by Prof Helen King, Professor Emerita in Classical Studies at The Open University and lay preacher in the Diocese of Oxford
A recent invitation to take my fourth safeguarding course made me reflect on all the work that has been going on over the past few years as the Church of England tries to show that it has learned from the hideous sins of the past; most recently, through the IICSA hearings.
The question is “How we should move on?” and the answers to that are expensive ones.
In January 2019, in a widely reported interview with The Spectator, Justin Welby announced that the annual budget for safeguarding has risen from around £50,000-£100,000 to £7,000,000. As well as appointing lots of people, organising lots of groups and formulating lots of procedures, much of the money has gone into training. Lots of training. As Robin Gill wrote in the Church Times in August, some of what’s taught is ‘blindingly obvious’ and the process is ‘tedious and repetitious, but, like long security checks at airports, it is still essential’.
It’s clearly important to make sure that everyone knows what to look for and how to report it, but are we using the money in the best possible way?
Back in 2016 I went to see the movie Spotlight, about sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic diocese of Boston, MA. When I blogged on this, I noted how the Boston response was not to report cases, but to move offenders around. The IICSA hearings made it clear that a culture of concealment and collusion had existed in some Church of England dioceses too. Those at the top failed to pass on information to the police, preferring to protect the institution. At the very first safeguarding course I took, not run by the Church of England, we learned that churches are perfect places for abusers to hide in plain sight, with nobody believing that ‘such a holy person’ could ever do those things. The former Archdeacon of Lewes and Hastings told IICSA that he believed what Roy Cotton told him because ‘I take priests at their word’.
So the ‘we need more training’ solution has to work against that long-established culture, in which protecting the abuser as ‘one of us’, ‘part of the family’, has too often taken precedence over listening to survivors. Peter Ball produced testimonials asserting his good character from people like the Prince of Wales: graphic evidence that abusers groom authority figures too, so any concerns raised will be brushed aside. That in turn means that survivors are abused again, this time by not being taken seriously.
The best-known example here is the survivor Gilo, the response to one of his many letters to Church leaders being an offer of ‘prayers’ made by a correspondence clerk. While some survivors spoke to General Synod in July 2018, their voices are still not put in the forefront.
There’s been a huge cultural change here, including the realisation that ‘abuse’ goes beyond sexual abuse; emotional, physical and financial abuse also happen. In the case of the recently-sentenced churchwarden and murderer Benjamin Field, several of those came together. That case also involved spiritual abuse, a form of abuse recently discussed by both Rosie Harper and Jayne Ozanne but not currently covered in the safeguarding training; a new module is due next year on ‘Spiritual abuse and healthy Christian cultures’.
Nor is this only about children and young people. One of the main things I learned at my first training session was that anyone can be a vulnerable adult; people with disability or illness, or in distress of any kind, who can’t protect themselves from abuse or exploitation. And that would include people whose sexuality or gender identity are not considered acceptable in some congregations and contexts.
And it’s so important that we get it right.
Who is checking that the money invested in training is being used wisely? There’s a National Safeguarding Steering Group, which met for the first time at the end of 2016, and a National Safeguarding Panel which includes representatives from survivors’ groups. There are national and diocesan safeguarding teams; the national one has over 20 people working on it. There’s a Parish Safeguarding Handbook. Annual reports are published. From one of those, covering 2017, comments from those attending training courses included ‘Have not really been taught about abuse with vulnerable adults before’ but also ‘might put older people off volunteering’.
In May 2018, Quentin Letts wrote a typically over-the-top piece – it appeared in the Daily Mail – on the horrors of being a Church of England volunteer having to attend what he called the ‘almost meaningless’ safeguarding training. He speculated that PCC members and churchwardens would ‘quit rather than succumb to any safeguarding course’. While annual reports list how many people took each training course in that diocese, it’s not clear what happens when some refuse to be trained.
In her introduction to the IICSA enquiry into Chichester Diocese, the Lead Counsel Fiona Scolding said that the Church of England was ‘running to catch up’ with changes in the rest of society and characterised it as ‘an institution grappling with human sexuality and sexual orientation’. That links IICSA with another acronym, LLF: the Living in Love and Faith project, of which I am part. Like safeguarding, LLF has large amounts of money thrown at it. I’m not sure the figures are in the public domain, but we know from a question to the Chair of the House of Bishops at the February 2017 General Synod that the precursor – Shared Conversations – cost £384,525: of this, £300,000 came from the Church Commissioners.
This is all about financial ‘cost’, but the real, human ‘cost’ both of abuse and of the Church’s current position on sexuality is not something we can easily measure.
Janet Fife, a survivor of childhood sexual abuse and also an ordained woman, edited with Gilo Letters to a Broken Church. One of its requests is for reparation. In an open letter to the Archbishops, Janet asked for ‘funds for counselling for those who have made allegations of abuse’. In the July 2018 Synod, David Ison, Dean of St Paul’s, said ‘We should be making millions of pounds available to … those who have been hurt, who have been marginalised at our hands’. Is that happening?
Appointing more people, producing resources (who will use them?), running training (what if people don’t participate?): it looks good, but what about practical ways of hearing and then helping those who have survived abuse, and those whose relationships can’t currently be acknowledged by the Church?
In both safeguarding and sexuality, it seems to me that the Church needs to do far more both to listen to those who have been abused and to help those who have suffered at its hands.