Safeguarding in the Church of England: when is a victim of child-abuse not a victim?

When Safeguarding goes wrong everybody gets hurt.

To our readers — Anglican Ink is pleased to report it has been given permission to reprint several important articles published by “Archbishop Cranmer”, the pen name of Adrian Hilton, on the unfolding child abuse scandal in the top ranks of the Church of England. 

Yesterday I advanced a more sympathetic perspective on why Lord Carey might have acted so imprudently in the case of Peter Ball. I did so because my experience in dealing with such tragic cases is that everybody involved is damaged in some way, even the ‘neutrals’ and the ‘winners’. By the time you finish reading this piece, you will, at the very least, be convinced of that proposition.

When Safeguarding goes wrong everybody gets hurt.

So today I grasp a much more uncomfortable nettle and explore whether things have changed sufficiently to enable us to be confident that similar errors are not being replicated in the Church of England today. If we have continued to make the same mistakes, then we truly have to rethink our whole Safeguarding regime and to introduce a significant outside professional element.

I do so having read and discussed personally the account of abuse experienced by Matt Ineson, and the response of the church. That account is contemporary, though rooted in historic abuse.

I shall be as fair as I can be for the benefit of all parties: the legally correct way to handle all such allegations, established from the days of the Cleveland Report of 1987, is to “listen to what the complainant says and take what they say seriously”. This differs from current church policy, and it makes a difference, as we shall see.

In a nutshell, Matt Ineson describes historic abuse perpetrated by a priest, Trevor Devamanikkam, which was reported many years later to the police, and verbally and in writing on various occasions to a succession of church figures of increasing seniority. He explains that the police had asked him to delay initiating a Clergy Discipline complaint lest it alert the perpetrator.

The victim was sufficiently credible for the police and CPS to finally bring a prosecution many years after the events. This is unusual and a high bar to clear for any victim in pursuit of justice. There were six counts of serious sexual offences; three of rape and three of indecent assault on a child.

After the police had confirmed that he may do so, the CDM was lodged, alleging that there had been an insufficient response by the Church of England after initial disclosure to its clergy representatives. On behalf of its clergy, a defence was raised based upon the one-year time limit for such cases to be lodged. This submission was upheld for most of the clergy and the discretion to extend the time limit was not exercised.

There is no reason to believe that the rules have been other than correctly invoked and upheld, but how does that look to victims and the public?

Should we even have a time bar on an allegation that clergy allegedly failed to actively respond to ‘victims’?

The successful pleading of such a limitation means that the substance of the complaint receives no public airing. It will inevitably mean that outsiders will perceive it as senior church figures ‘getting off on a technicality’, which may be acceptable for ordinary folk, but as a perception of Church leaders? Those benefiting from the limitation seem prima facie immune from further scrutiny. One cannot even question the quality of their duty to be effective shepherds to the lambs put in their charge. Whether he is right, wrong or even deluded, this clergyman complainant was a child of God in deep need, anxiety and pain.

Of course, the victim may be mistaken, prone to exaggeration, wrong, malicious or ill, but that avails us little benefit in the court of public opinion, or perhaps at the Last Judgment. On earth the victim has not had his day in court and that is ‘not a good look’. Worse, he asked for a fish and we appear to have given him a stone.

He believes he received defensive and bureaucratic responses when he needed the love of his pastors. That might be a by-product of the structurally inconsistent roles we place on our Episcopacy. We might read and talk about ‘Dethroning Mammon’, but crossing the insurance company if you have corporate responsibility is not something to be done lightly.

A complaint against living clergy with a close proximity to the events in question has been defeated by pleading a legal time limit, yet in the case of the late Bishop George Bell – a case of historic allegations over 50 years old – the church privately settled a claim seemingly without raising a defence on a similar objection. There is a reason that statutes of limitations exist, but in Bishop Bell’s case the merits of limitation were not even tested.

We may be able to tease out a satisfactory answer when Lord Carlile presents his report into that matter, but might it be unfortunate if we are perceived to be more tenacious in defending our present clergy than standing up for those of an earlier vintage?

It was partly with that thought in mind that I note the alacrity with which we have condemned Lord Carey for aiding and abetting injustice, whilst worrying that the victim in this current matter finds himself deprived of any sense of justice having been done.

Among the difficulties in such cases is what may constitute ‘notifying’ abuse.

