Thousand hands of Avalokiteshvara

Learning from the Church of England

On Fri, 6 November, 2020 - 08:57
Munisha's picture

October saw the publication of a 154-page report on failures to prevent child sexual abuse in the Anglican Church in England and Wales, which the Church itself has described as ‘shocking’.

NB: ‘Child sexual abuse’ includes the ‘non-contact’ offences of viewing, possessing or producing indecent images of children.

Whenever such reports are published, the ECA’s Safeguarding team look carefully to see what we can learn. The report is is extremely long and detailed so we’ll list below some points that appear again and again and which stood out for us.

The report is part of a continuing public inquiry, The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA), which has for several years been conducting hearings about child sexual abuse in the institutions of public life in England and Wales. Having looked at the major Churches, this year they looked at child protection in minority faiths, including Buddhism. Triratna’s ECA Safeguarding officer Munisha was called to testify last May.

NB: IICSA is not investigating cases of child sexual abuse but inquiring into the conditions which enabled it and what changes to law, regulation and Safeguarding measures are needed to make it less likely in future.

Watch Munisha’s testimony.

Now let’s return to this report on the Church of England and the Church in Wales. It flags up a number of areas of concern, and makes several recommendations. Some of these same concerns were raised with Munisha during her testimony. It’s clear that in 2021 IICSA will recommend changes in law and regulation relating to all faith groups in England and Wales.

Key points

  1. Survivors of sexual abuse have been treated very badly by the Church.
  2. One of the conditions for child sexual abuse in the Church in the past was that people were ordained who were known to have a history of sexual offending against children. However, more recently all those seeking ordination in the Church of England have been DBS checked to ascertain whether they have a record of sexual offences. Anyone who fails a DBS check cannot even train for ordination.
  3. Police reporting of formal confessions of child sexual abuse: in UK law there is no absolute obligation to report criminal confessions to the police, and Church law does not require this either. A Church working group having considered this matter since 2014 and come to no conclusions, IICSA is very likely to recommend mandatory police reporting. The most senior Archbishops, the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, support this.

    It’s interesting to note that although criminal confessions do not have to be reported absolution may be withheld if the penitent refuses to make reparation, such as reporting him/herself to the police. This indicates that a willingness to report to the police and take the full consequences of one’s actions is considered part of a genuine confession.

    There is much more detail on the ‘Seal of the confessional’ at section B5 (p.72) of the report.…
  4. Forgiveness does not mean escaping the consequences of one’s actions. ”Perpetrators who repent must be willing to face the legal consequences of their sin and should be prevented from accessing environments in which re‐offending could occur.”
  5. Advice of specialist Safeguarding staff was sometimes ignored or overruled by senior clergy and bishops.
  6. Some bishops and clergy were reluctant to discipline clergy found to have abused others and there could be a conflict of loyalties, since their role also involved pastoral care for these clergy.
  7. In some cases perpetrators (clergy and bishops) were defended by their peers, who sometimes issued public statements of support for them and/or also sought to reintegrate them into Church life without consideration for the victims or the welfare or protection of children and vulnerable adults.
  8. Deference and naivety: people looked up to clergy and bishops, deferred to their authority and believed them incapable of child sexual abuse.

Recommendations include

  1. Regular Safeguarding training is already compulsory for bishops but clergy should also have training - before ordination and throughout their careers - and their understanding of and ability to respond effectively to Safeguarding concerns should be assessed as part of their fitness for office.
  2. Attitudes to Safeguarding should be an important element of the selection and training of candidates for ordination.
  3. The Church has had an internal disciplinary process since 2003, the Clergy Discipline Measure. However at present it is overseen by the local bishop. The Archbishop of Canterbury wants it run by a panel, to avoid conflicts of loyalty and interest.
  4. Consideration should always be given to suspension for the duration of any investigation. “It should be emphasised suspension is an entirely neutral act and is a precautionary to ensure cases can be investigated in a dispassionate manner and to protect all parties involved.” It is a holding position, before any decision is taken about the substance of the complaint.
  5. Where a case requires a formal disciplinary investigation there should also be a formal risk assessment of the risk the person may pose to children or other vulnerable people.
  6. Safeguarding officers should conduct risk assessments and advise on the suspension of clergy.
  7. Decisions about Safeguarding must be made by Safeguarding professionals.

We also note that

  1. the Church already requires that all Safeguarding concerns and allegations be reported to a Safeguarding officer within 24 hours; where police or social services must be informed the Safeguarding officer must do this within 24 hours.
  2. The Church is considering the use of Restorative process, in particular where it has responded poorly to allegations of abuse.

Matters IICSA will be returning to consider

  1. The need for independent oversight of Safeguarding in faith organisations; though a faith group must conduct its own Safeguarding, should it also be answerable to a dedicated external Safeguarding authority?
  2. Mandatory police reporting of confessions of child sexual abuse (See above.)
  3. DBS checks: there needs to be a review of eligibility for background security checks in religious organisations. (Currently Order members are not eligible unless their role – voluntary or paid - involves working regularly with children.)
  4. A review of Section 21 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003 so as to include clergy within the definition of a ‘position of trust’ (as for teachers, care workers and youth justice workers). This would make it automatically a criminal offence for a priest to have sex with a person under 18. (Although the age of consent is 16 in England and Wales, a person is legally a child until their 18th birthday.) This would almost certainly apply to members of our Order too.