So, the first week of IICSA’s enquiry into the Anglican Church, focussing particularly on the diocese of Chichester, is over. Every word spoken, every sentence of evidence given and every polite-but-incisive bit of lawyerly questioning is available to read online.
This feels personal…
As someone who has spent part of the last ten years dealing with some safeguarding matters as they affect clergy, it makes sobering reading. I offer these reflections, bearing in mind that there are two weeks to go yet, and another session to come in July.
It was within the first ten days or so of my time as a Bishop’s Chaplain in 2006 that one of our own diocese’s clergy was convicted of child sexual abuse and sentenced to imprisonment. With my then Bishop, we immediately had to do a round of media interviews, and we were made painfully aware of the shortcomings of what in those days passed for a process for dealing with clergy against whom allegations had been made.
Ten years later, freshly retired, I can see how that one case led to a sea-change in our understanding of abuse, and we’ve gradually realised the need to have proper processes and record-keeping.
The Inquiry is discovering that there has been considerable cultural reluctance to engage with these issues, let alone to come alongside survivors and victims. As well as the one case that hit me in the face as I started my job, I’ve followed another long drawn-out series of issues around a high-profile offender. Taken together, (and with the help of some very supportive and encouraging safeguarding professionals), these cases probably helped me to avoid some of the awful mistakes that the Inquiry is now looking at. I do not claim that Bath and Wells is any better or holier than the other dioceses of the Church of England: just that, for me, the learning curve started very quickly.
But back to IICSA…
Although the mainstream media (sorry!) have given blanket and usually condemnatory coverage of individual abuse scandals, they have not troubled themselves too much with covering these hearings. (I absolve the Church Times from this: they have given full coverage, both online and in print – try here.)
That will change next week, when high-profile figures come to give evidence (the list for next week is now available, and includes former Archbishops Rowan Williams and George Carey). So we can expect the headlines and detailed coverage that has so far been lacking. It won’t be pretty, and there are some useful background materials around to help parishes understand what IICSA is really about.
In the meantime, I commend a look at the transcripts to you. But you will need a strong constitution to follow them. This is because
- some of the evidence consists of painful and moving accounts from victims and survivors – their voices are being heard and they name names.
- much of it is very detailed, with forensic questioning about the specifics of how the diocese of Chichester handled a whole series of cases, what records were kept, who said what to whom, and so on.
Those who follow bathwellschap on Synodical matters include a goodly number of those who work in Bishops offices and diocesan teams. Like me, they will recognise some of the failings that are described, and they will also recoil in horror at some of the dystopian diocesan inter-personal goings-on that have just made things worse for victims and survivors of clerical abuse. If I just mention
- a Bishop allegedly threatening libel action against colleagues
- a safeguarding advisory panel taking out a Clergy Discipline Case against a Bishop
you’ll get a rough idea of just how rough it has been.
You need to read the evidence to see how bad things were. If you want to look at transcripts, or examine documents (everything is public) go here
For new readers…
IICSA (The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse) is treating the Anglican Church as just one of nineteen areas of inquiry.
- It is starting with the diocese of Chichester as a kind of first sample, because it is known that there have been long-running and high-profile cases in that diocese.
- It is a full, proper public enquiry, with all interested parties represented by their own lawyers. Evidence is given on oath.
- The scale is vast. As I wrote elsewhere “there are, as evidence, 28,677 documents amounting to 206,863 pages – with more to come. One barrister explained this documentation is providing “road maps through the avalanche site of disclosure””
So in this first week the Inquiry has heard from, and quizzed, some Chichester key players: they include the people responsible for safeguarding, a former Archdeacon, those who have led investigations or enquiries in the diocese, and a former Bishop of Chichester, John Hind. The Inquiry has also heard from victims and survivors of abuse – whose anonymity is protected.
- On Wednesday, Bishop John gave a masterclass explanation of what Anglo-Catholicism in the Church of England is all about.
- On Thursday, the former Chaplain and Episcopal Vicar, Canon Ian Gibson gave evidence. His evidence was of particular interest to me (as a former chaplain myself) and I would say that anyone who works anywhere near a Bishop’s Office or deals with clergy files ought to read it (Thursday 8 March, afternoon session). I take my hat off to him.
On Friday, evidence from a former Diocesan Secretary and a Safeguarding Adviser gave a graphic impression of how the church (and not just in Chichester…) was being confronted with the realities of child abuse, and how the prevailing culture (and not just in Chichester…) made it very hard for them to make progress.
Hats off also, then, to Ms Fiona Scolding, the Inquiry’s lead counsel, who has managed to navigate her way through the complexities of Anglo-Catholicism and Conservative evangelicalism, Canon Law, clerical nomenclature and the internecine squabbles and misunderstandings that have been revealed in this first week of evidence.
What have we learned?
- The area system as practiced in the diocese of Chichester from Bishop Eric Kemps’s time lacked accountability, permitted a diversity of practice in record-keeping and laid the foundation for some serious strife amongst the senior clergy and lay leaders. Safeguarding allegations, past convictions, recruitment decisions, and even CRB/DBS disclosure blemishes were kept within an area, and not dealt with by the diocese itself.
- Valiant attempts were made by a number of people to deal with the various messes, but they were stymied by poor personal relationships and a turnover of key staff (particularly Safeguarding and Diocesan Secretaries)
- No less than three enquiries happened (Meekings, Butler-Sloss and the Archbishop’s Commissioners), none of which really got to the full truth of what had happened to victims, erring clerics, or to such paper files as existed about them.
There has been a line taken more than once by some of the lawyers about whether the Church should hand over all its safeguarding work to an independent body of some kind, to avoid the impression (and in some cases the reality) of the church not investigating itself thoroughly. I dare say we shall hear more of that.
Hearings run every day this week, with high-profile witnesses as well as survivors and those who were at the coal-face of safeguarding and dealing with case-work.
- You can see the outline timetable here with lists of those called to give evidence.
- Transcripts will appear here
- A live video link to all public evidence (except anonymous victims and survivors) can be followed here
I realise that the detail is all but impenetrable to those who are not well-versed in either safeguarding or ecclesiastical administration, but I hope media coverage will not just be drawn to the famous names who are giving evidence.
Of course those in authority, or who were in authority, must speak up and answer for themselves. But the detail of what can go wrong in recruitment, admin and relationships is being laid bare by these hearings.
Many readers of this blog will feel a chill come over them, as I did, as they read the unvarnished accounts of some serious falling short, which has damaged both individuals and the mission of the church.