This morning a Guardian editorial was entitled : “Anglican cover-up : the Church that didn’t want to know.”
It follows an extraordinary week since my story for the BBC broke the news of how the Church of England mishandled its review into past cases of sexual abuse.
My small team and I had seen emails which seemed to show a reduction of cases of concern, to just 13 across the whole of the Church, nationally, in 2010. Some of the cases not recorded were serious and we now know that that enabled abusers to continue unchecked. During the recording process, files were left unopened, often in garages and sheds and one Diocesan Bishop chose not to engage at all in the process.
Because of our work, the Church was forced into bringing forward Sir Roger Singleton’s report into the Past Cases Review, weeks ahead of schedule. Indeed, just two hours before its release, I had asked the Church for a time-frame and been told the report was still being revised.
Sir Roger himself said that the PCR had been “botched” and there is no doubt that it was “flawed”. But I think one of the most important aspects to all of this is the way in which the Church has responded to it in the past few days.
On Radio 4’s Sunday programme, the lead Bishop for Safeguarding, Peter Hancock, said there had been “no deliberate intention to cover-up, but that has happened.” He went on to say that there had been “over concern to protect the Church’s reputation” and that “priorities were wrong”. Well done, these are very important words, Bishop Peter, but let’s remember that we’re talking about the Church of England here. One of our great National Institutions…like the BBC. And many would argue that the Church has an even greater moral responsibility than other institutions to be a beacon of transparency and openness.
Indeed, last September, Justin Welby criticised the way the BBC handled sexual abuse by Jimmy Savile. He said the BBC had not shown the same integrity over accusations of child abuse that the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches had. But abuse survivors disputed that, took issue with how he categorised the Church’s response, saying they had experienced years of silence, denial and evasion.
Over the last few years and months, I have met and spoken with many survivors and they say that despite words to the contrary, that is still their experience of the Church’s handling of their claims. There is a frustration that words are not followed by actions and that documents such as “Responding Well” actually don’t do what they say on the tin.
So where does the Church go from here?
In his report, Sir Roger wrote of the need for “culture change” in the Church. My experience of meeting people at many different levels within the Church suggest this is true….many want to see real change. But the question survivors ask is : “Is there the will at the top to make that happen? And who is really in charge of the Church?”
Is it Justin Welby or the senior layer of Bishops beneath him? Either way, the structure of the Church needs a serious re-think if trust in the institution is to improve. And the senior layer needs to be held to account and be accountable.
It is interesting to think generally here of the culture of institutions and how mindsets and attitudes can change as individuals rise to the top of their organisation. As their status within the organisation changes, sadly it can be human nature for a sense of superiority to set in, especially when all those around you are behaving deferentially towards you. Everybody I suppose has some sort of ego and those within the Church are no different.
But this can make it difficult to speak truth to power. It is difficult, even as a jourrnalist sometimes, but how much more difficult to try to do that if you are a survivor?
But it is surely not difficult for the Church to now take this opportunity to look properly at itself. To look at its structures, to reach out to survivors, rather than shutting them out and regarding them as a problem. To meet people where they are and to stop being afraid of what true engagement may bring.
After all, it is Petertide, a time of new beginnings for many….so how about also for the Church itself?
Thanks for reading this,