A priest raises some serious concerns
Specifically, we need to ask: who guards the Safeguarders? And who oversees the Overseers (i.e. bishops)?
The cases of George Carey and the Bishop of Lincoln are public knowledge. Let me highlight three cases which aren’t. Each individual is known to me personally.
Priest A is a retired priest who was informed that his Permission to Officiate (PTO) was being withdrawn because of a safeguarding concern relating to a past failure to act on a disclosure. Months later, he was informed that PTO would not be restored, despite a risk assessment concluding that Priest A poses minimal safeguarding risk, and his own stated willingness to undergo training to ensure best practice in the future.
Priest B was in full time ministry until he was found guilty of conducting an extra-marital affair which led to the breakup of his marriage. He acknowledged his wrong-doing, and accepted without demur the penalty of a fixed-period prohibition. He now faces the prospect of an indefinite extension to that prohibition, as objections have been raised to his return to ministry at the end of the fixed period.
Priest C is newly retired. Moving to a new diocese upon retirement, he has been unable to obtain PTO at all, because of unspecified ‘Safeguarding concerns’. In this instance, the concern may or may not be justified – but since nobody will tell him what it is, he cannot mount a defence.
There are three problems in the Church’s current approach to clergy discipline which are illustrated by these examples. The first is the manifest failings in the Clergy Discipline Measure and the disciplinary apparatus that sits alongside it. These are becoming increasingly widely recognized, and are – slowly – being addressed.
The second problem is the power which diocesan bishops possess to grant or withhold PTO at their absolute discretion, without right of appeal or need for justification. Nobody doubts that diocesan bishops should exercise a level of judgement over who may minister in their diocese, but this should be measurable and accountable, and administered broadly in line with the oath that licensed and beneficed clergy swear to obey the diocesan in all things lawful and honest.
The third issue is the increasing influence of Diocesan Safeguarding Advisers (and their national equivalents) who can take (or recommend) action which may destroy a cleric’s life, with virtually no supervision or comeback; and certainly no procedure equivalent to the Clergy Discipline Measure in the case of error (in matters of fact, law, or judgement) by a safeguarding professional.
These procedural or institutional failings are accompanied by two conceptual flaws. The first is that the indefinite withdrawal of PTO, or the indefinite extension of a time-specific sanction under the Clergy Discipline Measure, amounts in practice to a judgement of laicization. I would argue that none of the examples here merit that; but even if they did, the Church should be upfront and open about what it wants to do. If it wants to effectively laicize clergy as a routine response to failure or wrongdoing, then it should say as much, and be held accountable for it.
The second flaw is more important, because it cuts directly to the heart of the Christian faith. Other than in the most extreme of cases, to prohibit a priest exercising their priestly ministry indefinitely, without any promise of future reconsideration, is to deny the Christian doctrine of redemption, and the Christian virtue of hope. The Biblical references to these are so numerous and so central to the Gospel as to not need exploring here. Some questions, then: how can the Church proclaim a Gospel of redemption when it refuses to allow the possibility of such transformation in the lives of its priests? How can the Church preach the parable of the Prodigal Son when it fails to model forgiveness (after due sanction and repentance) in its own actions? How can the Church offer hope to the world when it denies it to those who have given their lives to its service?
I do not doubt for one moment that the Church has behaved exceptionally badly towards survivors of abuse, and in some cases continues to do so. But some people in positions of huge power and influence, currently under no meaningful supervision themselves, are committing the error of trying to correct or atone for mistreatment of one group of people (survivors) by deliberately and publicly mistreating another group of people (clergy such as those highlighted in this article). Thus, the egregious errors that have been committed in the past are not put right. They are merely compounded by fresh errors in the present.
This offends natural justice, but it does more than that. It denies the Gospel, and hinders the Church’s proclamation of it. It is sinful, and it has to stop.