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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.