The culture change we need in the light of abuse scandals


Jon Kuhrt writes: Jonathan Fletcher was the vicar of Emmanuel Church Wimbledon (ECW) and enjoyed a high-profile and influential ministry. But in recent years, his bullying, coercive and abusive behaviour has been exposed.  A report by the Safeguarding Agency thirtyone:eight catalogued Fletcher’s long-running pattern of sexual and spiritual abuse.

Much of the fall-out from this scandal has focussed on the conservative evangelical world in which Fletcher was a major figure. It has meant less focus on the failures of the Church of England and Southwark Diocese to address the situation.

Lack of clarity

In 2017, the Bishop of Southwark, Christopher Chessun, removed Fletcher’s Permission to Officiate (PTO) due to concerns about the risk he posed to vulnerable people. But the diocese launched no proper investigation. Incredibly, they did not tell ECW the reasons for their action. The lack of clarity and transparency enabled Fletcher to continue to preach and exert his influence within conservative evangelical circles for a further 2 years.

When a proper investigation was eventually conducted, it was commissioned, paid for and published by ECW, the very church within which the abuse happened. Unbelievably, survivors were initially asked to contact ECW if they had information to add to the investigation.

Incompetence

Christ Church New Malden (CCNM) is another Anglican church nearby to ECW. Here, a very different example of Diocesan incompetence and injustice in safeguarding matters has been in evidence.

Over the last 13 years, Stephen Kuhrt, the vicar of CCNM (who is, I should make clear, my brother), has raised serious concerns about Southwark Diocese’s approach to safeguarding.  His concerns were first expressed in 2006.  Some serious allegations surrounded a long-standing member of his church but Stephen was discouraged by Southwark Diocese from taking the matter further.

Prosecution and conviction

However, he did pursue the allegations and the perpetrator was prosecuted and received a criminal conviction. A number of those affected have said that he is the only person they encountered within the church who took the matter seriously.

Last year, Stephen sent the Diocese and their senior safeguarding officer a detailed report on his concerns about safeguarding. In response, he heard nothing back for five months. After the non-response, he sent his report to the C of E’s National Safeguarding Team and after a month with no meaningful response, he then sent it to small group of people advising him.

These included Andrew Graystone, an advocate for survivors of abuse (author of Bleeding for Jesus), Lee Furney, a key witness in the allegations surrounding Jonathan Fletcher and Janet Fife, co-editor of Letters to a Broken Church.

Disciplinary

Eventually, Diocese officials did respond to his report. But instead of being concerned about the issues it raised, they were angered by its contents and, most especially, whom it had been sent to.

The Safeguarding Officer to whom the report had been sent immediately engaged a disciplinary process against Stephen. No interview took place with Stephen by either the Bishops of Southwark or Kingston.  He was suspended, initially informally and then formally, from his work as vicar for five and a half months.

CCNM’s other leaders and the Parochial Church Council (PCC) stood squarely behind Stephen and took the unusual step of making a public statement:

On 22nd June, our Vicar, Stephen Kuhrt was suspended from ministry by the Bishop of Southwark as a result of Stephen’s attempt to whistle-blow about serious safeguarding failures by Southwark Diocese. The Churchwardens and PCC…believe the Diocese’s response to be disproportionate and inappropriate…

Outcome

The disciplinary process concluded in July this year. The main allegation, relating to the action he took in 2006 was dismissed. He was given a ‘rebuke’ by the Bishop for breaching confidentiality because he did not redact names in the document that he shared with his advisers.  Stephen fully accepted he should have redacted the names and accepted the outcome. Following his return the Churchwardens issued a second statement.

Many believe that it was only this strong public support from the church that hastened the end of the disciplinary process against Stephen. Other cases have dragged on much longer.

Stephen returned to work on the 29th July and has got stuck into the task of renewing and re-building church life after the pandemic. He used his time off to work on a number of writing projects, including a forthcoming book about safeguarding and the culture of the Church of England.

