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Archbishops 'deeply regret' flaws in Independent Safeguarding Board

by Donna Birrell

The Archbishops of Canterbury and York say they 'deeply regret' flaws in the design and governance of the Church of England’s Independent Safeguarding Board (ISB).

The body was disbanded earlier this year after its two board members were sacked, claiming the board wasn't sufficiently independent and that their work had been hampered by the Church.

Barrister Sarah Wilkinson was asked to carry out an independent review following the decision by the Archbishops’ Council to terminate the contracts of Jasvinder Sanghera and Steve Reeves, following a breakdown in relationships. Her review has just been published and has criticised what it called 'inadequate governance arrangements' and 'confusion' around the word 'independence'.

Rev Dr Ian Paul who is a member of Archbishops’ Council told Premier: “I think members of the Archbishops’ Council are really pleased to see the Wilkinson report published, for several reasons: first of all, there was a repeated accusation by survivors and by their advocates, that the Archbishop's council was in some kind of cover up, and that the reason they pulled the plug on the ISB was to stop them appearing at General Synod and to prevent them disclosing something which was really embarrassing to us.

"But this has shown that none of that is true. As with many things in the Church of England, it's cock-up, not conspiracy.”

The review found that the ISB had been designed under extreme time pressure, imposed principally by the Archbishop of Canterbury. It said that had resulted in serious design flaws and that the legal status of the ISB was unclear from the beginning. The word ‘independent’ also created confusion over where the ISB’s operational independence ended and the Council’s oversight as charitable trustees began.

The appointment of Meg Munn as ISB chair was also seen as a ‘significant cause of breakdown of trust’ as she was also chair of the National Safeguarding Panel and accused of not being sufficiently independent from the church. Ms Munn has subsequently resigned from all her safeguarding posts in the church.

The review also claimed there were ‘structural weaknesses’ within the ISB.

Dr Paul said: “I would agree with them that we've had governance failures, which have made it more complicated. I've also been saying repeatedly that the word ‘independent’ in ISB was wrong. It never was independent. It was never set up to be independent, it was only ever set up to be an interim arrangement, which would move to full independent safeguarding scrutiny, which is what we need.”

The report has been sent to Professor Alexis Jay, a former chair of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) as part of her ongoing work to develop proposals for a fully independent structure for safeguarding scrutiny in the Church of England.

Dr Paul added:

“I really hope that now with the Jay process we'll be able to move to a much more straightforward, much simpler, genuinely independent scrutiny of safeguarding, which is what we need.”

In a statement on the Church of England’s website, the Most Rev Justin Welby and Most Rev Stephen Cottrell, Archbishops of Canterbury and York said:

“As a Council we have begun to discuss this very thorough report and will continue to do so over the coming weeks.

“Although we will respond in more detail later, we want to say now that we deeply regret the flaws exposed by this report, especially in the design and governance of the ISB which contributed to the ultimate breakdown in relationships and take our share of responsibility for that breakdown.

“We particularly regret the impact this has had on victims and survivors of abuse.

“The report is clear that the breakdown in relationships between the ISB members following the appointment of the acting Chair - which was evident at the Archbishops’ Council’s meeting on May 9, 2023 - was the event which made termination of their contracts almost inevitable.

“It found no evidence for claims that other motives lay behind the decision, although it recognised it was unsurprising the subject of case reviews might have thought otherwise.

“It is vital that we now learn lessons and do not lose sight of those for whom the delivery of independent oversight is crucial - the survivors and victims of abuse – and, more widely, all those who come in contact with the Church and who place their trust in us to deliver the highest standards of safeguarding.”

The full report can be found here.

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