A HIGHLY critical report from the chair of the new Independent Safeguarding Board (ISB), Maggie Atkinson (News, 30 September 2021), sets how far the board believes that the Church of England must travel to prevent further safeguarding failures and to promote a safer culture.
In some cases, defending institutions had mattered more than the person making the disclosure, the report, which was presented to the General Synod on Wednesday morning, says. An attitude of “also-to-do” had resulted in seeing safeguarding as a secondary task; and there had been a “child-unfriendly” approach for people seeking help or redress, it says.
“We are keenly aware that the Church’s past failures, and the associated pain, shame, ongoing confusion, sometimes anger, and potentially lifelong trauma of victims and survivors, are too often still present long after the suffering concerned is brought to light,” the report says, “whether or not the Church considers it has in fact now been addressed, and matters concluded.”
The report emphasises that the ISB has moral authority only; it is not a re-investigation body and does not have powers to sanction, direct, regulate, inspect, or insist, the report explains. Its remit was to oversee the work of the NST and advise the Church on how to proceed in the long run.
The report came to the Synod as part a paper updating members on the Church’s safeguarding work. This was presented jointly by the Bishop of Huddersfield, Dr Jonathan Gibbs, who is the lead bishop for safeguarding, and the chair of the NST, Zena Marshall. There was an opportunity for questions afterwards.
The presentation covered aspects such as governance, the Safe Spaces service (News, 16 October 2020), safe recruitment and people management, and the national Casework Management System. Dr Gibbs described the presentation as “a whistle-stop update” to complement the report.
The ISB briefing paper states that the C of E is “sincere in its wish to improve how safeguarding is undertaken at national, diocesan, cathedral, community, parish, school and other levels. We believe the language of concern, where necessary of contrition, remorse and a determination to improve, expresses genuine intent.”
It continues: “We consider there is a pressing need for the C of E to look beyond its own boundaries and structures so that it can learn from strong and replicable safeguarding practice in services and agencies in localities and wider society, not least in local safeguarding children and safeguarding adults’ partnerships and boards.”
That survivors and complainants of all ages routinely approach ISB members with all-too-common threads is “regrettable”, it says. The first barrier is the “over-complex, hard-to-navigate structures, bodies, and boards at national, diocesan, and other levels, a review and reform of which should have been considered, alongside other governance issues, by Bishop Baines’ recent governance review”.
Second, it finds “slow, institutionally defensive responses, with the person making a disclosure often disbelieved, alongside a continued sense that ‘institutions’ and the potential of upset for the accused matter more than, rather than as much as, the person making disclosures”.
Finally, there is the thread about “Promises about action that will follow and redress that will be made, too often either only partially or simply not delivered, or seriously delayed and bound about with legalistic defensiveness”.
The paper finds a culture in some settings in which “safeguarding is seen as an ‘also-to-do’ or secondary set of tasks, rather than a culture that should infuse all actions, and all practice, and be funded, resourced and staffed to match that cultural shift.” Further, it identifies a “‘child-unfriendly’ approach if a child or young person makes an approach for help, advice or redress, and an escalation of that young person’s inquiry into formal and complex complaint processes, when practice should have seen off the difficulty at the point where help was sought”.
It concludes with “a sense that in the midst of these problems, it is somehow not seen as permissible or seemly to highlight, celebrate or publicise what really strong, positive safeguarding look and feel like, and what tremendous work is done every day in dioceses, parishes, cathedrals and other settings, to the great good fortune and well-being of those involved”.
Synod members had many questions for both the NST and the ISB. Dr Gibbs and Ms Marshall defended the NST’s progress and reiterated that safeguarding must be in the DNA of the whole Church. Ms Atkinson reiterated that the ISB’s duty was to advise the Church on progress to the next phase of action.
But Gavin Drake (Southwell & Nottingham) then proposed a following motion that both asked Synod to express its disapproval of the paper and called for a full and independent assessment of the work and performance of the NST and the “myriad safeguarding bodies of the Church of England”.
He cited seven failings: the use of the term “vulnerable” persons instead of “adults at risk of abuse or neglect”; the lack of reference to the creation of key performance indicators; lack of detail to enable the Synod to form a view about its effectiveness; the absence of any mention of bullying in the Church, “widely acknowledged to be a serious issue within churches”; a piecemeal approach rather than “the wholesale reform that is needed”; failure to address the concerns of the ISB’s first report; and the lack of provision for any independent external scrutiny.
Mr Drake described the ISB report as “explosive”. “It is no longer good enough for Synod just to follow the advice of the NST.”
Lively debate followed. Dr Gibbs defended the work of the NST and declared the motion flawed. The NST report to the Synod had never been intended to give a strategic overview: it was an update.
He suggested that there was misunderstanding and misinterpretation in Mr Drake’s motion, and told the Synod that a vote in favour would “effectively constitute a vote of no confidence in the ISB before it had started. I believe it is misplaced. I would urge you to resist it.”
Some members were in favour. Clive Billenness (Europe) suggested that the report “almost turns a blind eye to bullying”, and said that his mailbox was full of “heart-breaking stories” of bullying that had caused untold harm.
Kashmir Garton (Worcester), a member of the National Safeguarding Panel and of the probation service, had been impressed by the wide-ranging work that the NST had so far undertaken. It was a “process of embedding, a dynamic and continuous process of improvement”.
James Cary (Bath & Wells) said that this train “was leaving the station very late. Synod is being asked to hit the brake and take the train apart. Yes, room for improvement . . . But this motion, no; it will slow down the planning.”
Canon Simon Butler (Southwark) intervened with a point of order to move to next business. This was a following motion, he said, and the Synod had not the background briefing papers that would have made interrogation and a detailed response possible.
The chair, Professor Joyce Hill, advised the Synod that if it moved to next business, the motion would lapse and could not be reconsidered in the same or similar form in the life of the Synod.
Mr Drake asked that the debate might instead be adjourned. He said that safeguarding was a major issue, “and if the NST has limited function, why are we spending so much money on it?”
More points of order followed. Standing Orders prevented Mr Drake’s request for adjournment being made within a reply. Professor Hill permitted the requested counted vote. The Synod voted by 236 to 75, with 22 recorded abstentions, to move to next business.