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Church of England legal advice stressed liability over pastoral responsibility

Church of England legal advice stressed liability over pastoral responsibility

The Telegraph has obtained “strictly confidential” advice circulated among senior Church of England bishops on how to deal with allegations of clergy sexual abuse. The advice was written in 2007, and replaced only after an almost 40-year-old case exposed the deep and distressing failures of the church to protect and defend victims of abuse by church employees.

The Telegraph says of the 2007 document,

The advice, by the Church’s top legal advisor, Stephen Slack, explains how bishops could find themselves being sued over the actions – or inaction – of their predecessors.

While accepting that they might “understandably want to express their regret”, it adds: “Because of the possibility that statements of regret might have the unintended effect of accepting legal liability for the abuse it is important that they are approved in advance by lawyers, as well as by diocesan communications officers (and, if relevant, insurers).

“With careful drafting it should be possible to express them in terms which effectively apologise for what has happened whilst at the same time avoiding any concession of legal liability for it.”

On the possibility of bishops meeting victims, it adds: “This may be the right course in some circumstances but great care will be needed to ensure that nothing is said which inadvertently concedes legal liability.”

“Joe,” the victim whose case led to a series of reviews and reports, recognized the application of such advice against him as he repeatedly tried to bring his complaints to senior church officials.

“The approach to survivors is often a corporate model and this document supports that – it shows a church led by lawyers and insurers, you get the impression that these people are really their masters.

“A diocese is deferential to their bishop and the bishop is deferential to a bunch of lawyers.

“The Church will say ‘our hands are tied’ but they are paying the people who are tying their hands.

“They should say we need to stop this nonsense but they wash their hands like Pontius Pilate.”

A lawyer for Joe commented that,

“With Church organisations you expect a higher standard than just a legalistic approach.”

The advice was replaced in 2015 with a complete about-face. Adopting the recommendations of the Elliott Inquiry, bishops are now advised to apologize as a first response to survivors of abuse.

i.        All advice received by agents employed by the Church, should be referenced against the stated policies of the Church before it is followed. Emphasis should be placed on ensuring that financial considerations are not given a priority that conflicts with the pastoral aims of the Church when engaging with survivors of abuse.
ii.        The Church should seek to create written down guidance with regard to how it will respond to claims for compensation from survivors. This guidance should be shared with survivors from an early juncture in the process. Every effort should be made to avoid an adversarial approach, placing emphasis on the provision of financial compensation as an aid to healing and closure for the survivor.

A first response to a survivor of abuse within the Church should be the issuing of an apology.

Background on Joe’s case and the Elliott Report can be found here. The new Telegraph story is here.

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