By Rosie Dawson

Pressure is mounting on the Church of England’s Clergy Discipline Commission to revisit amendments to a code of practice that critics say will have the effect of silencing survivors of abuse and victims of bullying or miscarriages of justice.

The code supplements the Clergy Discipline Measure (2003), which lays out the processes for dealing with cases of clergy misconduct. Those processes have been repeatedly criticized by complainants and respondents for being psychologically harmful, lengthy, and expensive. Work is underway to replace the CDM with a new Clergy Conduct Measure.

Gavin Drake

The church says its aim in revising the existing code of practice was to protect complainants and others involved in clergy discipline procedures. But the director of the Jill Saward Organization, Gavin Drake, says the changes are “a clear abuse of power designed to cover up abuse, silence victims, and protect the reputation of the Church of England.” Named after Drake’s wife, who died in 2017, the JSO campaigns on behalf of victims and survivors of domestic violence.

Drake is particularly concerned about an amendment that says written documents and material relating to CDM cases can only be shared with legal representatives. He says it will prevent victims or survivors from accessing help from survivor groups and helplines.

“The Church of England provides legal aid for clergy who face accusations; and the archdeacon — who often brings the complaint — has the benefit of assistance from the diocesan registrar (solicitor); victims and survivors get no such help and most are unrepresented by lawyers,” Drake said. “Their only possibility of help and guidance is from family, friends, and support groups. It is vital that they should be able to share documents with them.”

“Those I know who are involved in bringing CDM cases fully understand the need to keep certain details confidential, but I am concerned about the rather draconian nature of this amendment which would prevent survivors from sharing information with therapists and others within their circles of support,” said Jane Chevous, cofounder of the national organisation Survivors Voices.

Another amendment forbids individuals from giving details or making any public comment about a case, regardless of whether they are party to it, a move interpreted as a “massive assumption of power” by Drake: “The Clergy Discipline Measure requires the Commission to prepare a Code of Practice for people ‘exercising functions’ — the Commission has no power to instruct any other person how to act or speak.”

The revised code was passed by General Synod in April. It had been tabled as “deemed business.” Such items are usually simply noted. On this occasion there was some discussion, but the particular paragraphs to which Drake objects were not debated.

“These were significant amendments ,” retired barrister and Synod member David Lamming told TLC. “It’s unfortunate that they were overlooked at Synod because they seem to me to go beyond what the measure authorises, which is that the guidance applies only to those who exercise functions within the CDM process.”

The timing of the amendments has led several commentators to conclude that they were drafted in direct response to concerns about the publicity surrounding a CDM complaint brought against the dean of Christ Church, Oxford, the Rev. Martyn Percy, in November last year. In May 2021 the President of Tribunals, Dame Sarah Asplin, effectively dismissed the case, ruling that it would be disproportionate to refer the matter to a tribunal.

The complaint against the dean came within the context of a long-running, very public and very acrimonious dispute between him and the college and cathedral chapter. Supporters on both sides have engaged in briefing a voracious media. A dedicated website keeps Dean Percy’s supporters abreast of every twist and turn in the saga.

“It is rarely a good idea to legislate from the circumstances of a single case as, appears to have been done here,” says Martin Sewell, a retired Child Protection lawyer and General Synod Candidate. While he believes the motivation behind the changes to the code of practice may have been well-intentioned, he says the effects run contrary to free speech and natural justice. “Much speculative gossip about the circumstances ensued about the nature of the case against Dean Percy. I don’t think it was wrong to have refuted such gossip in careful terms.”

The Church of England would not be drawn on the Percy affair in relation to the changes to the Code of Practice, but said that there had been number of recent cases in which details of complaints under the Clergy Discipline Measure had been made public, causing significant distress and upset for those concerned.

One priest who has fallen afoul of the new rules is the Rev. Robert Thompson, vicar of St. Mary and St James in West Hampstead, London, who announced on Twitter in April that he was subject to a CDM for online bullying. In the adjudication he later received, he was reprimanded for “weaponizing” social media and forbidden from disclosing any further details of the case, including the outcome.

“Robert got the result of his CDM and was told there was no case to answer,” says his friend and fellow priest, the Rev. Andrew Foreshaw-Cain, “but he was also told that he couldn’t share that news with anyone. And the instruction was couched in terms of a threat. It should really be up to Robert what he wants to share. He didn’t tweet anything that identified the complainant. The whole thing just smacks of an attempt to silence people within a system which everyone admits is broken.”

In a statement the Church of England said the update to the code was “simply to underline the expectation of confidentiality in clergy discipline cases, while they are ongoing. It said the Clergy Discipline Commission would respond to Drake’s concerns in due course.

The matter will be on the Commission’s agenda when it next meets in October, and David Lamming says the newly elected General Synod must look at the issue again in November or in February 2022, when it is expected to consider the proposed reforms to Clergy Discipline.

He says it is essential that the topic be revisited. “It damages the church’s reputation — for competence, as much as anything else — to have a code of practice that is so flawed.”

Synod was dissolved in July ahead of an election for a new Synod for 2021-26

Rosie Dawson is a freelance religion journalist and audio producer based in Manchester, U.K.