Independence & Safeguarding: Marking Our Own Homework?

by Prof Helen King, Professor Emerita in Classical Studies at The Open University and member of Living in Love and Faith project

The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) issued its final report on the Church of England last autumn. Now, the heat is on, because the deadline for the church’s response to the various recommendations is 22 March.

That explains a lot. It explains why the document on Independent Safeguarding Structures for the Church of England presented to General Synod last Saturday was only sent out two days before the meeting. It also explains why it has so many typos: I’m all in favour of getting on with sorting out the safeguarding mess, but typos don’t give me much confidence. This document was clearly completed in a rush. The House of Bishops and the Archbishops’ Council each had just one week in which to suggest changes. One revealing typo features in a section about how ‘club mentality’ is “exacerbated in an institution where ordination conveys authority which can leads to a culture of clericalism in which challenging the authority of the ordained becomes a kind of spiritual offence”. “Can leads to”? I’m guessing that this started out as “leads to” but someone didn’t like the suggestion that clericalism is an inevitable part of ordination and wanted to add that “can”.

It’s a good point about how we weaponize the spiritual, but was it right to make that change? Fiona Gardner’s Sex, Power, Control: Responding to Abuse in the Institutional Church (2021) notes how difficult it is to challenge the authority of the ordained. In 2005, while Diocesan Safeguarding Adviser for Bath and Wells, she was shut out by the diocesan hierarchy as it closed ranks to protect itself when the abuse carried out by Rev. David Smith became known. In her words, she was “seen as peripheral (not ordained and female and not, as it turned out, ‘in the know’ about what had been going on)”. Smith’s crimes finally came to public attention in 2007.

That point about how the hierarchy failed to see someone who was “not ordained” as a peer and a professional is revealing; even more, the combination of being “not ordained” and female. Independent Safeguarding Structures includes a point made by the survivors who worked on the current proposals; namely, that clergy training needs more on “the causes and nature of abuse”. For more on that, again, see Gardner, who uses her psychoanalytical experience to think about how the culture of deference – clericalism – protects abusers. She quotes David Runcorn on the role of boarding school values in shaping abusers: “devotion to the team” but also “distrust of women, suppression of emotion, assumptions of patriarchal and hierarchical social ordering, mocking of any feminine trait in men and minimal empathy for the weak and ordinary”. Can the Church of England name and reject these values?

I was reminded of boarding school culture again when listening to the presentation on Independent Safeguarding Structures made to General Synod. We were told several times that the aim of a new Independent Safeguarding Board (ISB) is to avoid the church “marking its own homework”. The phrase was used by Richard Scorer, representing 21 people abused within the Anglican Church, at the end of his submission on the first day of the public hearings at IICSA, 5 March 2018. It has since featured in media headlines about the Peter Ball abuse case, and after the Dean of Lincoln Cathedral had failed to report a disclosure made to her. It has also appeared in headlines around the inquiry into historic child sex abuse in Scottish football.

But marking your own homework – self-assessment – is a recognised part of teaching at all levels: here is a 2017 document from Trinity College Dublin. And it can be a very good idea. Assessment has traditionally been something from which students are excluded, so that self-assessment changes the dynamics of power as the teacher becomes a facilitator rather than the mysterious source of grades which determine your future. When I’ve used self-assessment as an educator, I’ve found that students are often harsher when marking themselves; they are more aware of the shortcomings of their own work. Self-assessment helps students to understand how they learn. But – and it’s an important ‘but’ – it requires humility and honesty, and those have been qualities in short supply as the Church of England has covered up abuse.

Independent Safeguarding Structures is certainly an improvement on the usual unconvincing claims that ‘The church has come a long way…’ or ‘That was the past and it’s all fine now’. In Bishop Jonathan Gibbs’ presentation to Saturday’s Synod, he talked about “things we are not doing well now”. Wording like “Given the church’s past failings and present weaknesses in safeguarding…” is far more realistic. Other good things include the acknowledgement of inconsistency between dioceses on safeguarding arrangements; that it is the “internal cultures of the Church of England which too often have resulted in preventing best practice”; the involvement of survivors and the intention to involve them even more as Phase 2 develops; the realisation that it is at the very least problematic to expect someone to trust the institution through which their abuse took place to provide a fair investigation into what happened to them.

Bishop Jonathan said that the aim of independent safeguarding is to rebuild trust. It’s clear from the document that they are expecting people to be suspicious; even needing to say how important it is to “demonstrate that the appointment process is not being manipulated in favour of ‘safe’ candidates” shows the basic lack of trust that has resulted from this long and sorry history of failing to deal with abuse, as does the wording that this is a search for “a structure which the church may put in place, but which it cannot frustrate”.

Will this document be enough to satisfy IICSA? It isn’t clear to me whether the aim of Phase 1 of Independent Safeguarding Structures – an Independent Safeguarding Board – is quite what IICSA had in mind. IICSA specifically asked for Diocesan Safeguarding Officers to be able to make decisions independently of the bishop; the present document envisages them instead appealing to the ISB if “difficulties arise within the diocese which compromise their effectiveness”.

Even if it is enough, we can’t abdicate all responsibility to an independent body. In some ways, we are still going to need to mark our own homework. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it requires not just honesty, but self-knowledge. Marking our own homework can be part of our reflection on how we are doing. Every one of us needs to be aware of our role in preventing abuse. Renaming safeguarding ‘training’ as safeguarding ‘learning’ – something else mentioned on Saturday – isn’t enough.

As for those who have already suffered at the hands of church abusers, listening, repentance and redress must be prioritized.

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2 Responses to Independence & Safeguarding: Marking Our Own Homework?

  1. Martin Sewell says:

    Just before General Synod met I received an email from a Diocesan Secretary and DSA who told me that the paper had only been shared with them at 1:30 pm the day before. Whatever one thinks of present structures or how such office holders perform ( and I have a lot of respect for my correspondents ) they are clearly key stakeholders with inside knowledge of the current system and how it operates and/or fails.

    I share this to confirm that the paper was clearly put out late in the day. The Ecclesiastical Law Society paper, 167 pages long, had not arrived with them until shortly before. I do not blame the working party for not rushing the reform ; it is very overdue, but, as I used to say to my litigation clients, it is more important to get the right answer than a fast answer.

    The real problem, is that in the meantime, the same evils continue, the same people, and lack of procedural probity. We could manage the present system better, but don’t.

    Yesterday I heard of another victim of Clerical abuse attempting to take their life.

  2. Kate says:

    My prayers are with her, Martin. Within a church, it should never come to that. We should fold survivors in loving arms and show them that they are infinitely precious. At the moment it seems to me that we treat survivors of clerical abuse (and those who report witnessing it) worse than if someone was abused by a third party like a family member. That cannot be right and there is nothing in the present proposal which suggests a desire to change that, let alone a means of doing so.

Any thoughts?