Category Archives: Justice4GeorgeBell

Resurrection People

Last week was not a good one for the Rochester Diocese.

One of the smaller dioceses of the Church of England, it does not make the news very often, yet it managed to do so last week in ways that make it almost emblematic of the Church of England as a whole.

First, the Archbishop Cranmer blog highlighted its financial difficulties. Like the national Church, Rochester is suffering from declining numbers of Church goers and with it declining revenues, yet as befits one of the nation’s oldest dioceses, it has its full measure of historic village churches whose small congregations have to struggle disproportionately to maintain our national heretage.

Unlike the church in France, whose revolution seized both the assets and the liabilities of the Church, the Established Church of England is fast becoming heritage liability with a missional church attached. Rochester tried to address the problem in two ways, both noble in themselves, but worth noting if only to draw lessons.

It held to its ideals, perhaps in retrospect for too long; Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali was committed to ” one priest- one Parrish” which is ideal -but meant that if the church numbers did not respond to the financial  needs of the diocese, the financial reserves -never great – were depleted quickly.

The Diocese has recently moved from a “Parish Share” system to one of local congregations making offers to address the published diocesan budget. Many, perhaps too many, who once struggled to meet their quota, may have taken this as the opportunity to ‘bid low’ with the promise to do more of they could. Where, in a harsher regime, they might have pulled more weight in order to ensure they kept their individual priest, under the twin influences of benignly assuring them that they would keep their priest anyway, whilst freeing them from a fixed figure contribution, such parishes probably relaxed in the early transitional period.

There is an  “elephant in the room” ;  some richer parishes, capable of paying their  full  share, for doctrinal reasons, choose not to do so, diverting the monies to projects of their preference, rather than supporting smaller churches outside of their tradition. Perceiving some churches as excessively liberal/inclusive/lax they preferred not to offer a subsidy.

The Rochester difficulty is not entirely a financial problem, but partly a fellowship issue. It emerges early in Rochester, it may may be seen elsewhere. The wider Church needs to take note.

If that were not enough, within the same week,  Rochester hit the news for all the wrong reasons with the publication of the independent report into the historic problems of a girls residential home, Kendall House in Gravesend, where the distinctive feature of the report was the misuse of powerful prescription drugs to render residents more compliant, with devastating effects. There was also some sexual abuse; it is worth highlighting that some adult females are abusers: that is easily overlooked.

If there is any ” good news ” in these stories, it  lies in the response.

Financial nettles are being grasped: a new financial regime has been adopted under the aegis of a former Local Authority Chief Executive , financial stringency is being embraced and some clergy posts may not be filled, as previously.

The Kendall House Report was published for all , in all its embarrassing detail.  The victims acknowledge and take comfort that anyone can read and understand what went wrong. Those in the town of Gravesend who know the woman who ran the home and respected her, are shocked, but not forming a committee to protect her memory: the reason is simple.

Rochester has been transparent.

You can read the story without identifying the victims. Chichester should learn the lesson as it continues to struggle with its handling of the  Bishop George Bell controversy.

In both these Rochester crises, transparency and accountability are at work. Knowing what must be addressed will enable us to do what is right.

Difficulties come to all peoples, and all institutions.

In an entirely different context, Archbishop Justin recently said ” truth is better than doubt”: St John wrote ” The truth will set you free”.

Rochester Diocese is facing some difficult truths at present but we are nothing if not the people of the resurrection.  We still have a mission “to put Christ in the centre of this country’s life where he rightfully belongs” as Canon John Spence has periodically and powerfully reminded General Synod.

We may have to go about things in different ways, we may be chastened by past failures but in a fundamental sense, nothing has changed. We have fallen but we are called to renewal. That is our hope, that is our mission, that is the task ahead

 

Chichester Diocese can learn from its own lessons

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.

 

 

 

 

 

Lessons for the Church from Hillsborough

The vindication of the Campaign for Justice for the 96 Hillsborough dead has touched the nation, and is causing many to re-think how one views such pressure groups.

Historically it should not surprise us. The campaign to free the Birmingham 6 was similarly lengthy and convoluted, and it is not only victims who receive justice belatedly;  perpetrators of abuse are also found out in time, as some of the nation’s well established celebrities are  discovering.

