At the risk of being a bah humbug in the run up to the Christmas season, given that we approach a celebration with great significance to the Christian church, it is appropriate to be reminded of the recommendations made to the Christian church by the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (“IICSA”) in their scrutiny of abuse in religious institutions.
The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (“IICSA”) which published its final report in October last year, also published earlier separate “sub” reports in respect of their investigations into specific communities. Two of these were the Anglican Church of England and the Catholic Church, which along with a number of other religious entities, have had multiple allegations of sexual abuse by priests and others associated with the church including choirmasters, organists and youth workers put to them over the recent years. The reports are published on the IICSA website.
The Church of England Inquiry report
The Anglican Church report was published on the 6 October 2020. It concluded that the Anglican Church failed to protect children and young people from sexual predators within their ranks. It highlights cultural issues for concern within the Church of England, notably ‘clericalism’ described as "where power was vested chiefly in the clergy without accountability, and where the moral autonomy of the clergy was widely perceived as beyond reproach". Naivety and reputational issues were also identified by the IICSA as being a cause of concern.
Amongst the IICSA recommendations to the Church of England was the introduction of Diocesan Safeguarding Officers, who should be given the authority to make decisions independently of the Diocesan Bishop and should be professionally supervised and quality assured by the National Safeguarding Team. The IICSA also recommended that the Church of England should make changes and improvements to the way in which it responded to safeguarding complaints. Specifically, it was recommended that the twelve-month time limit for all complaints with a safeguarding element brought under the Clergy Discipline Measure should be disapplied. A mandatory “code of practice” to improve the handling of safeguarding issues within the clergy discipline measure and capability procedure should also be introduced. It was further recommended that confidentiality agreements should not be put in place in relation to safeguarding complaints, and those handling such complaints should be adequately and regularly trained.
The Catholic Church Inquiry Report
The Catholic Church Inquiry Report was published in October 2022. The Inquiry’s investigation revealed a ‘sorry history’ of child sexual abuse, this often being swept under the carpet (with often active cover up), and external intervention highly resisted. While the Nolan and Cumberlege reports (2001 and 2007) were acknowledged as resulting in some safeguarding improvements over the years, IICSA stated that ‘real and lasting changes to attitudes have some way to go if the Roman Catholic Church is to shake off the failures of the past’.
The IICSA’s key recommendations included nomination of a lead member of the clergy for safeguarding, mandatory safeguarding training for all staff and volunteers, external auditing, and the redrafting of the canonical crimes relating to child sexual abuse as crimes against the child.
According to the Inquiry report into the Catholic church, since 2016 more than 100 allegations have been reported each year. This shows how wrong it would be to regard child sexual abuse with the church as a solely historical problem.
The church’s implementation of the IICSA’s recommendations
It is understood that significant strides have been made by both the Anglican and the Catholic churches in addressing the IICSA recommendations. However while recognising that safeguarding practices within the Church generally have improved, rebuilding the trust of victims of religious abuse remains a “work in progress”. While the Church’s “good intentions” on this matter are not in question, the institutions must continue to be held to account in all aspects of safeguarding to ensure protection of the most vulnerable in our society.
As the Christian church takes ‘centre stage’ in arguably the most significant celebration of the Christian calendar, we must not lose sight of the IICSA’s findings and specific recommendations to the Church. At the heart of the matter are children and vulnerable people who seek refuge, comfort, and support from the Christian church, and who deserve unequivocal safeguarding measures and protection.