Some of you will be aware that on the day of my inauguration as Bishop of Oxford, there was a small demonstration outside Christ Church by two survivors of sexual abuse who go by the names of ‘Joe’ and ‘Michael’. Christ Church welcomed them with great care, and I spoke with Joe for a few minutes before entering the Cathedral to assure him of my prayers.
I’d never met Joe before, although I know Michael well from my time as Bishop of Sheffield. Over the last few months he has made complaints against me and against several other bishops. There have been reports in several newspapers, and he distributed leaflets by post and in person on the day of the inauguration. Most recently, Michael gave an interview to BBC South Today, which was broadcast yesterday.
I’ve been very hesitant to comment publicly on his allegations against me thus far. This is partly because there is an ongoing police investigation. But just as importantly, I recognise that Michael has said openly that he is very distressed by the situation and I have not wanted to make life any more difficult for him by publicly disagreeing (as I do) with some of his claims. However, it felt important to take up the BBC’s invitation of ‘right to reply’ this week. You may have seen the piece when it aired.
For the reasons above, I can’t go into any more detail about the specifics of the case. But I thought that it might be helpful to set out my approach to safeguarding issues so that there is no misunderstanding
1. The care of vulnerable people
First, I want to make it quite clear that the care of vulnerable people and those who are survivors of sexual abuse and exploitation is a high priority for me, and for the Church of England as a whole. As a society we have all learned a great deal in recent years about the appalling prevalence of sexual abuse. We can be in no doubt at all about the profound and long lasting suffering experienced by survivors.
Like all bishops, I have had to deal with a significant number of instances of sexual abuse. I was involved with others in helping the wider community in Rotherham respond to the child sexual exploitation scandals from 2013 onwards.
I am committed to providing support and pastoral care, both to survivors and, where appropriate, perpetrators. I know we do not always as a Church get things right. I don’t always get things right as a bishop. We need to be constantly listening to the experience of survivors, learning lessons for the future and improving our practice.
There are sometimes suggestions that the Church attempts to cover up abuse. To our shame, there are examples in our history as an institution where this has indeed happened. This is utterly unacceptable, and completely contrary to my beliefs and values. But while we must never be complacent, I am confident that we have radically improved our policy and practice around safeguarding in recent years.
The Diocese of Oxford has robust policies and practices. Like many dioceses, we are currently increasing our investment in safeguarding support. By the end of 2017, every diocese will be independently audited by the Social Care Institute for Excellence (SCIE) which I entirely welcome. These reports will be published, along with a follow-up action plan.
A new national training strategy has been agreed and is now being implemented. This aims to ensure that all those with responsibility for children and adults who are vulnerable are equipped with the knowledge, skills and confidence to identify the potential abuse and report it to the appropriate person. This will mean additional training and regular updates for clergy, licensed lay ministers and volunteers. Please take this very seriously.
Policy and practice guidance is continually evolving in the light of experience. I welcome these developments and am committed to playing my part alongside the National Safeguarding Team and our diocesan staff.
4. Lessons for the future
Recent events have made me even more determined and committed to listen well to survivors of abuse in the future and to help the wider Church do so as well. The Church is committed to learning and improving practice across the board in relation to survivors of abuse, and to seeking justice for all those involved in such cases.
Finally, I would encourage any survivors who are yet to speak up to do so, through the church locally, via my office or by going directly to our Diocesan Safeguarding Adviser. Please be assured that we work in close co-operation with the police and other agencies to ensure that all allegations of abuse – however long ago the events took place – are thoroughly and appropriately investigated by the statutory authorities. We can also put you in touch with ‘authorised listeners’ who are specially trained to provide confidential support.
Finally, I would ask that you keep in your prayers all those involved in this particular case and in this important area of work around safeguarding.