Church of England concerned for its reputation rather than dealing with child sex abusers

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The Church of England failed to protect children and young people from sexual predators because it was too concerned with its own reputation, according to a damning report from the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse, published today.

It said that the church had become a place where abusers could hide and that deference to authority created an environment where alleged perpetrators were treated more supportively than victims.

The church had an explicit moral purpose and its neglect of the well-being of children and young people in favour of protecting its reputation, was in conflict with its mission.

The report into the Church of England and the Church in Wales,  made eight recommendations including changing the name of the diocesan safeguarding officer to adviser and making them independent of the Bishop; introducing a new code of practice for clergy and reintroducing the power to strip those convicted of child sex abuse from holy orders; and creating a policy for supporting victims and survivors.

But in a Religion Media Centre zoom briefing, those recommendations were criticised as being weak and non-specific, which was a real problem for the church as it tried to move forward.

The Bishop in charge of safeguarding, Jonathan Gibbs, told the briefing that the Church of England had failed catastrophically in its duty of care and he fully accepted the weight of those criticisms. It was shocking and the church was ashamed.  “If we don’t get this right, it undermines fundamentally the credibility of the church”.

In an acknowledgment of survivors’ stories, the report said the church had been slow to engage effectively with them or to learn from their experience. The Bishop agreed that the church had a very low position of trust from survivors. It had been in denial about the depth of the problem, and this was a watershed moment pointing to key issues that needed to be addressed.

Andrew Graystone, a theologian who has taken up the cause of victims, said the church had been so indecisive in handling this in the past that survivors were still questioning whether anything would change. Nobody in authority had “got a grip”.

This was “mission critical” for the church as well as for victims and survivors. But the weak and non-specific proposals were a problem because radical culture change was required.

Dr Lisa Oakley, from the University of Chester, who chairs working groups on child abuse and spiritual abuse, said survivors needed more detail on how independent scrutiny would work. Questions remained over who would appoint the diocesan safeguarding advisers and who would provide the scrutiny. The church could go further than the recommendations, she suggested. She was surprised and disappointed that the report had not said mandatory reporting should be required, simply promising to return to it in later reports.

The Bishop indicated more work needed to be done to clarify what was meant by independent oversight – “the church can’t mark its own homework”,  he said, adding: “I certainly agree wholeheartedly that we’re taking it out of the hands of Bishops and putting it in the hands of professionals. But you’ve also then got the issue of who oversees the professionals”

Structures and processes were needed from local parishes through dioceses to the national organisation. This was more than an audit. He floated the idea that a conversation was needed about the role of the Charity Commission.

On a question about selecting clergy, he said safeguarding was fundamental. Records were checked but searching questions were asked about whether candidates understood what safeguarding was about.

The Bishop would not be drawn on an exact figure for creating new safeguarding measures and recompensing victims of sexual abuse, though the figure of £200 million was floated earlier this year. Instead he said the church was setting up a credit line: “Whatever it costs, the money will be found”. The briefing heard there was lack of clarity as to what each diocese was expected to provide.  

Asked about the hypocrisy of a clergyman committing sexual abuse against a child, he told the briefing, that evil is a reality “in our midst” and deeply rooted in people, so the church should prevent, identify and respond quickly.

“I’m not here to defend the church. I’m here to be part of holding the church to account and in the end, my loyalty is to the kingdom of God, to the just and merciful reign of God, not to the Church of England and I think that’s got to be absolutely fundamental. “

The report said: “The total number of convicted offenders associated with the Church from the 1940s until 2018 is 390. In 2018, 449 concerns were reported to the Church about recent child sexual abuse, of which more than half related to church officers.

Fact sheet with timeline of Church of England and child sex abuse story is here