Church of England safeguarding inquiries go to the top

Iwerne Minster. Image credit: Mike Searle CCLicense

By Andrew Brown

The Church of England has admitted that there are about 30 separate safeguarding inquiries under way into senior clergy — bishops or cathedral deans. This figure includes a proportion of retired clergy. There are only 104 active bishops in the whole Church of England and 42  deans.

A C of E spokesman said: “We have approximately 30 national cases with the majority being where senior clergy or church officers have not reported allegations of abuse to the relevant safeguarding adviser, the local authority or the police, or made other inappropriate decisions.”

The highest-profile involve the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, and a predecessor, Lord Carey, who are subject to inquiries for safeguarding lapses, Carey for the second time. The new Archbishop of York, Stephen Cottrell had to apologise for a lapse before being confirmed as Archbishop on 9 July.

It was revealed this week that Welby is subject to an inquiry after a complaint was laid against his handling of the revelations about John Smyth, who was accused of beating boys at Christian holiday camps.

Carey, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 1991 to 2002, is also subject to an inquiry in connection with the same case, after earlier being punished for his failure to act decisively against the paedophile bishop Peter Ball.

One cathedral dean, Martyn Percy of Christ Church, Oxford, has been accused of safeguarding failures — which he denies  — in the course of a vicious long-running campaign by elements in his college to get rid of him.

The Bishop of Lincoln, Christopher Lowson, has been suspended without a hearing since May last year and faces an investigation under the clergy discipline measure, which governs misconduct among the clergy. This has been fiercely criticised for unfairness.

One synod member, Martin Sewell, has called the process, “unjust, arbitrary, unprincipled, institutionally over-defended, and indefensible”.

This month, a study of nearly 6,000 clergy, including nearly 300 who had been subject to a clergy disciplinary measure investigation, found widespread levels of stress and distress. Even though most of these cases had nothing to do with safeguarding, Dr Sarah Horsman — warden of Sheldon, an independent retreat centre and support hub for those in ministry — found that 40 per cent of those investigated had thought that “it would be better for other people if they were dead”, and a similar proportion had considered suicide.

Three per cent had actually attempted suicide. Fewer than one in five thought they had been treated as innocent until or unless proved guilty.

Where safeguarding allegations are involved, the C of E sets up “core groups”, a term used in social work, where all the parties involved, including the parents, are represented. But in the church’s version of core groups, communications officers are always present but there is no representation for the accused: “The analogy drawn to local authority child protection core groups is incorrect,” said a spokesperson for the C of E. “The closer analogy are strategy meetings, involving police and social care and other agencies, to determine response to a child protection referral. Families are never invited to these, nor are minutes shared.”

But, they added: “Respondents, or those about whom allegations have been made, are informed about what those allegations are. [They] are given an opportunity to give their response to allegations during the course of an investigation, whether in person face to face, or in writing . . . Respondents are offered support; it is the role of the diocese to identify an appropriate person.”

Nor, they said, did the existence of a core group mean that allegations were accepted as fact. “The core group’s role is to determine what action needs to happen to establish facts, or where facts are not in dispute, to manage possible risk and for example commission investigations and/or risk assessments.”

The core groups, in other words, have taken over the functions that bishops once had and which successive scandals have revealed that many grotesquely mishandled.

Critics claim that the core groups are concerned more with the reputation of the church than the protection of either the victims of abuse or those unjustly accused of safeguarding failure.

Lord Carlile, QC, said last week: “I do not believe that the church has got to grips with the fundamental principles of adversary justice, one of which is that you must disclose the evidence that you have against someone, and give them an equal opportunity to be heard as those making the accusation.

“And you cannot give them an equal opportunity if there are conflicts of interest involved. Anyone with a conflict of interest must leave the deliberations and take no further part.”

Two members of the core group investigating Percy were removed because of conflict of interest.

In the light of this discontent, there has been widespread criticism of the apparent special treatment received by Welby and Cottrell when compared with the action towards less exalted clergy. The official press release announcing the inquiry into Welby’s conduct did not mention his name, using only the word “Lambeth”. The inquiry into Cottrell’s conduct was  secret until it was concluded with an apology from him.

The case against Welby goes to the heart of a powerful network of public school evangelicals centred on summer camps  at Iwerne Minster in Dorset for teenage boys from elite schools.

Smyth, who died suddenly in 2018, was a barrister tightly connected to the Iwerne network. Public schoolboys were beaten so brutally “for the good of their souls”, that one victim attempted suicide rather than face another beating. That brought his crimes to the attention of the trust that ran the camps but it did not report him to the police or expose his behaviour. Smyth moved to Zimbabwe, where he set up a further camp. After an adolescent boy died there, he moved on to South Africa and continued to work with young people.

Detailed knowledge of his crimes was confined to a tight inner circle in Britain all this while. He had picked his victims from among the elite of public school evangelicals, who did not, however, confess their sufferings even to each other until the story began to become public.

One, Andrew Watson, is now the Bishop of Guildford. Other graduates of the Iwerne camps, though ignorant of Smyth’s methods, include Welby himself, who had known Smyth in the late 1970s. As an undergraduate, Welby had lodged with Mark Ruston, the Cambridge vicar to whom Smyth’s crimes were first reported and who had written an internal report in 1982 outlining cases of abuse, but it was not sent to the police.

The silence around Smyth’s abuse lasted nearly 30 years until 2012, when a survivor known in public as Graham, first reported Smyth’s crimes to yet another Iwerne man, since ordained.

After nearly a year of inaction, the vicar passed the complaint on to the Bishop of Ely, Stephen Conway, one of the few characters in this story who had not been to an elite school or to Iwerne. Conway passed the story on to Lambeth Palace, who passed it back to the bishop. This was technically correct, but in terms of human sympathy it was a disaster. “Ever since then, my understanding is that Justin Welby has blanked ‘Graham’,” said one observer.

It is this sequence of events and the criticism of the collective response, that has led to the present complaint against Welby.

“Graham” claims that he received no worthwhile support from the diocese — just one offer of £100 to pay for counselling, 22 months after he made his complaint; that he was never formally interviewed by anyone from the diocese, nor by the police; and that he had written to the diocese on six occasions asking what had been done to stop Smyth’s activities in South Africa, and that he received many replies saying in essence that there was nothing the English diocese could do if the South African church was ignoring the matter.

He is understood to feel that even if the Bishop of Ely had no power over the South African church, the Archbishop of Canterbury certainly had a moral power that he could have exercised. His complaint is that the inaction of the English church allowed Smyth to continue to meet and groom young men for another four years.