Let us be generous to those currently accused. Do our present arrangements do them a disservice if any oral notification of impropriety may be later considered a formal notification which ought to have been actioned? Might not clarity be advanced and misunderstanding avoided if we tighten up what is formally regarded as a ‘notification of abuse’?

In the case under consideration we have a victim clear in his recollection that unambiguous notifications were not acted upon. We also have a clear refutation from the senior clergy involved.

Speaking as a lawyer (albeit retired), a system that results in the most serious of allegations turning on a ‘he said/she said’ argument is hardly fit for purpose, nor does it make for Christian harmony.

This is by no means a novel observation. In the 2016 Elliott Review in another case of poor practice, the following observations were made:

It is hard to accept that those who receive a disclosure of sexual abuse can fail to recall that it happened or to make an appropriate record of what was said. It is reported that this is what happened in this case. Practice of this nature is simply not acceptable and must be addressed. All who find themselves to be in this position must know what to do and must have some understanding of how they should respond. To have no records and to rely entirely on memory is simply not good enough.

…As outlined to me, the role of the bishop is critical and exerts a strong influence on the safeguarding decision making that takes place. Within this case, it is alleged that two of the abusers were senior members of the hierarchy which would suggest that they would be unlikely to make sound safeguarding decisions. Similarly, if a bishop is unable to recall a disclosure of a serious sexual assault occurring, this would cause the reviewer to doubt their ability to respond appropriately to identified risk in their diocese. These are not trivial issues. Behind every disclosure that is received lies human pain and suffering that can be so intense as to be life threatening. It deserves everyone’s close attention.

In the case of the long dead George Bell, we were told that the victim ‘must be believed’; in the case Matt Ineson – a very much alive complainant – not so much.

This leads us to the most worrying inconsistency, and demands us to contrast how George Carey – another member of the Episcopate ‘past his sell-by date’ – is treated differently from current leaders in not dissimilar positions.

At our February Synod, we passed a set of rules that enable clergy to be required to undergo a Safeguarding Risk Assessment. We did not have the guidelines at the point we voted, and my suggestion that we await their terms was defeated. It was insisted that all complainants be termed ‘victims’.

Our National Safeguarding Team has insisted this remain, in accordance with the view (advanced in the case of George Bell) that the church must proceed on the basis that ‘the victim must be believed’.

So be it.

That is the standard which the Church of England chose to adopt (against my advice), and must be applied.

The victim in this case – Fr Matthew Ineson – claims that he has been the subject of clergy abuse and institutional or negligent cover-up. He has been denied his day in court in a significant part of his complaint by the invocation of a legal time limit. His abuser recently committed suicide, so there will be no criminal trial.

There is accordingly currently an insufficiency of church mechanisms to test his case against each of those he claims to have wronged him.

Except, not quite…

For surely, if he is a ‘victim’ who ‘must be believed’, there is now a requirement under our policies that those whom he alleges to have inadequately responded to his reported abuse must be risk-assessed under the new rules.

The Elliott Review tells us why: Canon C30 identifies a safeguarding issue where clergy have: “put a child or vulnerable adult at risk of harm”.

Are not children and vulnerable adults put at risk of harm if clergy in authority fail to take action against a member of clergy who was subsequently arrested, charged with the most serious of criminal offences, and who killed himself? Are they not put at risk if the allegation of institutional lethargy if not cover-up are not fully explored?

Is a legal time limit sufficient basis to pay no further heed to the ‘victim’ who ‘must be believed’? At what fair point in the process did we cease to believe him?

On what basis can further action including full Risk Assessments of all concerned be properly denied?

The assessors must have a comprehensive chronology, the full account of the victim, all church records pertaining to these matters (including the advice and actions of the National Safeguarding Team), comprehensive responses to the allegations from those accused and, where appropriate, the police must be asked to give full co-operation by providing their records of the original reports of allegations, the pertinent evidence relating to the case and what contact they had from the church, if any.

Matt Ineson cannot see that any of these steps have been taken in accordance with our declared standard of believing the victim, and so we come full circle.

If a robust investigation is not undertaken and matters are left in the currently unsatisfactory position, consider the plight of our current Bishops and Archbishops with relevant responsibility in 20 years’ time. Might they be standing in George Carey’s shoes, defending ‘no further action’, offering the same excuse of ‘I believed the Bishop’?

The church must respond with decisive clarity to these matters.

These are not trivial issues.

This is a guest post by Martin Sewell, a retired Child Protection Lawyer and a member of General Synod and is reprinted with the permission of Archbishop Cranmer

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