Savi Hensman

The 'Baby P' case and confession: tackling child protection failings

By Savi Hensman
November 3, 2014

A BBC documentary in late October 2014 revealed the damage resulting from a rush to judgement over the failure to protect ‘Baby P’. A kneejerk reaction to the Church of England’s child protection failings may also do more harm than good.

Anger is understandable over failures to safeguard children. However in the wake of the appalling death of a child, the furore whipped up by politicians and sections of the press made it even harder to recruit professionals to help keep children safe.

The Church of England must do more to counter abuse. But there is a risk of acting hastily in ending the ancient practice of confidential confession without evidence that it will make things better for children. Indeed it might put them at greater risk.

Meanwhile, in church and society, the focus can be diverted from examining why procedures were not properly followed, as well as the culture surrounding abuse.

Baby P: learning from what went wrong
‘Baby P: the untold story’ examined the reaction following the trial of the three people who battered and finally killed 17-month-old Peter Connelly in Haringey in 2007: his mother, her boyfriend and his brother.

Various services – the council, police and NHS – had previous concerns. But they had not fully pooled their information and acted decisively to take Peter into care.

Where abuse is suspected, the authorities must tread a tightrope. Abusers can be devious and sound very convincing. What is more, a child taken away unnecessarily may be emotionally scarred for life, along with his or her parents and siblings. And other parents needing support may be put off from seeking this for fear that their child may be removed.

But remaining at home may also be dangerous, even fatal. Life-changing decisions must be made on the basis of often scanty clues so that, for instance, if bruises are the result of a rare medical condition, the family is not torn apart.

After the killers were convicted in 2008, social services became the main target of media frenzy, stoked up by politicians’ point-scoring and cowardice. A young paediatrician was also pilloried for failing to detect that the toddler had a broken back, though this probably occurred after she had seen him.

Wild inaccuracies were allowed to go unchallenged as individuals became the target of a hate campaign. Frontline staff with hugely excessive workloads struggling to care for children in one of England’s poorest areas had their photos splashed across the Sun under the headline ‘Blood on their hands’, as if they were murderers themselves.

The newspaper ended up collecting one and a half million signatures on a petition calling for all the social workers involved to be sacked. Some were threatened.

While it is important to discipline staff appropriately if they fail in their duties, due process was not observed. Haringey director of children’s services Sharon Shoesmith ended up getting sizeable damages for unfair dismissal.

The Sun and several other newspapers later admitted that one of the social workers they had ferociously condemned for failing Baby P was, in fact, blameless. She had tried to prevent him from being sent home unless it could be established that he would be safe.

Some of those who became the focus of public hatred ended up jobless and contemplating suicide. And it became even harder to recruit and retain child protection professionals, in Haringey and beyond, leaving children at greater risk.

Serious failure
The day that the programme was broadcast, Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby spoke powerfully about the seriousness of the Church of England’s failings in dealing with allegations of child abuse, despite its devastating effects.

In recent decades, as in wider society, awareness has increased and procedures have been improved. But these have not always been fully implemented and past misdeeds by those entrusted with children’s welfare have not all been identified..

“Yes, many institutions failed catastrophically, including in the media, children’s homes, foster parents, all kinds of areas,” he said. “But the church is meant to hold itself to a far, far higher standard and we failed terribly.”

He said he was passionate about tackling the problem and “The rule is survivors come first, not our own interests and however important the person was, however distinguished, however well known, survivors come first.”

He explained that clergy files were being reviewed, going back for decades, in case evidence of abuse had been missed. In addition the church was reviewing whether what was revealed in confession should always stay confidential, “an incredibly radical move which challenges more than 1,800 years of church tradition.”

Earlier he had apologised to a mother who had written to him and his predecessor about her distress after her sons were abused by the head of a church school (who was then convicted), and received a nearly identical brush-off letter from officials.

The previous week, Archbishop of York John Sentamu apologised after an inquiry identified “systematic failures” under his predecessor, David Hope, in investigating allegations of abuse against Robert Waddington, former dean of Manchester Cathedral. Waddington (now dead) had been a serial sexual abuser. Hope has now resigned his ministry.

As in wider society, some of the scandals which have tainted the reputations of churches date back to times when the seriousness of abuse was often minimised. Deference to clergy, and a legalistic approach to sin focused on the breaking of rules supposedly set by God rather than harm caused, sometimes made matters worse.

The Manchester case involved a failure to follow church procedures in dealing with allegations against clergy, staff or volunteers undertaking church-related activities. However Sentamu urged an end to absolute confidentiality during confession, though I am unaware of any evidence this played a part in the Waddington or other scandals.

Fundamentally changing confession
Few Anglicans now go to confession, sometimes known as the sacrament of reconciliation, but some find it extremely valuable. It tends to be practised more often by Anglo-Catholics.

In it, someone confesses his or her sins to God in the presence of a priest. A course of action may be agreed on making restitution to anyone who has been wronged and, if the person seems truly penitent, the priest offers absolution, reassuring the person of God’s forgiveness.

The practice was widespread before the Reformation but some afterwards in reformed churches still found it helpful. “I will allow no man to take private confession away from me, and I would not give it up for all the treasures in the world, since I know what comfort and strength it has given me,” declared Martin Luther.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, confession was seen as a key aspect of pastoral ministry by several ‘slum priests’ who lived amongst, and served, the urban poor, by then largely alienated from the Church of England.

2003 guidelines for Church of England clergy advise that “There can be no disclosure of what is confessed to a priest.” However “Where abuse of children or vulnerable adults is admitted in the course of confession, the priest should urge the person to report his or her behaviour to the police or social services, and should also make this a condition of absolution, or withhold absolution until this evidence of repentance has been demonstrated.”

