On Sunday afternoon during July’s Synod ninety minutes was timetabled for a discussion on safeguarding within the church. The first half hour consisted of questions about safeguarding. A printed copy of questions previously submitted by Synod members with answers from the Church was handed out. Synod members had the opportunity to ask supplementary questions on each question. These were mainly answered by Peter Hancock, the Bishop of Bath and Wells, the lead bishop on safeguarding matters in the church.
The next hour included discussion of the work of the National Safeguarding Panel. The panel seeks to offer strategic advice to the church on its policies and practices, and provides scrutiny and challenge of its safeguarding work. It has three survivor representatives, independent safeguarding experts for both adults and children, and also in working with offenders.
This was my first opportunity to speak directly to Synod members about the role and work of the panel. I was joined by Phil Johnson, chair of MACSAS (Ministry and Clergy Sexual Abuse Survivors) who has been a member of the National Safeguarding Panel since it was established in 2014.
In my contribution I outlined some of the changes I have initiated including updating terms of reference and more frequent meetings. The panel has adopted a select committee approach, focusing on one major issue each meeting and agreeing recommendations. To date we have considered the training and development plan, and the clergy discipline measure.
During his contribution Phil described his frustration that the panel has not always been properly consulted by the church, leading to a sense of rubber stamping. He noted that the new ways of working were a positive development but it is too early to assess whether we are having an impact. His areas of concern include measuring the effectiveness of the work by what is achieved and not the money spent, the need for change in the clergy discipline measure, reform to legal processes and the need for less bureaucracy.
Our presentations were followed by questions from the floor. One person asked if clergy were employed, rather than office holders, whether this would make the church safer. My response was no, which promoted some discussion on Twitter. I was focusing on the issues of deference, power and influence, key elements of abusive situations, allowing someone to act in an abusive way unchallenged. This is the case regardless of whether the person is employed or an office holder. Others pointed out that being an employee makes it simpler and quicker to take disciplinary action. This might be the case, although my experience is that disciplinary cases in employment situations often take a long time. It is certainly an issue worthy of consideration and possibly one that the panel could consider in the future.
I finished my contribution by challenging members of Synod to take safeguarding seriously, to consider what they can do to make their churches safer. Church members need to focus more on prevention. The Church has taken time to put in place policies and structures to ensure safeguarding and much still needs to be done. This is often referred to as culture change. Put simply it means that everyone involved in the running of the church and its many activities needs to be aware of potential safeguarding risks and act to minimise them, seeking professional advice whenever necessary.
The session ended with the Synod rising to their feet and applauding Phil. It was recognition that the time and effort he and many other survivors have put in to work with the church on safeguarding comes at a personal cost.
During the break that followed I was encouraged by various discussions with Synod members, a number recognising they need to ask more questions in their diocese about safeguarding. One commented on the issue of deference, feeling that there is no way currently to hold bishops to account for what they do in relation to safeguarding. Another was concerned about the lack of procedures to ensure that churches can be aware that a particular member of the clergy no longer has “permission to officiate.” There was a strong appreciation of Phil’s presentation and his commitment and persistence, in spite of his experiences, to help the church do better.
I will consider how the National Safeguarding Panel can develop a relationship with Synod in the future. One idea would be to engage more with Synod members in developing our work programme, and to receive input to our deliberations. Inevitably this would need more staff time – something I have already mentioned in a response to a question about the adequacy of resources.
Synod, as the Church of England’s parliament, is responsible for an organisation that is large and diverse. It will need to engage more with the difficulties and complexities of safeguarding within the church, this session helped them to do so.