Last week I spent a day at the Church of England Synod. It was the first time I had attended a Synod. The order paper was incomprehensible, with references to draft amending canons, amendments and even a draft amending canon for revision, although later debates, such as one on homelessness, were more accessible.
I enjoyed the conversations over coffee, such as a chance meeting with Gill, a Synod member, who had lived with her vicar husband in Sheffield in the 1970s and who strongly supported the development of my role. I also had discussions with advocates for a much more proactive response to survivors of abuse in the church about their concerns.
I visited the stalls of a number of church related organisations, inexplicably located in a room some distance from the other events so experiencing limited traffic. It was particularly good to catch up with Broken Rites who support those in the church struggling with family difficulties such as divorce and separation.
I took part in a well-attended fringe meeting entitled “Promoting a Safer Church.” This was a welcome opportunity to engage with representatives from parishes. It was chaired by Peter Hancock, Bishop of Bath and Wells and lead bishop for safeguarding. Graham Tilby of the National Safeguarding Team set out developments since the last Synod. He outlined the progress of engagement with a group of survivors working with the church and facilitated by the Social Care Institute for Excellence. This is at an early stage but is part of a commitment to improve engagement with survivors. He also highlighted a future hearing into the church by the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) in July.
Particularly important to parishes has been the development of the Parish Safeguarding Handbook. Graham advised that an E-Safeguarding Manual is being developed which should provide an alternative way to access key information and enable more regular updating. The training and development framework is being revised and will be sent out for consultation – this is something that the National Safeguarding Panel (NSP) will be looking at in its next meeting in March.
During my spot I introduced myself and explained what I have been doing since my appointment in September. The National Safeguarding Panel had a detailed discussion about its role and operation at its meeting in December and at our next meeting we will be able to agree on proposed new terms of reference. We will also re-examine the membership as a number of people have left.
Sir Roger Singleton spoke about the decision to introduce a new job of National Director of Safeguarding to provide additional high-level leadership and resource. There is a recruitment process underway and Roger is Interim Director until the new person is recruited.
Time was allocated for small group discussions about the issues they face in their diocese and parishes – followed by a question and answer session. More detail was requested on the level of support to parishes and the level of funding now devoted by the church to safeguarding. Graham Tilby acknowledged that while there are now more resources providing advice and guidance to parishes, there needs to be a greater focus on prevention. Roger Singleton also mentioned the significant increase in resources now in safeguarding, but that assessing its impact is much more difficult, especially in the area of prevention. Concerns were raised that while there is a lot of work being done this is not widely publicised. I pinpointed the importance of putting more information into the public domain recognising that the Church still has a long way to go, while acknowledging that work is ongoing in a lot of areas.
Concerns were raised that there is sometimes a culture of assuming someone is guilty before due process has been followed, and about the support offered to clergy against who allegations have been made. Roger clarified that there is national guidance which recognises that the church must seek to provide justice both for those who raise allegations and those accused.
A concern was raised about the failure of statutory agencies to engage with churches. I have long thought that there is a need for greater recognition amongst statutory agencies of the Church’s safeguarding role. Many Local Authority Safeguarding Boards have shown little interest in engaging with faith organisations and I am looking at ways to increase awareness.
Although a long day, I was pleased I went along to a performance of the short play “Groomed”. Written and performed by Patrick Sandford it told the story of his sexual abuse by a primary school teacher. I have never seen anything that so completely showed the psychological damage of abuse.
After this extraordinary performance Patrick gave us the opportunity to talk to him about his experiences. He spoke of the impact on his life and the very long journey to some sort of healing. I hope that many more within the church will have the opportunity to see it. I have no doubt that the bravery of Patrick in telling his own story has much to offer in terms of making the impact of abuse more understandable. I left somewhat drained but having found it a productive and interesting day.