The Church’s continuing blind spot

The Church of England has a continuing blind spot when it comes to safeguarding. In struggling to present a new message of how it has changed from the bad old days it is still prioritising its image over what is right.

In some senses the situation has not changed terribly much. While it is true that in the past the Church protected the reputation of the Church above the priority of the victims, this was partly because in the past sexual abuse was routinely trivialised and misunderstood. But is the present day hypocrisy of the contemporary Church much better?

The overriding priority is to present a message that the Church is now different and a changed place when its response remains so rigidly bureaucratic, and institutional. The Church is now much better at an institutional response to safeguarding but remains poor at responding pastorally to the individual needs of victims, complainants and indeed those falsely accused together with abusers and their families.

The diocese of Canterbury’s recent advice about the sanctity of the confessional seems to get everything wrong. The words at dispute are these: “Any priest hearing a confession, regularly or otherwise, must say prior to hearing that confession the following statement of confidentiality and safeguarding:

‘If you touch on any matter in your confession that raises a concern about the wellbeing or safeguarding of another person or yourself, I am duty bound to pass that information on to the relevant agencies, which means that I am unable to keep such information confidential’.”

Whether or not this breaches canon law is another matter but it is certainly so general that it could draw in any number of behaviours that might be considered a safeguarding issue but should certainly not be grounds for breaching confidentiality.

Most seriously, it will produce the undesirable result of putting off abusers from making their confession and bringing them within the reach of justice.

The diocese of Canterbury itself admits that the advice “is intended to advise the penitent not to divulge in confession something which would legally compromise the position of the priest.”

This means that even though it is highly unlikely that an abuser will confess his crimes to a priest, it is even less likely that they will do so in future. And the priest will have absolutely no chance of hearing such a confession and attempting to persuade an abuser to go to the police and make restitution. This could keep abuse underground where it thrives rather than bringing it into the open.

Kicked into the long grass?

Charles Moore reveals that the core group investigating fresh allegations against Bishop George Bell is slowly but tortuously beginning its work.

Readers will remember that the police gave the case a cursory glance but given that Bell died in 1958 it would have been a colossal waste to spend their resources on a case where there could be no prosecution. According to Moore, the current Bishop of Chichester, Martin Warner, who headed the last core group that was so lambasted by Lord Carlile for its massive failures has stepped aside.

The group is to be chaired by Timothy Briden, vice-Chancellor of the Province of Canterbury. Moore comments: “One hopes he will find the courage to be independent of his Archbishop, who made such a bad mistake by rushing to judgement against Bell”.

We also learn that a retired North Yorkshire detective investigator, Ray Galloway, is leading the investigation. Conveniently, this investigation will not be completed in time for July’s General Synod during which a debate on safeguarding is scheduled, prompting suspicions that this has been kicked into the long grass until after the IICSA hearings have taken place.

The next IICSA hearing is at the end of July and will examine the response of institutions to abuse by the former Bishop of Gloucester, Peter Ball. This will include the response of police and prosecutors, which was not covered by Dame Moira Gibb in her review of the case last summer.

Andrew Carey