the dioceses.

Professor Jay’s conclusions were “deeply flawed” and would make the Church less safe, not more, he argued. Outsourcing safeguarding would allow bishops like him to pass the buck for failures elsewhere. Instead, the “sacred responsibility” for keeping children and vulnerable adults safe must be kept within the Church, although exercised independently.

The Bishop of Newcastle, Dr Helen-Ann Hartley, said that she had been dismayed in February’s debates at the procrastination over the Jay and Wilkinson recommendations (News, 26 February). But subsequent consultation with victims and survivors, and those on the Response Group, had softened her stance, and she now believed Dr Grenfell’s motion was the best way forward.

A lay member from the diocese of Sheffield, Michaela Suckling, shared her experience as a nurse working in children’s services. Her local authority’s services were in crisis, so they had been outsourced to an arms-length body. But later they were brought back in house, as it turned out operational independence had not helped.

Another recurring theme had been frustration from individual safeguarding figures with the chaos of the national scene interfering with their work. This was encapsulated by the Archdeacon of Leeds, the Ven. Paul Ayers, who bemoaned how the “attackers and defenders” slugging out safeguarding at the national level were “imposing their drama” on the rest of the Church.

Locally, safeguarding was not a “car crash” but increasingly well-delivered and improving all the time, he argued.

Not everyone was on board with Dr Grenfell’s careful approach, however. A few members joined Mr Billenness in calling for more urgent implementation of, at the very least, Organisation B.

Alison Coulter, from Winchester diocese, wanted more reassurance that Ms Ryder and the Response Group were taking their lead from survivors, not the House of Bishops, and encouraged more attention to power dynamics, which she said were silencing vulnerable people.

The Archbishop of York said that, while he had sympathy with Mr Billenness, he would ultimately be voting for Dr Grenfell’s motion, because the Church had made mistakes before by moving too quickly. He also said, however, that there was still a long menu of options before them, and that operational independence could still be achieved with safeguarding professionals remaining “embedded” in the dioceses.

The motion was eventually passed comfortably by a show of hands, meaning that Mr Billenness’s rival proposal lapsed, and was not debated.

A final plan for how to reform safeguarding structures is due to be brought back for approval at the February 2025 sessions.

 

AFTER the debate, a survivor and survivor-advocate, Jane Chevous, expressed her disappointment that Mr Billenness’s motion was not debated: “I don’t accept that they need to wait to design Organisation A. We know what the functions of Organisation B are: independent scrutiny, reviews, complaints.”

She continued: “We need to see urgent progress towards this now, not wait until next February. As other survivors and advocates have said, they are kicking it into the long grass again.”

At the weekend, survivors — including Ms Chevous — who had been waiting for reviews of their cases when the ISB was disbanded last year, complained that their situation had been misrepresented by the chair of the House of Laity, and Archbishops’ Council member, Dr Jamie Harrison.

In a written response to a question about whether any reviews had been started under Kevin Crompton, who is the interim commissioner of reviews, Dr Harrison said: “Survivors have requested that their engagement is kept confidential, and [Mr Crompton] is therefore unable to provide confirmation of the status of individual case reviews.”

This, the group of survivors known as the ISB 11 said in a statement, was “false, misleading, and harmful to those affected”. They have previously told the Church Times that no reviews had been commissioned, blaming delays in the agreement of data sharing arrangements, and a range of independent reviewers which they had felt were inadequate.

In a paper included among the Synod papers, Mr Crompton writes that, due to confidentiality, he was “not able to provide confirmation of the number of case reviews that might be commissioned at this time”.

In the next sentence, however, he says: “At the time of writing no case reviews have been commissioned despite there being agreed Terms of Reference in place and potential independent reviewers identified.”

A Church of England spokesperson said: “There was absolutely no intention to mispresent the situation, and Dr Harrison would have pointed to the further information in Kevin Crompton’s report had a supplementary question been asked. We do apologise if that was the perception.”

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