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Archbishop of Canterbury accused of 'turning a blind eye' to church use of non-disclosure agreements

by Donna Birrell

The Church of England is being accused of hypocrisy after continuing to use confidentiality clauses known as non-disclosure agreements.

In April, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby said he was horrified that NDAs were being used in the Church to prevent some victims of abuse and racism from speaking out after being given pay-outs. 

But at a recent meeting of the Church's General Synod, members heard that they were still being used in some cases.

Ben Nicholson signed a non-disclosure agreement with a charity in 2018, but has since been released from the contract. He has formed an organisation called NDA Free to campaign against their use and has been speaking to Premier.

“I think they’re used because they are a very effective tool to cover up things which people want covered up. I think a lot of the time it's incompetence, but sometimes it's more serious than that. It's abuse and often, it seems to me that it happens when the person responsible holds a senior position, and therefore exposing it has reputational risk for the organisation as well as for the individual involved. At that point, the organisation makes a decision that it's better to essentially buy the silence of the person with a settlement payment, on condition that they sign a confidentiality agreement or a non-disclosure agreement. They are very effective for silencing people because of the sense of fear and intimidation that comes with signing a legal document.”

Organisations argue that in some circumstances, NDAs can be useful in protecting confidentiality and privacy and details that shouldn't be in the public domain. Ben Nicholson says the use of NDAs has to be seen in context. 

“I think NDAs obviously have the origins in protecting commercial property, intellectual property, and that is the right use for a non-disclosure agreement. I do think there are places for them around protecting personal data. But I think those circumstances are very limited. I certainly don't think that somebody who's on the receiving end who's reported bullying or sexual abuse or whatever, should ever be asked to sign a non-disclosure agreement in regard to their own data. It may be appropriate for the organisation to guarantee their privacy, but it should never be incumbent upon someone who's suffered abuse, to have to sign a non-disclosure agreement themselves.”

In 2018, the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby told the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse that he was horrified that NDAs were being used within the Church of England. He said : “A non-disclosure agreement seems to me to be dangerous because it creates suspicion. Surely you’re trying to cover something up.”

However, at November’s meeting of the General Synod, the Bishop of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich, the Right Rev Martin Seeley, said that NDAs had not been banned within the Church.

Ben Nicolson told Premier there should be clarification and a transparent policy on the use of the clauses.

“I think that what they say and what happens are not necessarily the same. When Christian organisations get caught using them, they're very hard to defend, other than for the use of protecting intellectual property. So most people will distance themselves from it, but the kind of power that they have to conceal is so strong and because they’re done in secret essentially, people are able to get away with using them, despite what they say in public.

“I am not sure what power Justin Welby has to enforce not using non-disclosure agreements across the Church of England, but I think if he was serious about the issue, he should spell out much more clearly where NDAs can be used - if indeed, they should still be used in the Church of England - and where they shouldn't. 

“My concern is that by making general statements about being horrified about their use, but then essentially turning a blind eye to when they are used, is not the right way to go ahead.  The hard work needs to be done on updating policies and making sure they’re enforced.” 

Premier has been told the Archbishop of Canterbury was not available to comment.

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