General synod in November will consider proposals to go far further, setting up a review of whether to abolish absolute confidentiality, hence radically altering the nature of confession.

The rationale is the “force of the argument that the legal framework of the Church should accordingly, in all respects, be such as to enable those who present a risk to children and vulnerable adults to be identified – both so that they can be held to account for past wrongs and be prevented from doing further harm.”

A Church of England spokesperson said, "The Australian model is one of a number of options which will be considered as part of the ongoing discussions." This removes confidentiality for a wide range of illegal acts, not just abuse. Individual dioceses can decide whether to adopt this, but it is expected that most will.

It covers child sexual abuse, domestic violence and any “serious offence”: a crime punishable by five years’ imprisonment or more. In UK law that would include crimes such as possessing cannabis or deserting from the army to avoid active service.

It also appears to cover breaking other countries’ laws if similar actions locally would count as serious offences, for instance trying to overthrow an overseas government. Such an approach uncomfortably conflates compliance with the state and obedience to God.

I do not question the sincerity of Church of England archbishops’ horror at what went wrong. But such a move might be good in terms of public relations, while diverting attention from the actual problem. This involves inconsistency in investigating promptly and thoroughly and making decisions when allegations are made or suspicions raised, and in providing pastoral care for survivors and their families.

Meanwhile it sends a signal that the church shares society’s horror at child abuse, and distances itself from abusers of children and adults (and possibly other lawbreakers), enhancing its respectability. However there is no evidence that this will benefit children and those abused overall, and it may actually make matters worse.

To begin with, the vast majority of abusers do not confess their crimes to a priest, and sometimes they do not even recognise that they have done wrong. Of the handful who do, in many cases there will already be evidence from other sources.

If confidentiality is removed, presumably even fewer would confess, since they would know that a priest might report them to the police or social services. If they were already willing to tell the authorities, they could do so directly.

However at present some people, as a first step towards repentance, might confess in a priest’s presence, knowing this would be confidential, and then be persuaded to admit their offence to social services or the police.

The removal of confidentiality from confession, even in limited circumstances, would have additional implications, including potentially deterring others from confessing, whatever their offences.

For instance let us suppose that a former addict who had just been through rehabilitation confessed that, when drugged, she had occasionally neglected her child. She was unwilling to tell the authorities for fear that her child would be taken into care (even if, in reality, that would be unlikely), so the priest informed on her.

This would hardly be likely to lead others in her community to open up to God about their deepest regrets, sorrows and fears. A measure intended to stop clergy, and workers in church schools and youth schemes, from misusing their power could get in the way of ministry among the most marginalised in society.

For some priests too, the very nature of confession would appear to have changed to something more akin to a counselling session than an encounter with Divine grace.

And any weakening of absolute confidentiality would set a precedent, even if additional offences were not, at first, included. People might demand to know why this was not extended to other heinous crimes.

Meanwhile other churches in the Anglican Communion would be more likely to remove confidentiality for confession of crimes regarded as especially serious in that culture. Because of the position of the Church of England, any such change would have a greater impact than the shift in Australia.

Tackling abuse effectively
The level of emotion evoked by the Baby P case may have arisen in part because many members of the public had experienced abuse of some kind, or knew that loved ones had; or were parents whose fear of harm to their children was triggered.

In addition the sense that people in authority were not taking the matter seriously enough understandably gave rise to resentment.

However there is also a tendency for people to feel that, if something has gone badly wrong, something drastic should be done – whether or not, on balance, it is the most effective approach. This sometimes happens after a healthcare error, for instance. But it does not prevent future tragedies.

There is also a deep ambivalence about child protection in the UK. If social services had taken Peter into care and his mother had complained to the press, portraying herself as a caring parent wronged by interfering social workers, many journalists and citizens would probably have believed her and called for those who took him from her to be sacked.

Child abusers are widely viewed as monsters, usually paedophiles preying on others’ innocent children. This makes it hard to recognise that seemingly ‘nice’, ‘normal’ people can do bad things to children, and indeed to adults at risk of abuse.

This is, of course, not an excuse for mistakes. Part of the job of social workers, paediatricians and paediatric nurses and also specialist police officers is seeing the things others would rather not see, and seeking to act in a child’s best interests even if this triggers the anger of caregivers, their communities, press or politicians. But the extent of denial further complicates the work of such professionals.

Much has been done in churches over the past decade-and-a-half to address shortcomings but there is still some room for improvement. It is important that they, like other organisations and networks, become better at safeguarding children taking part in activities they organise, or with whom staff and volunteers formally come into contact. This includes proper training, especially for senior personnel, and well-resourced, effective systems for child protection.

But the church is also meant to be a community of people who are flawed but nevertheless called to reflect God’s overwhelming love in their own dealings with others, and to help bring about the Divine commonwealth on earth as in heaven.

In this perspective, those who abuse children are not demonic figures but sinners like everyone else, albeit whose sins can cause huge harm to those mistreated and have a corrosive effect on communities, especially in the case of serial abusers.

And tackling abuse is not simply a matter of professionalism, but rather part of the wider task of countering violence and cooperating with other people of goodwill to build a more just and peaceful world.

If Christians are to be effective not simply in demonstrating our proper horror at abuse but also reducing its prevalence in the communities of which we are part, as well as supporting survivors, careful thought is needed, and a willingness to confront awkward truths.

For instance ‘the family’ is often idealised, sometimes idolised, in church circles. But families are not always happy, safe places. Likewise pious, apparently respectable people who sometimes do good things can also act badly, sometimes without even being aware of the damage they are doing.

The Church of England should indeed act, but in a considered manner. The Baby P case is a reminder that dramatic gestures can end up doing more harm than good.


© Savitri Hensman is a widely published Christian commentator on politics, welfare, religion and more. An Ekklesia associate, she works in the equalities and care sector.

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