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Angela Tilby: Jay’s plan for safeguarding is not simple

08 March 2024

Church of England

Professor Alexis Jay

Professor Alexis Jay

PROFESSOR Alexis Jay’s report calling for a total overhaul of safeguarding in the Church of England has been met with mixed reactions (News, 1 March). Her chief recommendation is the setting up of two independent charities: one to deliver, and one to scrutinise, church safeguarding. This sounds pretty much in line with what many campaigning survivors hoped for.

It is intended that the new structures give confidence to those who feel let down by current arrangements. They may also mitigate the culture in which vexatious complaints are made against clerics under the umbrella of safeguarding. There have been occasions when false accusations have led to priests’ being instantly suspended and threatened with dismissal.

Professor Jay insists, rightly, that the Church of England’s current safeguarding arrangements are too complex and too inconsistent. Worst of all, the Church is judged incapable of distinguishing safeguarding from its own vested interests: “Overall Church leaders have failed to allay suspicions . . . that the underlying intention of the Church is to retain control of safeguarding inside the Church and to protect its reputation.” Reading the report, I found myself feeling rather grubby, as though the only solution to the C of E’s historic inadequacies was surgical cauterisation by the bright light of current secular practice.

But Professor Jay’s recommendations are not as straightforward as they may seem.

First, it is difficult to define what “independent” means in the context of an Established Church in which there is no clear division between the Church and the rest of society. The report implies that church office-holders should play no part in the delivery or scrutiny of the new system. But this is to treat the Church as a defined organisation — a sect, in other words — and to assume a rather naïve trust in the moral superiority of those who self-define as “secular”. There would be inevitable problems in the ill-defined area of “spiritual abuse”. Simply to hold particular beliefs or to commend them to others could be judged by some as spiritual abuse.

The second problem is the report’s insistence that safeguarding officers should still be based in dioceses. Anyone who has ever worked in a diocesan office will recognise how likely this would be to lead to a conflict of loyalties, as safeguarding officers either felt pressurised by other staff to toe a particular diocesan line, or were regarded as “spies” for the new national organisations.

The third issue is money. There is no clarity in the proposals about how far the Church is liable for redress, and how any claims would be judged — or, indeed, about how the two schemes themselves would be funded. It is hardly to be expected that the Church can sign off on what is likely to become an open cheque to two organisations in which it is not represented. More work needed, alas.

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