Church on the Ropes…

by the Revd Dr Jeremy Morris, Master of Trinity Hall, Cambridge


We are just a couple of weeks into what will be many months of painful interrogation of the Church of England’s safeguarding record by the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA), and already some outlines of what we must come to expect are becoming clear.  The press commentary is likely to focus – rightly – on issues of personal responsibility: who knew what, what action did they take, what were their priorities, where did they place child safety in relation to institutional reputation, and so on.  But a vital subsidiary theme will be information – what kind of records were kept, how was information handled, what should be done with confidential information, and so on.

Anyone who has troubled to look at the IICSA website will be astonished not only at the rapidity with which testimony is being transcribed and indexed (presumably audio transcription software is being used, but it must be of a very high quality), but at its sheer volume.  When the hearings on the Church of England are finished, what will be in the public domain will provide a remarkable, completely unprecedented insight into the intimate workings of parts of the Church.  Usually the records of near-contemporary developments and situations are on restricted access, under a thirty-year rule – a bane for historians like me, but obviously necessary to protect individuals in contexts in which the implications of complex decision-making processes may still be unfolding.  Here it is all going to be on view, with facts, allegations, personal views or prejudices, insights into how decisions were actually taken, supposition, all mixed up together.  It is already, I would argue, a formidable archive of events and opinions in the public domain, so far bearing specifically on the recent history of the diocese of Chichester.

It is much too early to draw any firm conclusions from what has been revealed, but when you read about the uncertainty with which church people faced allegations of abuse against colleagues, and made catastrophic decisions based on their assumption of essential goodness, it is hard – at least to me – to avoid thinking that too much discretion has been given to church leaders in the past, and that mandatory reporting of allegations of abuse is the way forward.  I can see that there are all sorts of drawbacks to going down that road, not least that some people might be put off registering suspicions by the thought that the implications of doing so will be so serious for the people concerned.  But there is a remorseless logic about the evidence being presented to IICSA: if there is a possibility that abuse is taking place, or a risk that it may do so in the future, then we cannot afford to balance probabilities when a child’s welfare might be at stake.

But there are two particularly tricky questions to which we’re going to have to give some thought.  One concerns data retention.  Here two contradictory pressures are bearing in on the Church.  One is the development of personal data regulation, soon to hit us in accelerated form through the new General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) legislation coming into force shortly.  According to that, essentially organizations are going to have work on the assumption that individuals have a ‘right to be forgotten’ – they can demand the erasure of personal data.  Organizations will have to justify data retention, at risk of heavy fines.  The other is the need to keep full, accurate records of allegations made against individuals, with their correlative circumstances.  Anyone who has been involved in pursuing disciplinary matters within an organization will probably know the immense frustration of being told ‘such and such a meeting took place’, only to find no permanent record of it.  The right to be forgotten, but the need to record accurately and permanently.  How will these things be reconciled, especially by small, poorly-funded organizations, by local churches and charities, for example?

And the second question concerns the long-term effect of having a vast archive of material in the public domain that essentially presents the bleakest possible account of the internal workings of the Church over the last three or four decades.  It will not be possible to ignore all this material.  Nor should it be.  But there will be little else available of such granularity and scale to balance out the account.  So how will we assess the modern Church of England in the future?  From the point of view of safeguarding and child protection, of course, it is absolutely vital that the woeful failures of process and intention should be exposed, and practical solutions adopted to prevent such things happening again.  But are the failures all there is to say about the Church?  Is the modern history of the Church simply a catalogue of catastrophe?

I don’t believe so.  But it is going to be an uphill struggle to make that case.  It was a brave and, I think, laudable decision to volunteer the Church of England as a first substantial test-case for IICSA – better to make a clean breast of things, and face the storm early.  But that doesn’t in any way ease the challenge of acknowledging the extraordinary efforts church people do make to live out their faith and to help others.  Churches somehow have to hold in view a double truth, with equal vehemence on both sides – they fail frequently and have to face bravely and openly the possibility that even the most seemingly ‘nice’ people are capable of great harm, and that nonetheless most people in the Church live out their lives with conviction and integrity as they try to follow the gospel.  That’s a very difficult balancing act.  And for a long time the news will all seem to run one way.

We are on the ropes!


This entry was posted in IICSA, Jeremy Morris, Sexual abuse. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Church on the Ropes…

  1. studyliturgy says:

    I would not usually comment but your article contains one error about data protection which is now being repeated so regularly that I believe it needs challenging and setting right. The advent of GDPR does not contain ‘a right to be forgotten’ , rather it contains a right to request to be forgotten. Individuals can’t simply demand data be suppressed. If an organisation has a legitimate purpose to retain data, or is still processing the data, then it may simply refuse the request.
    Yes there are no doubt challenges around data about which we all have to learn, but it does not help to perpetuate this particular myth, especially in relation to questions around safeguarding.


  2. Jonathan West says:

    Jeremy Morris expresses reservations about mandatory reporting as follows:

    “I can see that there are all sorts of drawbacks to going down that road, not least that some people might be put off registering suspicions by the thought that the implications of doing so will be so serious for the people concerned.”

    But this happens already. Reporting levels are low in part because of the paradoxical situation where child sex abuse is such a horrible crime that nobody wants to report it lest they accuse an innocent person. People ask themselves “What if I’m wrong?” And so no investigation is made.

    Mandatory reporting would get people past that concern. It would start people thinking more about “What if I’m right?” If an investigation occurs and it turns out that there is nothing to worry about, then fine.

    In addition, mandatory reporting would make it very dangerous for people to put institutional reputation above child protection by deciding to suppress reports and instead handle abuse in-house.

    Finally the culture of vigilance that mandatory reporting will foster may well deter abusers because they perceive that there is an unreasonably high risk they will be caught. In some ways, child abusers are just like other criminals. They will not offend if the risk is too high


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