By Rosie Dawson
Members of General Synod are using foreboding language — hot, dark, shocked, sinister — as the meeting dates of July 7 to 11 approach. The ominous mood reflects recent events in the Church of England’s efforts to safeguard people from sexual and other forms of abuse.
Confidence in safeguarding is at an all-time low. An investigation has been launched into multiple claims of inappropriate behavior against Mike Pilavachi, founder of the hugely influential Soul Survivor church network. A highly critical report on safeguarding failures in a historic case of abuse has led to the suspension of the former Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, from active ministry.
Most recently, the church announced on June 21 that the Independent Safeguarding Board was to be disbanded, with the termination of two of its three members’ contracts just two days before synod begins. The Archbishops’ Council, the church’s executive body, said the relationship between the council and the ISB had broken down and a “reset” was needed.
“We bitterly regret that we have reached this point,” the archbishops of Canterbury and York said in a statement. Justin Welby and Stephen Cottrell added, “We know this is a serious setback and we do not shy away from that — we lament it. But it is clear that there is no prospect of resolving the disagreement and that it is getting in the way of the vital work of serving victims and survivors.”
The decision and its timing have left survivors feeling betrayed. Jasvinder Sanghera, one of the two sacked ISB members, said little thought had been given to what happens to the work the ISB was already engaged in. “Six reviews are in progress and four are in the pipeline,” she said. “It takes months to earn the trust of survivors. The Archbishops’ Council has no plan, other than to say that they will hand on those cases to independent reviewers. They’re expecting survivors to engage with complete strangers, requiring them to tell their story all over again.”
The three-member ISB was set up in January 2022 with a two-year interim brief to pave the way for a system of fully independent safeguarding in the church. Straightaway there were warning signs. Gavin Drake of Southwell and Nottingham raised concerns about the board’s remit and the limitations on it at synod in February 2022, but his motion to debate these points was rejected.
“Several people have expressed regret to me about that since,” said Clive Billenness, who represents Europe and is a member of the audit committee of the Archbishops’ Council. He had supported Drake’s request.
By the summer of this year, other problems were emerging. The ISB chair, Professor Maggie Atkinson, was found to have breached data-protection rules, and there were reports of a rift between her and the other two board members, Sanghera and Steve Reeves.
Billenness requested an audit review of Archbishops’ Council to understand how the ISB had been set up. He was supported by Reeves and Sanghera, as well as by one of the council’s members, the Rev. Dr. Ian Paul. The request was denied.
Atkinson resigned as ISB chair in March. The appointment of her successor, Meg Munn, attracted widespread criticism. Many saw a conflict of interest between her new role and her existing position as chair of the church’s National Safeguarding Panel. Reeves and Sanghera, who also opposed Ms. Munn’s appointment, claimed that church interference was hampering their efforts to carry out their work.
Attempts at reconciliation failed. Ian Paul told TLC that the breakdown of trust between ISB members and members of Archbishops’ Council was irreparable, leaving the council with no option but to start over again.
“I and others on the council felt we could see this coming — and so have been advocating this path for more than six months,” he said. “Others have been prevaricating because they knew it would be bad publicity. Our goal is now to set up a group that includes survivors to find a better, fast route to having a genuinely legally independent ISB.”
The controversy has raged on social media and on the airwaves. The church’s deputy safeguarding lead, the Bishop Julie Conalty of Birkenhead, told the BBC she did not “entirely trust the church” and tweeted that the church “feels less safe” as a result of the council’s decision.
The Archbishop of York had none of his characteristic media bonhomie in a testy interview with William Crawley on BBC Radio’s Sunday program. The decision to sack the ISB was needed in order to move more quickly to fully independent safeguarding, he said. “Frankly, it wasn’t working from the beginning.”
Survivors and their advocates have sought permission to address synod during any presentation about the ISB. It would appear these requests have been turned down. “In terms of survivor representation, we understand the principal interest among synod members is in hearing from members of the Archbishops’ Council on the decisions and why those were taken,” a press spokesperson told TLC. “Synod members can of course relay the views of survivors.”
The spokesperson added that survivors will be present and making contributions during the agenda item that follows: a new church redress scheme for victims and survivors of abuse.
“I don’t think it’s possible to talk about the good news about the redress scheme without acknowledging the total betrayal of survivors that has happened in the last fortnight,” said Jane Chevous, director and cofounder of Survivors Voices and a member of the Redress Scheme.
She supports an audit review of the Archbishops’ Council. “We don’t trust them. They have shown that they are unfit to set up any kind of independent safeguarding. These are questions about governance and about the reputational and other risks to the church caused by their malpractice.”
She also said that nearly 300 people have signed a petition calling on the Charity Commission for England and Wales to ensure an independent safeguarding system for the church.
Meanwhile, the office of General Synod and the University of York, where the synod will take place, have granted permission for a LOUD Fence on campus. The LOUD Fence movement, which began in Australia, provides opportunities for abuse survivors and their supporters to gather and tie messages and ribbons of solidarity on a fence.