Yet for every guilty Jimmy Savile, there is an innocent  Nigel Evans: Stuart Hall was properly found guilty, Leon Britton went to his grave under an unjust cloud of suspicion because  police officers were too enmeshed in the virtue of their investigation to retain objectivity.

Even the disgraced footballer Ched Evans – who undoubtedly behaved very badly towards a young woman – has been granted a re-trial because the procedure which convicted him has been considered by the Court of Appeal and found  to be unsafe.

So this is the first lesson for the Church. Justice matters, even historic injustice must be righted, even if it takes time and erodes confidence in an important institution.

This brings us to the late Bishop George Bell.

From the little they knew, the Hillsborough families were not able to accept that what they were being told by the powers that be, was safe and based upon a transparent process of integrity. For such temerity, they were characterised as “whining scousers” who were unduly inclined to embrace victimhood. Such claims look pretty shoddy this side of the Inquest verdicts.

This is the second lesson which we can draw from Hillsborough for the Church. Ignoring legitimate concerns is wrong. It will also be a fundamental error to characterise those scrutinising the Church’s  investigation of the Bishop Bell case as “strident”.

Nobody in the campaign is denying the possibility that the complainant in the case is telling the truth, yet what is attracting objective people to support the campaign, is an examination of the information currently in the public domain which draws experienced lawyers and public figures to the inescapable conclusion that one cannot see a fair- and therefore a safe  – process at work.

In the past the Church has often applied an unfair opaque process leading to injustice for the accusers; it is no improvement to replace that with an unjust opaque process leading to injustice to the accused.

This is the third lesson of Hillsborough for the Church. Those campaigning for Justice do not go away quietly

The Church authorities have tried to close the debate by refusing to answer questions. We are told that they have conducted a comprehensive enquiry and have been advised by experts. They refuse even to confirm the area professional expertise of those experts. We must trust the process because the Church says it has been thorough.

Nothing will alarm anyone with expertise in Child Protection Law more than such a patronising assertion.

Over the past thirty years, there have been many public Inquiries into issues of child protection; that history is littered with discarded , confidently asserted  expert opinion.

There are fashions in child abuse practice just as there are in skirt lengths.

The existence of widespread ‘Satanic Child Abuse’, has dropped off the agenda and the nature of  “Munchausen Syndrome” and “False Memory Syndrome” have been downgraded from the status of medically diagnosable syndromes, to that of a  loose description of phenomena to be considered –  but only with with a great deal of caution.

For anyone acquainted with such matters, “Trust me I am an expert” cuts no more ice than ” Trust me I am a Bishop’. An expert opinion is only as good as the facts made available and not all are as intellectually curious outside of the brief presented.

Once, Freudian Psychiatrists would earnestly tell the Courts that many little girls fantasise over having sex with their fathers; we are currently in an age where many assert that all complainants must be assumed to be truthful. We seem to forgotten the lesson of the Cleveland Report which was to “listen to the child ( complainant) and take what they say seriously’. That is not the same as belief, and requires an ongoing objectivity throughout the process.

So, the fourth lesson is surely The Age of deference has passed.

Paradoxically, that may have washed in Bishop Bell’s day, but it certainly is not accepted today.

The Hillsborough Campaign gathered support because enough people cared to keep it in the public eye. If the Church hierarchy is hoping that those troubled by the current state of publicly available information will let it drop, it is mistaken. Questions will be asked at Synod and any attempt to evade questions on the basis of a mistaken view of what is and is not “confidential” will only irritate Synod members.

That irritation will be picked up by the Church press and such mainstream commentators as Charles Moore and Peter Hitchens. It is understood that members of the House of Lords are disquieted and may introduce a debate.

So lesson number five is The concerns of ordinary people do reach the public ear.

Plainly the Church does not want the issue of sexual abuse to again dominate the headlines; the complainant has said publicly that every time the matter hits the headlines, she is distressed.

If the Church wants to bring this matter to a satisfactory close it can do so by being more transparent and engaging properly with the questions that are legitimately raised as to the processes by which its decisions have been reached.

The Establishment approached the Hillsborough families with imperious disregard for proper standards of justice, and tried to defend the indefensible. People not only now distrust what happened then, they are now distrustful of how the police and Government will act in the future

Here we have the sixth and final lesson.

Justice4GeorgeBell is not about Justice for the past but whether the Church is currently capable of delivering  Justice now and in the future.

At present, it is impossible to answer that question in the affirmative.