• Tuesday, April 23, 2024

HEADLINE STORY

Exclusive: Church of England victimises whistle blowers

Asian campaigner accuses Anglican church of preventing abuse survivors from reporting crime

The Church of England has been accused of punishing the whistleblower (Photo by Hollie Adams/Getty Images)

By: BARNIE CHOUDHURY

THE Church of England stands accused of failing survivors of child abuse and punishing whistle blowers who give them a voice, a former independent advocate has told Eastern Eye.

The church sacked Jasvinder Sanghera, who founded Karma Nirvana, a charity for mainly south Asian survivors of domestic abuse, forced marriage and honour-based violence, and her white colleague, Steve Reeves.

She said by firing the pair, abuse survivors will lose confidence in the church and prevent them from complaining.

Documents seen by this newspaper reveal the extent of the acrimony between C of E leaders and its former independent board members.

The pair took out a ‘dispute notice’ grievance after relationships broke down.

“What became apparent was, as we started to develop the work, that there was this resistance to independence,” Sanghera said.

Sanghera went through a panel interview in 2021 and the church appointed her as the senior survivor advocate for survivors.

The church tasked the pair to meet, listen, and record the testimonies of those who survived harrowing abuse.

“One of our fundamental roles is to review the cases that victims and survivors bring forward,” Sanghera continued.

“They bring them forward and say, ‘Look, I’ve been through a clergy discipline measure, I’ve been abused by priests.

“‘I’m talking about rape, serious cases of abuse, where I reported it, and nobody listened.

“‘In fact, I reported it, and they still kept that bishop in place, who, when I went to him or her, looked the other way.’

“So, these are the sorts of cases which can come to us once they’ve been exhausted, for us to look at them and review.

“The issue was, was that the Church of England did not give the Independent Safeguarding Board an information sharing agreement.

“We were ready to sign it nine months ago, which allows where all areas are open to us, but all areas were closed down to us.

“When we went for information on say, a particular case, or any future case, we were told, you can’t look at that, so information was being withheld from us.

“You can imagine that how difficult that makes your job.

“We did everything, it was about them dragging their heels because they did not want us to have open access to all areas, which is what an independent board needs.

“They sought to impose systems and processes to undermine our work.”

Dispute

Eastern Eye has seen the dispute notice.

It makes allegations that the church:

  • interfered with and ‘frustrated’ the pair’s work.
  • compromised their independence.
  • appointed an interim chair, former Labour government minister, Meg Munn, without an open and transparent process and without consulting the pair or abuse survivors.

Sanghera told Eastern Eye that the decision to issue a dispute notice was not motivated by personal animosity towards the acting chair.

Jasvinder Sanghera (Photo by Jon Bond – WPA Pool/Getty Images)

It was because they felt they could not do their job without interference.

“When Meg Munn was appointed acting chair, Steve and I, the very first meeting we had with her, she was telling us how things are going to run around here from now on.

“And at one point she said to me and Steve if you don’t like it, you can leave.

“So, we served a dispute notice, and we’re very clear in our dispute.

“You’re tying our hands behind our back.

“The truth is, I’ve been told by the national safeguarding director that I’m too survivor focused and too survivor led.

“The breaking point was the fact that I was blocked from engaging with victims and survivors.

“The initiatives that I was developing to engage with victims, survivors were being blocked.

“At one point, the acting chair took down all the information from the website of an initiative I’ve been working on for almost a year and would not even allow me to thank the 25 survivors who had contacted me to want to engage with me.

“The breaking point for us was the fact that they were making decisions which compromised the independence of the Independent Safeguarding Board.

“We’re here to do the job of independence, which is why we applied for the role, and that was too much for the Church of England, and that’s why we are no longer there.”

Interference

Eastern Eye has also seen a document dated 19 April 2023.

According to this note, “Victims and survivors requested a meeting with the ISB [Independent Safeguarding Board] survivor advocate due to their concerns and distress caused by the appointment of new ISB Chair.

“Both members have received several phone calls and emails since the announcement and in total 40 victims and survivors have shared their views.

“This does not include concerns from survivor advocates, many of whom have supported cases for victims and provided evidence to IICSA [Independent Inquiry Child Sexual Abuse].”

Child abuse has been a common theme in religious organisations

The document cited a Twitter poll of more than 2,200 survivors which revealed that 93 per cent asked Munn to step down as chair.

“I am sure we would all agree that the relationship with the survivor community, especially from those harmed by the CofE, is critical and one we should hear, act on, protect and continue to build upon,” said the note.

“The ISB has worked hard to build trust and achieved positive outcomes which survivors have shared.

“The ISB’s reputation and trust with the survivor community must not be eroded and our concern is that this decision will impact on this, although survivors have expressed their faith in the work of the ISB to date.”

Sanghera told Eastern Eye that there was a culture of resistance to independent scrutiny throughout her 19 months working with the church.

“This is a culture, in my opinion, that is wholly resistant to scrutiny, transparency and accountability.

“This area is an area whereby you are going to have to delve in and look at things that went wrong.

“You’ve got to be able to look at yourself as an organisation, and to accept that senior people, members of the clergy, did not respond to the most vulnerable people.

“The church is meant to be one of the compassionate organisations on the planet.

“They are a church, and you have to be able to look at yourself and the organisation with open eyes and honesty, and I don’t believe that they are ready to do that.

“They talk about independent oversight and being committed to it and yet at every opportunity, they haven’t taken that up.

