The Church of England’s systemically abusive culture

Questions to the Archbishops arising from the leaked chaplains’ blogs

On Wednesday I wrote to the Archbishops of Canterbury and York putting a question to them arising from the blogs exchanged by a number of bishops’ chaplains:  “How are you going to ensure good practice in the future, practice that at least meets the legal requirements, to avoid a repeat of the concealment that led to the shameful abuse of children in the Church of England?”

This is but one example of the bad practice within the Church of England that has been the subject of recent reports. Below the letter, I comment on the Archbishop of York’s failures, the incompetence of the Clergy Discipline Commission and the disregard for proper process exhibited by William Nye, Secretary General of the Archbishops’ Council.

But first, here is the letter:

Dear Archbishops,

I am writing this open letter following receipt of an email thread exchanged between bishops’ chaplains, inadvertently shared outside the group. The emails indicate serious failures of practice concerning clergy access to their Blue file and CCSLs and a continuing culture of secrecy and collusion in communications between bishops.

The emails show various examples of bad and illegal practice:

  • An area bishop doesn’t know whether a priest can see the CCSL written about him and wonders what the procedure is in other dioceses.

Chaplains think:

  • a CCSL is not supposed to be shared with anyone apart from the bishop to whom it is written
  • there isn’t an issue when a CCSL is positive, suggesting different action would be taken when a CCSL is less than positive
  • CCSLs are legally privileged, removing them when priests ask to see their files
  • that if the practice of allowing clerics access to a CCSL written about them became widespread it might make it hard for Bishops to write secretly to one another

Chaplains seem to be unaware of the existence of the House of Bishops Guidance issued in 2013.

Some bishops still believe they can write to each other privately, sending personal information about a cleric without the cleric’s knowledge or permission, ignoring the clear information provided in the Guidance. This practice creates an environment that in the past has allowed priests and bishops to abuse children and prevent appropriate legal action being taken.

One chaplain alone notes that if a cleric is not aware of what will be in their CCSL this suggests a lack either of self-awareness or of inadequate communication between clerics and bishops.

How are you going to ensure good practice in the future, practice that at least meets the legal requirements, to avoid a repeat of the concealment that led to the shameful abuse of children in the Church of England?

Yours . . .

Comments on Thinking Anglicans about the original blog say that the Guidance is highly deficient. Bishops seem to be the data controllers but there is a paucity of guidance on this, for example no guidance on the responsibility to report breaches and not enough guidance for a bishop to meet his/her responsibilities for security, including computer security. Exactly who is authorised to generate data for a cleric's blue file and what is the criteria for its inclusion in blue files? Bishop Pete Broadbent says he hopes that Bishops' Chaplains will receive some proper training on blue files and compliance and will be asking a question. When, and to whom?

The Archbishop of York, clergy abuse and the Clergy Discipline Commission

The Archbishop of York is under police investigation over allegations that he failed to respond properly to Matthew Ineson report of clerical child abuse. Matthew alleges that he was raped at the age of 16 by a vicar, the Rev Trevor Devamanikkam, in the 1980s.

The 2015 Annual Report of the Clergy Discipline Commission states that no return was made for the province of York because records were damaged by flooding. Blogger Archbishop Cranmer  asks why the plausibility of Sentamu’s reason for the failure to submit a return in 2015? Didn’t they wonder, he asks, how every single electronic version had been damaged by flooding when only the undercroft was affected?

The Archbishop of York’s failure to respond properly to Matthew Ineson combined with a failure to submit a return to the Clergy Discipline Commission in 2015 raise serious questions about his competence.

The National Safeguarding Team and Bishop George Bell

FACTUK reports that in 1995, 37 years after he had died, a complaint was made that Bishop George Bell had abused a child. The complaint was not passed to the police at the time but was passed to them when the complaint was repeated in 2013. In 2016 the Church of England commissioned Lord Carlile to review their procedures concerning the investigation into the case. The resulting review was scathing in its criticism of the Church’s handling of the allegations against Bell. Lord Carlile concluded “The Core Group was set up in an unmethodical and unplanned way, with neither terms of reference nor any clear direction as to how it would operate. As a result, it became a confused and unstructured process, as several members confirmed.” In spite of Carlile’s criticisms the Church continues to hold Bell responsible.

Some argue that the Head of the National Safeguarding Team (NST), which oversaw the George Bell process, was incompetent and should have been dismissed. That he wasn’t might be due to concern that this would have drawn attention to the fact that C of E processes are still flawed and its personnel incompetent immediately prior to the IICSA Chichester hearings.

Sussex Police told the National Safeguarding Team in March that the matter is now closed as far as they are concerned, having assessed new information passed them and carried out a proportionate investigation. The NST had claimed that it was still ‘working collaboratively with the police’.  This week a spokeswoman for the Church of England’s national safeguarding team said that they had been conducting their own separate investigation since the new information was received in January. “We cannot make any further comment until the investigation is completed,” she said.

William Nye’s letter to The Episcopal Church

William Nye, Secretary General of the Archbishops’ Council, wrote to the Rev’d Canon Jordan Hylden on 18th October 2017, responding to The Episcopal Church’s consultation on new liturgical rites for same sex marriage and the blessing of same sex unions on behalf of the Church of England. Mr Nye said the short time scale of the consultation precluded the possibility of debating the question in any of the C of E’s formal deliberative structures. The response therefore only reflects discussions among staff of the Archbishops’ Council.

The content of Mr Nye’s response is deeply contentious. Mr Nye claims that “For a majority . . . in the Church of England Holy Scripture is held to rule that sexual activity outside marriage between a man and a woman is contrary to God’s will. Although that is not the universal view in the Church of England.” The is no proof that this is true.

He has taken authority to himself to write “on behalf of the Church of England” without having consulted anyone other than members of staff in Church House.

He has compromised the integrity and independence of his office and his staff. The letter was almost certainly drafted with the help of Rev’d Dr Malcolm Brown, Director of Mission and Public Affairs for the Church of England. Dr Brown provides staff support for the thematic working group dealing with Social and Biological Sciences, working under the oversight of the Co-ordinating Group on the preparation of the new Episcopal Teaching Document.

Many questions are raised by Mr Nye’s letter. Did he show this letter to the ABC before sending it? If yes, then we can conclude that the ABC agrees with its contents?

From the pro-LGBTI perspective, Mr Nye’s letter is unhelpful to those of us seeking to bring the Church of England’s deliberations to a good outcome.

Jayne Ozanne states her outrage in a Via Media blog “that members of Church House staff could still churn out such an unbalanced and inflammatory letter.” It “neither mentions the significant level of dissent that exists within the Church of England nor the growing concerns over the need for appropriate pastoral care of the LGBT community given the Church’s current discriminatory stance on this issue.”  She describes the letter as another blatant disregard for process similar to her experience when a member of the Archbishops’ Council. A current member, the Revd Canon Simon Butler, has echoed Jayne’s experience, stating that the Council was not consulted about the contents of Mr Nye’s letter.

IICSA hearings into the Diocese of Chichester

IICSA has yet to report on the recent hearings into abuse in the Chichester Diocese but the witness evidence at the hearing was damning.

Together with the previous four examples, I believe the hearings into abuse in the Chichester demonstrate that the Church of England has become an unsafe, incompetent, sometimes manipulative, sometimes abusive organisation. It is probably true that such an accusation could be levelled at any moment of church history. But living in an age when the truth about organisational corruption and incompetence is distorted by fake news syndrome, the importance of the highest level of Christian integrity, competence and truth-telling is crucial. Who can we trust at the highest levels of the institution church to implement the core values of Jesus the Christ?