Non-engagement

Since Stephen’s return to work over 11 weeks ago, neither the Bishop of Southwark or Kingston has offered to meet with him or has even been in contact. This is despite regular assurances during the disciplinary process of the ‘neutrality of suspension’ and their on-going prayers for him and the parish.  There has been no ‘return to work’ meeting.

Most importantly, there has been no engagement on the issues he raised in the report he wrote over a year ago. He has been met with silence, angry defensiveness, counter-aggression, lengthy bureaucratic process and now silence again.

I have 25 years experience of managing people and projects working with vulnerable people. I have engaged in countless safeguarding reviews, disciplinary hearings and Employment Tribunals. I have seen the good, the bad and the ugly of how Christian agencies manage people and situations. But I am astounded at the level of ineptitude, poor process and lack of values shown in Stephen’s case.

Exploiting the status quo…

On the surface, Jonathan Fletcher’s public ministry was highly critical of the Church of England.  Criticising Anglican liberalism and contrasting it with their own ‘sound Biblical orthodoxy’ is a favourite theme for conservative evangelicals.

But Fletcher’s case exposes the superficiality of so much theological tribalism. In reality Fletcher exploited the status quo rather than challenging it. He was an establishment man who had created for himself an enclave of power from which no one dared to question him or hold him accountable.

Even when the Bishop of Southwark did take action against Fletcher he did not inform the church why.  Both his own church community and the Diocese were unwilling to challenge the status quo and thus failed to keep vulnerable people safe from him.

…or challenging it

In contrast, Stephen Kuhrt has taken action to expose abuse and address the perpetrator. His actions led to the criminal conviction of someone who had done great harm.

But because he criticised the Diocese on the concrete grounds of how they manage safeguarding, he has faced the backlash from the institution. The diocese weaponised the concerns he raised against him. They went after the whistle-blower because he challenged the status quo.

Fortunately, a combination of strong local support, good communication and an excellent lawyer has limited what the Diocese could do.  But the case shows how the prevailing culture in the C of E undermines any efforts to improve its safeguarding.

Cultural change

Unsafe and abusive environments do not come about simply due to technical failings of or lack of expertise. They develop in cultures which are unassertive and institutionally dishonest. It is this culture that the Independent Enquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) specifically addresses:

‘The culture of the Church of England facilitated it becoming a place where abusers could hide. Deference to the authority of the Church and to individual priests, taboos surrounding discussion of sexuality and an environment where alleged perpetrators were treated more supportively than victims presented barriers to disclosure that many victims could not overcome…Culture change is assisted by senior Church leaders now saying the right things, but lasting change will require more than platitudes.’

Revolution of honesty

There are has been enough platitudes and heart-felt apologies. What the Church of England needs is nothing less than a revolution in honesty, transparency and truthfulness. To be at the vanguard of any revolution is costly and uncomfortable. Institutions are recalcitrant and develop systems to resist change. They kick-back and seek to expel and silence those who challenge. Significant change is often only triggered by crisis or tragedy: when someone loses their life or when wrong is exposed in such a way which emboldens people to speak up.

Christ-like commitment

This is why significant change in safeguarding within the Church will never happen simply by better procedures and protocols. It will need to fired by a Christ-like commitment to truthfulness.

It will mean vicars, PCCs and church members who are fiercely committed to being honest and open about what is going on.  It will mean an end to blatant hypocrisies and open secrets about terrible behaviour. It will mean Archdeacons and Bishops who refuse to sweep issues under the carpet.

There is nothing more abhorrent to the gospel of God’s love than abuse being perpetuated within His Church.  God’s grace cannot be shared by an institution unwilling to tell the truth.


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24 thoughts on “The culture change we need in the light of abuse scandals”

  1. There are times – and they are becoming more frequent – when I wonder why the Church of England is not doing what it has been advised to do on Safeguarding, and indeed what the Archbishops have assured us is being done since the infamous and shocking, if not thoroughly degrading IICSA report.

