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Church of England accused of silencing victims of abuse through new clergy guidance

by Donna Birrell

An advocate for abuse survivors has accused the Church of England of "sliding through" new guidance which will frighten victims of abuse into keeping quiet. Speaking to Premier, Gavin Drake says that despite assurances to the contrary, the Church has created a "dangerous situation where victims are silenced."

In April this year, new paragraphs were inserted into the Clergy Discipline Commission's Code of Practice. The paragraphs state that all allegations of misconduct brought under a Clergy Discipline Measure must be private and confidential and mustn't be shared with third parties. 

The new paragraphs also state that individuals should refrain from making statements or any form of comment on alleged misconduct. 

The Code of Practice is not legally binding, but a new paragraph has been added which states that failure to adhere to the guidance is contempt and would be referred to the High Court. Gavin Drake says this is particularly concerning:

"Under the new guidance, victims or survivors wouldn't be able to share their experiences, they wouldn't be able to talk to their MP for support, they wouldn't be able to send documents to their counsellors or support organisations. Newspapers wouldn't be able to print details of complaints against clergy. 

"The Commission has no power to do this at all but it has come up with these regulations and they've attached to it a threat, that if people breach them, they can be sent to the High Court to answer accusations of being in contempt, which is absolutely appalling. They're trying to turn that guidance into pseudo law and frighten victims into silence."

The Church of England is currently working on a Clergy Conduct Measure which it's believed will replace the Clergy Discipline Measure after the Church admitted it is not fit for purpose. The Church of England was forced to examine its handling of safeguarding after a highly critical report by the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse in 2020 found it had failed to protect children from sexual abuse and had created a culture where abusers could hide.  It found the Church had prioritised its own reputation above protecting victims. In response, the Church said it felt "shame" and would seek to become more open and transparent.

Gavin Drake, has himself worked in safeguarding in the Church of England:

"In the last couple of years, I've actually supported some people through the complaints process within the Church of England. And I've been appalled at what I've seen. I'm somebody who has worked in the past in safeguarding in the Church of England. And I saw complaints come in from people who said the Church of England has done that, and the Church of England has done this. And I found their account hard to believe because it didn't relate to how we did things in the diocese that I worked, but now, supporting people in another diocese, I can see that what people have been saying, it's correct that victims of clergy abuse in the Church of England are still treated appallingly."

"There are some good people involved in fighting and pushing for change. But the structure of the Church of England means that one part of the Church of England can do something good. And it could be counter counteracted by another part of the Church of England doing something bad. 

"The lead Bishop for safeguarding, Jonathan Gibbs, says that the processes must be fair and open to scrutiny. You can't have scrutiny if victims and survivors are being silenced, unable to explain what's happening to them."

The new Code of Practice has been drawn up by a Commission of around twelve people, including the Bishop of Leeds, the Right Reverend Nick Baines and the Bishop of Gloucester, the Right Reverend Rachel Treweek - both of whom were outspoken after the IICSA report, condemning the "shocking failures of the Church".    

Gavin Drake, who has written a blog for the Jill Saward Organisation about his concerns, says it's possible many clergy are unaware of the new guidance:

"This is an issue with the structure of the Church of England where you can have a small group of people produce guidance like this and it undermines the work that people elsewhere are doing to try and improve the way victims are treated.

"There is no press release saying we've updated the guidance, and we are shutting people up, we're stopping them speaking. It was slid through, hidden. And it's created this dangerous situation where victims are silenced."

In a statement to Premier a spokesperson for the C of E said: "The changes to the Code of Practice approved by General Synod earlier this year do not seek to 'silence victims' nor to prevent them from speaking out but, on the contrary, are to protect survivors and others involved in the process and to ensure that proper process is not prejudiced by undue external influences.

"The changes, which were proposed by the Clergy Discipline Commission and approved by Synod following a debate in April, follow a number of recent cases in which details of complaints under the Clergy Discipline Measure which could potentially lead to identification of complainants were made public, causing significant distress and upset for those concerned.

"The Clergy Discipline Commission is aware of the concerns raised in this blog and will examine the points raised and respond to the author in due course."

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