Wednesday, 10 July 2013

Clergy Discipline

Most clergy and nearly all church goers can spend their entire lives without hearing about the Clergy Discipline Measure. I certainly hadn't before I started this job. But now I find myself responding to consultation about possible changes to it. What is it? Well, most clergy in parishes are not employees but office-holders. As they are not employees the Diocese cannot have the kind of disciplinary policy that other employers need, at least not for its parochial clergy. Instead we have this Measure, which is an Act of Parliament.

It is a cumbersome document, which comes along with a Code of Practice. A copy of this sits on my desk: it runs to 253 numbered paragraphs. And since it is not a policy, which could be changed relatively quickly, any changes have to go through the parliamentary process. That is the journey on which the national church has embarked. It is doing so to give effect to some of the proposals which arose out of the Chichester report, which pointed out gaps and anomalies in the Measure. Those of us involved in these things have known about them for some time - some of them were identified through the Past Cases Review of a few years ago - but Chichester has given the necessary push to move things along.

What are the gaps and anomalies? I shall raise three:

Removing the time limit for bringing allegations of sexual abuse

There is normally a time limit of one year to bring a complaint against a cleric. But survivors of sexual abuse are often not able to tell their story until a considerable time has passed - sometimes many years. So the one year limit is not appropriate for such cases. It can be dispensed with but this is currently another formal process which can take three months. So I welcome the proposed removal of the time limit.

Extending the bishop's power of suspension

If a serious allegation is made against an ordinary worker, the employer can suspend the worker, and will normally do so unless the allegation clearly has no substance. I put it like this as there can be malicious allegations or even - I have had such a case - one of mistaken identity. Clergy are not employees and so cannot be suspended unless they have been arrested. So they currently have to be asked to withdraw voluntarily while matters are investigated. This is an absurd position which needs rectifying.

Amending the law on risk assessments

There is a worrying area of concern where a cleric has been the subject of an allegation, or possible several different allegations, but for various reasons none of them have led to a conviction. We then are likely to seek a risk assessment from an individual or organization which specializes in this work. The Lucy Faithfull Foundation is one such, and it is used not only by churches but also by government bodies. What if the cleric refuses to go for risk assessment? The proposal is that such a refusal should constitue a disciplinary offence and be dealt with under the Measure. This is quite a complicated issue, since it involves a judgement on someone who has not been convicted, but on balance I support it.

There are other proposals, and I shall also be pressing for a change which is not in the list of  proposals. Currently, it is a criminal offence for a person in a position of trust, such as a teacher or youth worker, to have a sexual relationship with a 16 or 17 year old for whom they are responsible. But this only applies in the statutory sector. So it does not apply to teachers or youth workers in the voluntary sector - nor to clergy. I think we should be asking that it should.

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