    The appalling revelations from the Roman Catholic Church in Europe this week, outlining what can only be referred to as institutionalised or almost compulsive abuse of youngsters, we have to be seen to do better. Whistleblowers cannot be pilloried in a Christian Church for pointing out abuse, in what appears to be a cover up. There is no pastoral care of clergy in this position, and historically it is the perpetrator who is protected if not cosseted.

    Is it the ‘old boys network’ at play again?
    Well, in 2021 that should be not only challenged but punished.

    Thank you for the article, which I have posted on Twitter for all the good that will do, but I certainly did not ‘enjoy’ its content, and remain deeply concerned and ashamed of the Church, and especially the Diocese of Southwark and its bishops who should be considering their positions, surely.

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  2. Some brave soul needs to get this matter on the agenda for the next Southwark Diocesan Synod. If concerns about the leadership of the diocese are effecting morale then it needs to be tackled.

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  3. Yes, lack of honesty is most definitely the issue here.

    In a church, such a lack signifies a spiritual problem which has to be sorted before there’s any point in tinkering with processes. Such tinkering can indeed be a deliberate diversion from facing up to the real issue.

    Dishonesty is not something that any of us can claim is characteristic of only one particular tribe in the Church of England. On the liberal side you have had (for years) the corrosive ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy which has embedded dishonesty into the heart of one grouping. On the evangelical side you have had ‘well that’s just Jonathan’ which has been a jolly useful response for keeping a powerful but flawed leader in position (and thus keeping the show on the road, but at the cost of much damage to other people). And then of course there was John Smyth…

    I think the point here is that pointing the finger at the other tribe is a risky game. If the Devil is the father of lies we are all liable to fall over when it comes to the temptation to avoid the truth for what that little voice in our ears may suggest is a perfectly honourable reason. But once honesty is set aside the rules are liable to get progressively more destructive: soon enough reputations, and even jobs, can be at stake. No wonder whistle-blowers are quietly cheered by the masses while being almost universally abominated by establishment figures! As Stephen Kuhrt might well testify, they can expect to be done over by the establishment using whatever petty means are available. And sad experience shows that situation to be true quite as much in Christian churches as it is in secular politics or organisations such as the NHS.

    I think if honesty is to be a hallmark of an organised church, it must start at the top. If it is lacking there, you will see a church where distrust, abuse, and progressive decline are inevitable. Whether it’s the future of parishes, handling of past abuse scandals, church discipline, decent pastoral oversight of clergy, machinations over LLF, if honesty in word and deed cannot be assumed then distrust and consequent low morale will be unavoidable. I think that’s where we are right now in the Church of England.

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    • There isn’t a symmetry between the liberals and the evangelical, though. All liberals believe wrongly and all evangelicals believe rightly. Some of each behave wrongly, and Jonathan Fletcher is a prominent example in the evangelical camp.

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      • There’s symmetry in the sense that liberals would put the position in exactly the opposite way, though many would have the grace not to put it so starkly. The comment is not an insight. To quote the article: ‘Criticising Anglican liberalism and contrasting it with their own “sound Biblical orthodoxy” is a favourite theme for conservative evangelicals. … Fletcher’s case exposes the superficiality of so much theological tribalism.’ That’s Jon’s view, apparently speaking as a liberal rather than an evangelical. In criticising the superficiality he may be right, though in the context of what happened to his brother I’m rather surprised by the remark.

        After all, given that the institution – the episcopate in particular – is liberal rather than evangelical, it seems to me possible that the lack of honesty, transparency and truthfulness criticised in the article does have something to do with its liberal outlook. Does liberal theology really have the power to generate the spiritual revolution that the author is looking for?

