Through a glass darkly – 50

The business of safeguarding

About a year ago I wrote a blog about sexual abuse, mainly of young boys, in [mainly] the Roman Catholic church. The blog was triggered by watching rather half-heartedly the film Spotlight, which focussed on the unhealthy goings-on in the Catholic Diocese of Boston, and then reading the book of the same name. The book rather left the story hanging, but church spokesmen, and they were all men, were keen to say that “lessons have been learnt”.

During these damp, cold days of May, I have discovered a new occupation; filling in Church of England Safeguarding forms. Of which there are rather a lot. After a couple of hours coaxing the multi-tasking printer into life, I am not greatly advanced. And my suspicion is that safeguarding is a growth industry sponsored by Rank-Xerox and by assorted paper manufacturers. Yes, we want children and vulnerable adults to be safe in church life. And yes, we are all too aware of some significant abuses and abusers in recent decades. But I’m not sure that this extraordinary  multiplication of paperwork is necessarily helpful.

It began with a request from the Diocese to renew my PTO [Permission to Officiate] which has run out. In order to do this, I downloaded and filled in several pages of Confidential Information Form, including a list of countries that I have lived in in the past 60 years together with the dates. I sent it off in March in a manilla envelope. At the same time I was asked to undergo the initial levels of Church of England Safeguarding Training. These are done on line, in your own time. There is a lot of general information, a plethora of abstract nouns, and some quite elementary case studies, in which you are invited to respond through MCQs [multiple choice questions]. I scored 97% in the Introductory module and 100% in the Foundations module. Which is probably about average.

The problem with this material, perhaps inevitably, is that it is all a bit black and white. And there is always a ‘right answer’ which the module requires. Spoiler alert: the standard correct response is ‘Contact your Safeguarding Officer/Advisor’; and then record the details of the episode and put what you have written into a secure [locked] filing cabinet. Good sense. Good practice.

The problem is of course that in real life pastoral situations are quite nuanced. And situations often present in an unclear manner, in the middle of a sequence of events. I think of a situation in my first charge where I discovered quite by chance that an elderly member of the congregation who lived close to the church and ‘kept an eye’ on the churchyard had been informally cautioned by the police a few years earlier for behaving inappropriately with children. Was any action  required ? And I think of being asked, usually by their wives, to sign shotgun licences for men with alcohol problems. And I think of a young man in the congregation, a friend of my daughter, who was accused by anonymous letter of ‘interfering with’ young Air Cadets; and of the grossly ill-judged way that the Air Force handled the matter. [It was a malicious accusation, and the accuser, whom I was happy to identify on the phone to the police, ended up in court.]

And I think of situations in a chaplaincy in the Diocese of Europe. The good-looking young Frenchman who arrived in church life on Sunday mornings and proved to be a great hit with some of the girls in the congregation. It was all a bit reminiscent of the film A nous les petites anglaises.

A nous les petites anglaises

Was I right to ban him from church life ? And was it enforceable ? [Was I right in thinking that it was in part my job as chaplain to steer young christian Anglo-Saxon girls away from potentially predatory, lapsed Catholic, young Frenchmen ? I don’t think that particular issue features in the on-line Church of England Safeguarding materials.]

More disturbingly one of our African refugees, quite a recent arrival, accused a fellow African, an established member of the congregation, of raping the primary school age  daughter of another African woman. Who was away in Africa at the time. [After some serious praying and some discreet consultation in our refugee community, I wrote the whole episode down and hid the report in my filing cabinet. And did nothing beyond that. And I was grateful to get the seal of approval from the Diocesan Safeguarding Advisor a few months later.]

I don’t want to come across as an elderly dinosaur who doesn’t take safeguarding seriously. But I have real reservations as to whether the church is tackling the question in the right way. The current system goes to considerable lengths to establish that I am who I say that I am. And to ensure that I do not have anything nasty lurking in my past. [A recent article in The Times suggests that the several hundred former sub-postmasters wrongly accused by the Post Office of fraud because of a seriously flawed computer system would not be allowed to work with children in Sunday School because they now have a criminal record.] But most of the better known church abusers of recent years were not hiding behind false identities or concealing criminal records. They were enabled to behave badly and ruin lives primarily because their fellow clergy couldn’t and didn’t believe that ‘they would do things like that’. The disease was cronyism in the church hierarchy. And their protestations of innocence were given credibility over the complaints of the individuals whom they abused. People like Bishop Peter Ball were given the benefit of the doubt by their peers. And then, as the tide turned, Bishop George Bell’s reputation was posthumously traduced by a committee of well-meaning people who clearly didn’t know what they were doing.

The Diocesan Safeguarding checks at least have some clear objective, the renewal of my PTO [Permission to Officiate]. More alarmingly, I have had e-mails in recent days from an Orwellian sounding organisation called PeopleSupport System. Written thus. Who asked me to log onto an unspecified website and upload details of my church pension. The e-mail was couched in the style of the Boilermakers Union minute book of c.1910. I replied to say that I assumed the communication was a scam devised by a Gavin Williamson algorithm. Which drew a hurt reply that the request came from a hitherto unknown part of the Church of England. Who were concerned to develop a National Clergy Register. In the interests of safeguarding. I couldn’t initially log on to the system because my allocated user name is orthographically illiterate. And anyone who imagines that uploading my pension details will help safeguard children and vulnerable adults, whether in the Church of England or anywhere else. must be totally barking.

What saddens me most about all this stuff is the disproportionality. During thirty-odd years of church ministry, no ecclesiastical line manager ever showed any real interest in what I was doing. No-one asked me about my prayer life. Or about my preaching. Or about my pastoral deficiencies. Bishops turned up from time to time [roughly every five years], and were generally friendly. But there was no serious attempt to assess what I was doing. And how I might do it better. I joined a peer group Appraisal scheme. And I eventually had a ‘spiritual director’ at Taizè. And I signed up for a distance-learning taught MTh. in Glasgow. But these were all personal initiatives. Rather than a conscious attempt by the church to advance and to improve my ministry.

By contrast, now that I have been more-or-less retired for eight years, a whole army of nice, well-intentioned people are employed to help me negotiate the paperwork of safeguarding. Two years ago Archbishop Justin told The Spectator that the Church of England safeguarding budget has increased from about £50, 000 to £7 million per year. I might write a grumpy letter to the Church Times. Or maybe I’ll just scratch my head in bewilderment.

May 2021

Published by europhilevicar

I am a retired vicar living on the south side of Edinburgh. I am a historian manqué, I worked in educational publishing for 20 years, and after ordination worked in churches in the Scottish Borders and then in Lyon in the Rhône-Alpes. I have a lovely and long-suffering wife, two children, and four delightful grand-children

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