Archbishop of Canterbury reaffirms apology to victims of clergy abuse

Justin Welby giving evidence to the IICSA inquiryIICSA

The Church of England has a long way to go before it can call itself a "safe" Church, the Archbishop of Canterbury admitted on Wednesday. 

In comments to the General Synod, the Church's parliamentary body, the Archbishop sought to "reaffirm my apology" to survivors, whose accounts of abuse, he said, "demonstrate how badly we have done in the past and what we need to do."

"We have not gone nearly as far as we should; we have not satisfied the conditions to be a safe Church and there is much more to be done," he told Synod. 

He was speaking during a debate in Synod on its response to the recommendations of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA). 

A final report is due out later this year from IICSA but the inquiry has already made a number of recommendations to the Church of England, including the introduction of safeguarding guidance for religious communities and sanctions for clergy who fail to comply with safeguarding procedures. The recommendations have been endorsed by the Archbishops' Council. 

The Church of England's outgoing lead bishop for safeguarding, Peter Hancock, said that "significant progress" had been made, with improvements to governance as well as changes to guidance, procedure and policy, and further investment in training and audits.

However, he told Synod that his last four years in the role had at times left him "angry and bitterly ashamed at how the Church I love has behaved" and that more needed to be done. 

"Yet these developments, while incredibly welcome, have come about too slowly [...] and we have much further to travel on our safeguarding journey," he said.

"As lead bishop for safeguarding, I've seen first hand that there remains a very real danger that when safeguarding is discussed in the Church, that we still experience it as something 'other' or as somebody else's responsibility.

"I know that safeguarding must be at the very heart of all of our work in the Church, embedded in our theology, in our mission, in our practice and in our policies.

"We must remember that safeguarding affects us all - every member of this Synod and every member of the Church have safeguarding responsibilities.  It is not a responsibility that we can pass to anybody else." 

The Bishop of Huddersfield, Jonathan Gibbs, whose call for a "survivor centred" approach to clergy abuse was endorsed by Synod, said that words of apology must be "followed by concrete action" and that properly redressing victims of abuse would require "serious money".

"Synod, we all know that the season of apology and lament is by no means over, but now is also the time for action and for change," he said. 

He said it was "vital" that the Church work with survivors going forward "because frankly, too many of us, too often still just don't get it". 

Turning his attention to redress for survivors, he said: "It will mean money and serious money. And we will need to work out how we're going to fund that.

"But it must also mean changes in the way we handle claims and complaints so that how we do things is shaped by the righteousness and compassion of God's kingdom, and not by the short-term and short-sighted financial and reputational interests of the Church." 

He went on to say that the Church of England should "go beyond" the recommendations of IICSA and "commit ourselves to making the Church of England into what it should be, namely a beacon of excellence in safeguarding, recognised as a community that excels in promoting the safety and wellbeing of every single human being, and one that acts as a voice for the voiceless and a refuge for the vulnerable".

"Now is the time for action and for change," he said. 

Canon Rosie Harper questioned whether anything had really changed and said she wanted to know how bishops would be held accountable.

She said that although she was "certainly doing a lot more courses" and had "a lot more paperwork", she was not convinced that there had been any "deep level" change.

"What hasn't changed is how survivors feel about the Church's response," she continued.  "They are still waiting for a genuine Christian and human interaction," she said, adding that survivors were too often spoken about as "difficult" or "tricky".

"They wait for apologies, they wait for fair and just restitution, and they wait for proper pastoral care.  And in the case, for example, of Iwerne survivors, they even wait for an honest and truthful investigation into the whole barbaric abuse to actually be undertaken." 

She went on to say that some survivors had lost income and life savings in their fight for justice, and were "still waiting for their lives to be rebuilt". 

"There needs to be a culture change and it needs to start at the top, because big public apologies come easy, even tearful ones, which incidentally make the apology about the person apologising, not the survivor," she said.

"Genuine personal apologies seem to be more difficult, even when the people concerned are in the same room as one another." 

She said she wanted to see bishops held accountable "in a measurable way, with consequences for ongoing failure, a tangible reality that survivors can see and know".

"But as the full IICSA report will doubtless demonstrate, we are still on the nursery slopes," she said. 

Abuse survivor Emily Bagg, from the Diocese of Portsmouth, echoed the call for action. 

"I am not a victim, I am a survivor. Words are not enough," she said.

"We can talk and we can promise, and we can promise and we can talk, but concrete actions are all that really matter to people like me. Concrete, real, immediate action.

"Synod please support this motion but absolutely, vitally be prepared to put your money where your mouths are, to totally, utterly and radically take real, concrete action."