        At any rate, it is an odd notion that belief (its rightness or wrongness) has no qualitative effect on behaviour, as per your comment. I believe it does, though there can often be a disconnect between profession and practice. The Pharisees believed right, the Sadducees believed wrong, but the NT doesn’t give either tribe a good press. Grace and truth, it seems, depend less on sound biblical orthodoxy than on opening one’s heart to Jesus, or, to put it another way, on a proper fear of God.

        ‘The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately corrupt; who can understand it?’ One good thing that fear of God fosters is an awareness that this applies to us all.

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        • Where did I say that behaviour is unrelated to belief? One ,might argue that Fletcher is an exception, whereas liberals even want to bless all sorts of unbiblical sexual behaviour.

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          • …unless those sorts of unbiblical sexual behaviour appear among evangelicals, at which point the liberals suddenly stop blessing the behaviour and start cursing it.

        • Hi Steven

          It is interesting to read your thoughts and your assumption that I am ‘a liberal’ because of what I wrote about conservative evangelicals. I think my statement you quote is simply factual.

          What I do think is that Fletcher’s behaviour shows the shallowness of many of the tribal markers of theological debate. Is it more ‘evangelical’ to hold the right theology of the cross, or to truly love and care for people? Is more evangelical to hold the right beliefs about conversion and sanctification, or someone who helps people come to know Jesus? We have to hold belief and action together. Beliefs only become ‘faith’ when we put them into action.

          I know many energetic liberals who are in reality far more ‘evangelical’ in their desire to share God’s love through Jesus. I know many people who would tick the evangelical doctrine boxes but do so little to share their faith in word or deed.

          I very much come from the Evangelical side of the church and continue in that tradition but I do not use the term to describe myself because I think the word is broken. If you are interested you might want to read this: https://gracetruth.blog/2011/06/02/when-two-tribes-go-to-war/

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          • Hi Jon

            Who could disagree? As regards the term ‘evangelical’, I also think it is meaningless, a cultural term rather than a description of how closely and faithfully one reads the Bible. One can, for example, reduce all the particularities of Ezekiel 16 to a colourful harangue against ‘spiritual’ adultery and still believe that this is an ‘evangelical’ reading. In my view the litmus test (in this respect, for yes, truly loving and caring for people is more important) is the way one understands Genesis 1-3 and the references to his work as Creator from Genesis to Malachi to Revelation. By this standard hardly any British evangelicals are what they profess to be, and they have no prophetic voice.

            What struck me about your article, however, was how you saw fit to point the finger specifically at ‘evangelicals’ priding themselves on their orthodoxy (an easy enough target) and did not see fit to point a similar finger at the ‘liberals’ who gave your brother such a hard time. One might argue that you were expressing the same tribalism that you were deprecating. At any rate, it was difficult to see how tribalism rather than, say, personal frailty/lack of self-knowledge/lack of God-knowledge was the root of the problem. Or, as I have hinted, an infidelity that cuts across the liberal/evangelical divide.

      • Hi Anton – when I first read your comment (admittedly quickly yesterday) ‘All liberals believe wrongly and all evangelicals believe rightly’, I assumed you were being ironic, but going back to it, I think you are being serious?

        Surely, the main ‘symmetry’ between all believers is that we all sin and all fall short of the glory of God? All Christians traditions have blind-spots, weaknesses and tendencies which are often the flip or shadow side of their strengths. What would you make of the German Evangelical Church of the 1930s who sided with Hitler? Did they believe all the right things?

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  4. I wonder whether we can sustain the present position wherein we are expected to be up in arms about *both* people getting away with things for too long *and* people being falsely accused and suspended.

    I certainly am up in arms about both. But surely people can see that the latter is the result of trying to attend to the former.

    Therefore I would like some sympathy for the authorities caught in the middle who are in a heads I lose tails you win position.

