A hand signalling refusal

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MORE THAN FIFTY key church figures have written to the Charity Commission asking it to investigate the Church of England’s safeguarding practices. The signatories are lay and ordained people, and a number who are elected members of the General Synod. They include some who have been victims of church-based abuse, and some who have been accused or complained of such abuse.

The signatories cover a wide spectrum of conviction, including evangelicals, catholics, and broad church Anglicans. Lawyers who represented church victims at the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) inquiry, which was led by Professor Alexis Jay, have also signed the letter.

In the letter, the signatories express serious concerns about the safeguarding policies and practices being operated by the Church of England. The letter complains of “a highly dysfunctional church culture – one lacking in care, wisdom and responsibility – uniformly poor in responses to allegations of abuse”. The writers say that they have “no functional leadership in safeguarding.”

In January 2019 Archbishop Justin Welby appeared to endorse these grievances, when he told The Spectator  magazine: “We have not yet found the proper way of dealing properly with complainants and taking them seriously, listening to them, not telling them to shut up and go away, which is what we did for decades. Which was evil. It’s more than just a wrong thing: it’s a deeply evil act.”

Four years later, the signatories complain that there has been no change. They say that claims by the bishops that the church’s safeguarding is on a path of improvement are “insincere and inaccurate.”

In November 2021, in advance of the report of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) the Church of England established an Independent Safeguarding Board (ISB). But questions have been asked about the Board’s independence, resources, capacity and expertise. The three part-time members of the ISB, were appointed and employed by the church, raising questions about its independence.

ISB’s chair, the former Children’s Commissioner Maggie Atkinson, has been ‘stood aside’ from duties since the Summer while multiple allegations of data breaches are investigated by the Office of the Information Commissioner. A recent meeting called by the ISB to listen to the concerns of survivors was so poorly advertised that it attracted no registrations or attendees, and was duly cancelled.

Mr Martin Sewell, a retired solicitor and senior member of the Church of England General Synod, said: “Trying to find where the buck stops in the Church of England has proved impossible, so this powerful group of informed individuals have joined together to call for the Charity Commission to hold the members of Archbishops’ Council to account for the discharge of their trustee duties in this essential matter.”

The signatories to the letter encourage the C of E General Synod to pass a motion of no confidence in the church’s safeguarding arrangements at its February session. They also ask the Charity Commission to conduct its own independent review into the Archbishop’s Council, which is responsible for the church’s National Safeguarding Team. The Archbishop’s Council, in common with every parish church and diocese in England, is a registered charity.

In response, a Church of England spokesperson said: “The Church is committed to the highest standards of safeguarding and this is carried out by professionals both nationally and in its 42 dioceses who support parish safeguarding officers who work in every church across the country. The Church is always open to scrutiny of its processes and will listen and respond to concerns when raised.”

One signatory has described the C of E’s initial response as “bland and platitudinous.”

* The full letter, with signatories, can be viewed here.

* Ekklesia’s director, Simon Barrow, is a signatory to the letter to the Charity Commission, as are contributors to Letters to a Broken Church, edited by Janet Fife and Gilo, which was first published by Ekklesia Publishing in 2019.