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Sam Atkins / Church of England
World News

A 'watershed moment’ as Archbishop of York admits ‘safeguarding crisis’ in the CofE

by Kelly Valencia

The Archbishop of York, Stephen Cottrell has admitted the church faces a 'watershed moment' over safeguarding as sacked members of the Independent Safeguarding Board tell Synod they were ‘silenced’ for being ‘too independent’.

The Church of England is facing a “safeguarding crisis” following the Archbishop’s Council decision to disband the group expected to scrutinise safeguarding matters, the Archbishop has said.

Most Rev Steven Cottrell told Synod members on Sunday that the council takes “collective responsibility” for “failing again” as he apologised for “mistakes made”.

“This is a watershed moment for us. We can’t get this wrong again,” Archbishop Steven said.

“We, the Church of England, can no longer think that we can deliver these things ourselves. That is the key learning. Not only do we need independent oversight and scrutiny of safeguarding, we need independent help in deciding how best to do it. I can’t tell you how sorry I am that it has taken this long for us to see it with clarity,” he continued.

Archbishop Stephen made the remarks during a Synod session aimed at providing members with an account from the Archbishop’s Council's perspective of how the decision to disband the Independent Safeguarding Board (ISB) had unfolded. Dr Jamie Harrison, Rev Tim Goodge and Alison Coulter all responded to questions by Synod members.

Lack of transparency; data breaches and a call for a third party to handle all safeguarding cases from now on were some of the main concerns raised in the hall, with several Synod members accusing the church’s leadership of having “lost the trust in the room”.

The ISB was set up in 2021 as a response to the findings of a damning report from the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA), which established that the Church of England had routinely ignored, dismissed or covered up allegations of abuse for decades.

However, last month, the Archbishop’s Council decided to sack two of the three board members and later disband it all together.  They cited a “breakdown” in the working relationships, a claim which was refuted by the two sacked members.

Despite not being Synod members, both the former Board members, Jasvinder Sanghera and Steve Reeves, were eventually allowed five minutes each, to share their thoughts on what the Archbishop’s Council had shared during the session.

They both delivered strongly worded speeches, with Reeves accusing the church of failing, “to do what is due of it for survivors and victims of abuse” and Sanghera warning that abuse survivors were the ones paying the price for their dismissal.

Reeves said: “When the Archbishops’ Council talks about ‘independence’, they do not mean independence in the way that you and I mean independence and the average person on the street means independence. They mean semi-detached, not independent. When they talk about ‘trust’ … what they mean is obedience.”

The Archbishop of York announced that a review will be commissioned to look into the handling of the ISB dissolution.  He also shared that the Archbishops’ Council had referred itself to the Church Commissioners.

But these measures simply don’t go far enough for some survivors. Speaking to Premier, Matt Ineson, who has waived his right to anonymity, said he doesn't trust that the church will allow full scrutiny: “The church will review itself. It always does... It means they will get somebody else who they will employ, who they will control, give guidance to, they will do their own review. So what's the point of them being reviewed? They've absolutely messed up.”

“I think they should all resign... 'independence' should be genuinely what the word means. Safeguarding [taken] totally out of the hands of the Church of England.  Any disclosures or allegations handed to a genuinely independent, non-church control body, to be investigated by people who have the expertise, not by people in the church who think they do,” he continued.

Asked if he thought there was a case for the current membership of the Archbishops’ Council to be replaced, Dr Jamie Harrison, a member of the Council, told Premier he didn’t think so.

“I think we're having to learn a lot from this. So the problem I think was that we struggled with the idea of how much we needed to govern and control an independent board and how much we gave independence to the board. And that's where we probably went wrong. We didn't get that balance right. We weren't clear enough.

“We didn't perhaps do a proper governance job. So I would hope we wouldn't feel the need to have to resign. But equally, I think we feel we need to learn from it.”

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