The Anglican Church has been considering the Elliott Review into its handling of child abuse matters, hot on the heels of the Archbishop of Canterbury feeling obliged to issue an apology over such matters in Jersey. At the other end of the country, a victim of abuse has called for the Bishop of Durham -the Church’s lead Bishop in the field – to undergo retraining following mistakes in the North.
In Scotland a 2 the secular world, in Scotland a 2 year old has suffered dreadfully through institutional Child Protection systemic weakness, and in Northern Ireland, the Kincora Inquiry is beginning its work into accusations of State Agencies looking the other way to protect the abuser, who, it is suggested, was a security asset.
We never seem to get away from this terrible subject, and when stories come so quickly, one after another, it is easy to glaze over, switch off, and hope that lessons will be learned.
Only, they are not. They never have been, not since the dreadful case of Maria Colwell in 1973, and not following the dozens of case inquiries since.
Everytime we have these tragedies looked into, the same problems are identified. Case files are neglected, social workers are changed too often, multiple reports are dismissed or not connected, neighbours speak once and when nothing happens assume all is well. The other side of the road is a well trodden path.
The Institutional Church is in just such a mode, even now, despite all the failures within the Church, and outside. Too easily we issue the apology, assert that “lessons have been learnt” , raise our eyes to higher things and move on.
“Moving on” includes a complacency about too many clergy who have avoided attending necessary training and only undertake it with astonishing self confidence in their own ability in this complex field,, despite the plain evidence that better trained and more experienced social work specialists, doctors, lawyers and Judges are constantly falling into error.
On the ground, too many Church folk still believe ” it couldn’t happen here “: in the hierarchy, too many subscribe to the belief that they know what they are doing;and yet, without in the least decrying their bona fides, it has to be said that the story of institutions in many fields across our culture is one of recurring amnesia in this difficult area.
There have been over 30 child protection Public Inquiries concerning child deaths, and the depressing theme that runs through all of them, is that they all say the same thing. Procedures are not complied with, files are transferred and continuitity lost, “dots are not connected” at the vital time, and yet in retrospect, once the tragedy has occurred, it is usually blindingly obvious that any halfway competent review would have seen where it was heading.
Heavens, even Brother Ivo’s writing tends to become repetitive when he returns to this theme!
A culture of complacency creeps back in, and those raising critical and discordant commentary are told to relax, they are assured that lessons have been learnt, and urged that it is unhelpful to draw attention to the Church having a poor history of managing child protection.
This is is why the campaign to review the case of Bishop Bell is so important.
It is of greater importance that simply restoring a historical legacy: in truth, it is a challenge to the very culture of the church hierarchy, which is one of being instinctively opaque, deferential and unaccountable.
The fact that the Bell case seeks to question poor process in relation to the accused is irrelevant. A Church that can get it right in secrecy, can get it wrong in secrecy, and will have all the necessary tools with which to bury its mistakes
That cases has been made before, both here and elsewhere.
What is new,and that can be said now, is to highlight the amnesia.
We have ” got it right ” and then promptly forgotten the lesson, and this can be demonstrated in the very Diocese of Chichester in which the Bishop Bell controversy is playing out.
Whenever questions about the inquiry process surrounding Bishop Bell are asked, the official response is that nothing can be said because to answer any question would be to breach the right to confidentiality belonging to the complainant. It is deployed as a shield to silence even those questions touching upon the actions of the institution rather than the circumstances of the accuser. Apparently the cloak of secrecy is drawn so tightly, that even members of the Cathedral Chapter are excluded and frustrated.
Yet there is a double absurdity.
Chichester Diocese is primly refusing to answer questions at the same time that a Public Inquiry into the Kincora Children Home is openly exploring the role (if any) of the security services in covering up abuse.
Victims testimony will be disclosed and agents of MI5, MI6, and Army Intelligence will have to account for their their actions and policies, and yet, according to the Church hierarchy, the Bell case is so impacted by the law of confidentiality, that we cannot even be told whether the accuser’s medical records were examined to determine if her own publicly acknowledged history of mental health fragility shed any light on the story. It is not the content of those records that is sought, but simply confirmation of the fact that such evidence was considered by a suitably qualified expert ,capable of evaluating the relevance – if any.
That is not a matter of confidentiality; it is a matter of procedural competence.
Yet one does not need to reference the Northern Ireland Public Inquiry to flag up the contrasting absurdity.
On the Diocese of Chichester’s own website, one can read a 54 page report into a previous child protection scandal. Worried at what went wrong in the case of Roy Cotton and Colin Pritchard the Diocese commissioned a report from Dame Elizabeth Butler Sloss, whose report into Child Protection failures at Cleveland as long ago as 1987 set the benchmark for transparency and clarity about how such cases can be investigated and the conclusions put proportionately in the public domain.
On Chichester’s own website, Dame Elizabeth sets out a textbook template which shows how it is possible to balance the public interest in open justice, with due care for the privacy of the complainant. It can be done, it has been done. It can be read in all its transparent fullness here
Chichester must revisit its own archive and draw suitable conclusions.
Those who do not learn from history are destined to repeat it.
This is the lesson that must be drawn from all these past tragedies. We have short term memories but highly entrenched corporate instincts towards secrecy.
This matter will not go away. It will be raised at Question Time at the next General Synod in York. If transparency does not begin thereafter, we shall have to seek a full public debate about the Church’s instinct against openness, by which the default position of “Trust me I’m a Bishop’ is exposed for the absurd foolishness that it is.