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    • The recent litany of Safeguarding nightmares is exposing how weak our pastoral networks are within the C of E. The levels of distrust seem at an all time high. It is also exposing how uncritically the Church of England has absorbed Safeguarding into its systems. Done well it complements and enhances pastoral care. Done badly, it is a battle ground for power, a cause of division, and an outlet for gossip. Of course, only the major mishandled cases hit the headlines. But these must be symptomatic of a bigger problem. Like so many things in the C of E the situation varies from diocese to diocese. A few key individuals make all the difference.

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  5. As an (the) established church, surely it’s not outside the realm of possibility that the CofE could or should have an entirely independent safeguarding body in charge of these matters.

    Remove the responsibility of safeguarding structures from bishops, diocesian staff and in-house teams entirely?

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    • I think you may have a point Mathew. My impression of reading through this sorry tale and others elsewhere, is that permitting the church to carry out its own safeguarding investigations is somewhat akin to putting Dracula in charge of the blood transfusion service.

      Allowing the secular authorities to override, investigate and if necessary criminally prosecute the parties involved for negligence might not only change the culture but concentrate a few minds.

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      • It would, I think it’s fair to say, be a last resort.

        But trust in the CofE’s capacity to deal with safeguarding issues effectively is at such a low ebb I can’t really see an alternative. Normally I’d be firmly in the camp that resists secular ‘interference’ in church affairs, but you reap what you sow.

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  6. John Kuhrt: The German Evangelical Church failed both theologically and pastorally in the Nazi era, in succumbing to Nazi dogma and in failing Jewish Christians. Of course there were many glorious and heroic exceptions – as no doubt there are in the Church in China.
    The Church of England’s subscription to “Safekeeping” has been cackhanded and frequently unjust, and not just through the incompetence of Sarah Mulally, who is out of her depth.
    It is the old problem of “Quis custodiet custodes ipsos?”
    Tim Dakin entirely mishandled things in Jersey, a harbinger of disasters to come and evidence of his unfitness for the job.
    The wholly unjustified “Damnatio Memoriae” of Bishop George Bell was institutional reaction and a PR response to the catastrophically bad handling of Bishop Peter Ball’s sexual abuse of young men. And Justin Welby has never withdrawn his unjustified words.
    But no real apology has ever been given to Gilo and Matthew Ineson for the failure of hierarchy to respond properly to their complaints.
    And to cap it all we have the fiasco of the suicide of Alan Griffiths and the evasion of responsibility for this in the Diocese of London.
    The Church of England will try to hound a vicar out of his job for the sin of hugging a church member during the Great non-Pandemic of 2020 but draws the wagons around the hierarchy when the questions get too prickly.
    Secrecy and bureaucracy- with interminable delays – are how failing institutions mishandle these questions. The buck stops several steps down is how Welby has run the Church of England.

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  7. Some points:
    1 Where are the clear lines of responsiblity, and particularly accountability? And to whom? Where do they start and end? Are there any exceptions to confidentiality?
    A policy in a Mental Health charity I worked for was that what a client told you, was in confidence, unless it revealed a risk of harm to the client, or others and that was made known to the client.
    2 An expectation of omnicompetence.
    3 Fear and self-interest is a terrible combination.
    4 A move away from any idea that the head of a service was accountable and responsible, for the misdeeds within the service, even if not personally liable. Where resignation was seen as an honourable recourse.
    Unlike directors of a limited company, who are protected, by the *veil of incorporation*.
    5 Is there no genuine *fear of the Lord;* no geniune acceptance that there is accountablity to God?; of judgement?
    6 Discernment of false teaching and application.
    7 Ungodly domination, manipulation and control: resultant fear of people, which snuffs out speaking up and out without “fear or favour.”

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  8. If you have never encountered narcissism in a church setting it is easy to underestimate how systems of trust can be exploited by such individuals. The sexual aspects of the Fletcher case are a secondary feature of a pattern of abuse that is based on control.

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    • Thanks Geoff
      In our church we refer to the inner ring as the dynastic order; that is, all the people related by marriage who vote as a blok.

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