An open letter to the leadership of the Church of England following BBC’s Panorama


Dear Archbishop Justin Welby, Archbishop John Sentamu, Bishop Peter Hancock and those at the Archbishop’s Council led by William Nye,

On Monday evening I, like many others, sat and watched with great dismay the BBC Panorama program ‘Scandal in the Church of England’. It made for painful watching (again). I sat and listened to the accounts of survivors which yet again pointed towards the systematic and longstanding failures of the Church to appropriately and sensitively deal with disclosures and allegations of abuse.

It is no longer (and has never been) acceptable to make apparent distinctions between the efforts being made to deal with ‘current’ issues and those that include offences committed in the past. There can be no excuse for the way in which survivors have been treated by the institutions of the Church of England in these cases. Those that participated in this weeks’ program have my total respect. For the Church of England to speak of the need for compassionate responses and to then act in a manner that is devoid of such a necessary and humane response cannot be defended.

It has been clear for some time that the past cases review conducted between 2007 and 2010 was flawed in a number of respects. For there to be any confusion or uncertainty about what happened to those cases that were identified, often referred to as the ‘Known Cases Lists’ is also inexcusable. The Panorama program did well to uncover what were clearly points of discomfort for the church hierarchy. For key representatives of the Church to either not be able to respond clearly to questions about the number of cases or be unprepared to do so, calls the management of these cases into serious question and makes one wonder who exactly is in control? The need for transparency and true accountability has never been as needed as it is today.

What is needed within the Church of England (and frankly elsewhere across the wider Church and beyond) is authentic leadership. Leadership that is prepared to lead by example in a proactive exercise of self-reflection that leads to open and honest dialogue (particularly with survivors). Leadership that is not governed, coerced or muzzled by either insurers, lawyers or any other stakeholder that may stand to lose from just exposure and open remorse and repentance. This would be the right thing to do!

We may ask, what (or who) is being served by this ongoing catalogue of failures, missed opportunities and resistance to effective change concerning past, present and future safeguarding matters? It certainly cannot be said that survivors are being well-served. It is also of great concern that the Church itself is being further damaged by a continual denial of the truth and avoidance of any tangible reparation.

If the public at large is ever again to say of the Church that it is a safe place, a haven or even a sanctuary for those who are suffering, the Church must be prepared to be laid bare and be held accountable for those things it has failed to do well. This humility would be the greatest strength of the Church in seeking to deal with this sad catalogue of shame. The time has come for those that stand in the way of what Jesus would so clearly have done to be challenged, held accountable and where needed placed elsewhere – where they have less opportunity to exert their negative influence and to stand in the way of the restoration that is desperately needed.

That there is even a need for programs such as Panorama to be made to expose such matters within the Church is itself shameful and a dreadful indictment. My heart aches. Lord have mercy!

This is not simply a heart cry for change. It is a clarion call for tangible action – to all those in positions of leadership within the Church of England (and elsewhere). It is a prayer for strength for those that need to be the change. It is an encouragement to those that have had to face giants to ensure their voice is heard. Let’s not miss the opportunity to be part of a generation that was able to put the mistakes of the past right and change the narrative for the future of the Church and those who might come alongside it.

Justin Humphreys, Joint Chief Executive, Thirtyone:eight (formerly the Churches Child Protection Advisory Service)