Safeguarding and the Clergy Discipline Measure

The National Safeguarding Panel recently considered the Clergy Discipline Measure in relation to safeguarding. In May a lawyer with experience in the measure gave a detailed presentation about the process. Following this, the June meeting had an in-depth discussion on whether the measure is fit for purpose.

To take better account of safeguarding the measure itself was amended in 2016, but concerns persist. The National Safeguarding Team have undertaken a formal consultation on the measure’s operation. Various responses were received, from people in many different roles including bishops, deans, diocesan safeguarding advisors, registrars and an organisation representing survivors. The National Safeguarding Panel were provided with copies of the analysis of the responses, and Emily Denne, from the National Safeguarding Team, attended the panel to answer questions.  The Bishops of Salisbury and Lincoln also undertook a survey of their fellow bishops to gain information about their experience of using the measure. The Bishop of Salisbury, Nicholas Holtam, also attended the panel to respond to questions.

Responding to the concerns, the Church has agreed to set up a working group on the Clergy Discipline Measure to be chaired by the Bishop at Lambeth, Tim Thornton, which will begin work soon. Tim was unable to attend the panel meeting but provided a brief outline of his thoughts for the meeting. These included concern that the process does not work well in complex situations which involve significant investigation and several people.

When the group starts its work, it will include a survivor voice, and will want to hear from experts and other professions on how discipline matters are handled. Tim’s initial thoughts included whether there should be a mediation process for low level complaints (not likely to be safeguarding concerns). Also, that there may need to be a completely different process for safeguarding cases as compared to other complaints.

Recommendations and areas for consideration

After a full discussion, the National Safeguarding Panel agreed on a small number of recommendations and a number of areas we recommend the working group to consider.

  • Currently the Clergy Discipline Measure only allows for complaints to be made within a year of the issue arising. The only exception is for sexual abuse when there is no time limit. The panel recommended that there should be no time limitation under the discipline measure on the investigation of any safeguarding concern.
  • A lot could be done to improve the information given to those raising a concern and those subject to the discipline measure. This could be partly achieved through leaflets. There also ought to be agreed timescales in which parties are kept informed of the progress of a concern.
  • We supported the recommendation in the National Safeguarding Team report that there should be special measures for vulnerable victims and witnesses. This happens in the criminal justice system to enable best evidence to be collected.

The working group should consider the following issues:

  • The threshold for the use of suspension for those subject to a disciplinary process
  • Should there be a different process depending on the level of concern – and how should thresholds be determined?
  • What should the relationship be between disciplinary processes and risk assessments?  
  • How can behaviour before ordination be considered in relation to safeguarding and that any process should also apply to ordinands.
  • Consider the issue of independence in the investigation and in relation to the current conflict for bishops between discipline and pastoral support for clergy. 
  • The “ownership” of any complaint – once a safeguarding complaint has been made; its progress should not be determined by the complainant but by the church and the wider safeguarding considerations.
  • If the Church has the primary role in the disciplinary process what support should there be for the complainant, so they do not feel disempowered by the process?
  • How to support those clergy subject to complaints?
  • Should there be some form of peer review of decision making and who should scrutinise or audit decisions by dioceses?
  • Training for bishops and diocesan registrars – most bishops have only occasional involvement in a disciplinary process and so there is little experience within one diocese.
  • How to properly take account of the different burdens of proof – i.e. criminal – beyond reasonable doubt; civil – on the balance of probabilities and how these affect a disciplinary process when criminal proceedings are also involved. Should the processes be undertaken in parallel or sequentially?
  • The relationship between dioceses and the National Safeguarding Team in safeguarding cases.
  • The need to consider the wider context – what do other organisations do in relation to these issues, including what are the processes for those who like clergy are not employed but office holders?

Given this long list of issues it is perhaps not surprising that the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse in its report, on the Church of England, also expressed serious concern about the operation of the measure. The report states that there needs to be a more appropriate range of interventions with which to address capability, risk and past and present failures. Further hearings will be held by the Inquiry next month and they have indicated that they will be returning to the issue.  

Ensuring an appropriate response to safeguarding concerns in the church is essential. An improved process is clearly needed and there will need to be consideration of a wide range of issues and in a timely manner. The National Safeguarding Panel has indicated that we would like a further discussion with members of the working group once they have begun to develop some proposals.

The report from the Independent Inquiry into Children Sexual Abuse published in May also highlighted a number of other issues. I will be covering some of them in a further blog.