“So, I think part of the problem is that it stems from an inherently abusive culture that re-abuses victims and whistle blowers.

“One of our roles as a board member, it’s in our terms of reference, is to act without fear or favour, to whistle blow, if necessary.

“We did all that, and where have we found ourselves?”

Continuing abuse

This newspaper has also seen one of the church’s responses to the complaint by Sanghera and Reeves.

William Nye

William Nye, the secretary general of the archbishops’ council responded on behalf of senior leaders.

“I must challenge any suggestion that Meg Munn is conflicted or insufficiently independent,” Nye wrote in a letter dated 6 June 2023.

His tone appeared to be inflexible.

“All parties must accept that Meg Munn is the acting chair of the ISB.

“We understand that you have concerns about the manner of her appointment.

“But unless and until she leaves the post, she is the acting chair of the ISB, and should be treated as such.

“All parties must refrain from adverse public comment on the ISB, its members, and this process.

“To that end, I note your reservation of your right in your final paragraph, but as we have previously discussed social media or public comment must be a last resort.

“We must all accept the difficulties which we will inevitably face in seeking to discuss matters in good faith frankly and openly if one party wishes to engage in a proxy debate in the public domain.”

Sanghera told Eastern Eye that her 30-year career was based on being the voice of survivors of abuse.

What the church wanted to do was shut down that voice, causing irreparable damage to survivors, she said.

The church sacked Sanghera and Reeves on 21 June.

She said that cases of abuse in the church were happening today, but they would remain hidden and wondered whether this was a deliberate strategy.

“It’s [abuse] absolutely going on in the church today.

“I’ve listened to hundreds of cases, I’ve read about them, but the ones that are most concerning are those who have yet to report.

“I know, in my experience of working with victims and survivors, it can take you years to report abuse, some never do.

“What enables people to report abuse is the confidence in the organisation to deal with it.

“All they [church] have done today, which may be part of an objective, is to lessen the confidence of victims, survivors, to come forward and report their cases.

“Because we were getting numbers of victims, survivors coming forward, who have absolute confidence in us who are putting forward their cases.

“What is going to happen to those reviews that we’ve started?

“It takes people courage to report.

“I have no doubt in my mind that this is underreported across the Church of England, and the action they’ve taken today is going to deter victims and survivors from coming forward, where our job was to ensure that we increase that confidence.”

This issue is important to Eastern Eye readers because studies, including those carried out by the church, suggest that while Christianity is declining, numbers are growing among south Asian and black worshippers.

We approached the church for comment, but it refused to respond.

Ref. documents:

https://www.churchofengland.org/sites/default/files/2017-10/north_east.pdf

https://www.westyorks-ca.gov.uk/media/9683/census-2021-ethnicity-language-religion.pdf

Why Nazir Afzal can save the Church of England

Abuse of children by vicars and priests, whether it be sexual, physical or spiritual, is nothing new, writes Barnie Choudhury. 

No matter how sickening, the clergy has been doing so for centuries without fear, helped by leaders in both the Catholic and Anglican churches.

Abuse continues today, according to Jasvinder Sanghera, but we don’t know the extent, and perhaps we never will.

By removing two advocates for survivors, the Church of England, which has many south Asians in their dwindling congregations, appears to have sent a clear message: “We decide independence, we decide the punishment, and we decide whose voices we will hear.”

So, what to do now?

In May 2021, the Catholic church appointed the former crown prosecutor, Nazir Afzal, to lead its safeguarding body.

Nazir Afzal (Pic: Anthony Devlin/

Afzal is the man who bravely insisted that south Asian child grooming gangs be prosecuted when everyone else said the move would be viewed as racism.

The media had a field day because suddenly south Asian men, mainly Pakistani Muslims were fair game for condemnation.

To be clear, a Home Office in December 2020 concluded that, in fact, most child sexual abusers were white.

As unpalatable as this truth is, Britain continues to peddle the myth that child sexual abuse is an Asian problem.

Don’t get me wrong, it happens in our communities.

I’ve been investigating it for the past 43 years, and I used freedom of information requests to bust open, in this newspaper, how police and social services were failing our children.

Hindu and Sikh priests, Muslim imams are just as capable of sexual, physical and spiritual abuse as the Christian ministers.

Their communities protect them, and the survivors’ guilt and shame do the rest.

Back to Nazir Afzal.

Barnie Choudhury

His colleagues and he are regulators. Like Ofsted they monitor how the Catholic church deals with abuse, and they can sanction or spring surprise inspections.

They are truly independent, and I would defy anyone to mess with Afzal.

What’s more, I understand that Afzal’s colleagues include those who are abuse survivors.

That’s what I call giving a real voice to those who endured harm at the hands of clergy.

That’s what we need – those who have experienced abuse, survived and are emancipated to protect.

So, if the Catholic church can deal with an age-old problem, why can’t the Church of England?

My suggestion is that Anglican bishops and archbishops phone Afzal, set up a meeting and beg him to do what he is doing to reinstate not only the reputation of Catholicism, but more importantly, help those who have and remain suffering in silence.

Nothing is more important that acknowledging that religious leaders are capable of evil.

Nothing is more important that to give dignity to those who have suffered at the hands of those we should be able to trust.

And nothing, but nothing, is more important than protecting vulnerable children who are groomed, threatened or shamed into silence.

They are kids for God’s sake.

And it’s our duty, everyone of us, to protect, cherish and guide them.

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