Church’s safeguarding blunders could cause more deaths, coroner warns

Church Times [London, England]

July 19, 2021

By Hattie Williams

A CORONER who investigated the death of a priest who took his own life over unfounded allegations of child sex abuse raised by the diocese of London has warned the Archbishop of Canterbury that more clergy deaths will follow unless action is taken to improve C of E safeguarding procedures.

She also reports that she received submissions from the C of E urging her not to include “concerns that may be taken as a criticism of clerics or staff for not filtering or verifying allegations”, and writes of “the breadth of the systemic and individual failings that have come to light during the course of this inquest”.

The Revd Alan Griffin, of Wapping, London, who was a C of E priest before he converted to Rome in 2012, hanged himself in November 2020 while he was being investigated over false allegations of child abuse. The coroner, Mary Hassell, reports that the allegations were “supported by no complainant, no witness and no accuser”.

In an official Prevention of Future Deaths report sent to both the Archbishop of Canterbury and the chair of the Catholic Standards Safeguarding Agency last Friday, Coroner Hassell records a death of suicide. She writes that Fr Griffin “killed himself because he could not cope with an investigation into his conduct, the detail of and the source for which he had never been told.

“The investigation had been ongoing for over a year and was being conducted by his former Church of England diocese and subsequently also by his current Roman Catholic diocese (to whom the Church of England had passed a short, written summary of allegations that contained inaccuracies and omitted mention of Father Griffin’s earlier suicide attempt on learning of his HIV status).

“Father Griffin did not abuse children. He did not have sex with young people under the age of 18. He did not visit prostitutes. He did not endanger the lives of others by having sex with people whilst an HIV risk. And there was no evidence that he did any of these things. He was an HIV positive (viral load undetectable) gay priest.”

Coroner Hassell reports that the diocese of London’s investigation into Fr Griffin was begun in 2019 by the retiring head of operations, who is unnamed in her report. A spokesman for the diocese of London declined to name the individuals discussed in the coroner’s report.

Before this official left, he produced a “brain dump” of safeguarding concerns from the past 20 years at a meeting in February of that year with the Archdeacon of London, who is the Ven. Luke Miller; the director of HR and safeguarding; and a note taker. The information from this meeting became the Two Cities audit report, which names 42 priests in the diocese, including Fr Griffin.

The conduct of the subsequent meetings and investigations surrounding this audit is heavily criticised by Coroner Hassell. She notes that the entries ranged from “descriptions of past convictions that had been dealt with and recorded” to “gossip” — none of which were accompanied by signed statements setting out distinct allegations, she says.

Even though Fr Griffin was not accused of child abuse in the audit, nor were any safeguarding concerns being raised — except that the priest himself was being bullied by his parishioners — false allegations against Fr Griffin were put to the Church of England and Roman Catholic Church, Coroner Hassell reports.

The head of operations said that Fr Griffin had once referred to using “rent boys” i.e. male prostitutes. Although the term was used in subsequent reports, the head of operations, when quizzed at the end of the inquest, admitted that the phrase had never been used by Fr Griffin, nor had he ever said that he paid for sex.

Coroner Hassell states that the meetings between the head of operations and the Archdeacon were “akin to a description of the disclosures of a victim, rather than the recollections of a twenty-year career by a retiree”, and therefore the source and accuracy of these disclosures remained unclear.

She writes: “The Archdeacon told me that he had not wanted to ask questions of the head of operations in the meetings, even to check the source of the information he gave, for fear of interrupting his flow.”

The Archdeacon had told her that it was “not his call to decide what was and what was not gossip”, but that of the diocesan director of HR and safeguarding. The director said in turn that it was up to the safeguarding professionals to make an independent assessment. Legal advice was not sought.

Coroner Hassell continues: “Nobody took responsibility for steering the direction of the process from start to finish and for making coherent, reasoned, evidence-based decisions that made sense in the context of the information that was available to the team as a whole.”

The safeguarding adviser contacted Fr Griffin and subsequently disclosed confidential information regarding his HIV status to her RC counterpart in an email that recounted the false allegations without making it clear that she believed them to be unfounded.

Coroner Hassell writes: “The allegations against Father Griffin passed on to the Roman Catholic Church were supported by no complainant, no witness and no accuser. . . And yet on this basis, Alan Griffin found himself to be under investigation for over a year, without ever having the allegations and their source plainly set out for him.”

She concludes that it was unusual for her to report a death at this length, but that: “I am unable to convey the breadth of the systemic and individual failings that have come to light during the course of this inquest without such a level of detail, and I am worried that if I do not include this detail then learning will be lost.”

Archbishop Welby has a legal duty to respond to the findings before 3 September. A spokesperson for Lambeth Palace said: “This is a highly distressing case and our deepest sympathies and prayers are with the family and friends of Fr Alan Griffin. The Archbishop has received a copy of the coroner’s report and the matter will be taken extremely seriously. Appropriate discussion and investigation will now take place. Lambeth Palace will be in contact with the relevant other bodies, especially the diocese of London.”

The Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Sarah Mullally, said in a separate statement that a lessons-learnt review had been commissioned. “Alan Griffin’s death was a tragedy, and my heart goes out to his family for all they have endured. I am deeply sorry for their loss.

“Following the inquest, we have commissioned a lessons-learned review so that we can fully reflect upon the diocese’s actions, and the coroner’s comments, in the period leading up to Alan Griffin’s death. It remains an absolute priority that, where allegations are made, they are taken seriously, and referrals made where appropriate to statutory agencies and other relevant parties. Our review will examine the decisions that were made in this case, in order to shape any necessary changes to our reporting processes in the future.”

The coroner’s report points out, however, that, “it was only after the inquest had been resumed and part heard in May 2021, and witnesses from the Church of England had been called to give evidence in late June 2021, that the Church of England decided that a learning lessons review would be worthwhile.”

Coroner Hassell also writes that she had received submissions on behalf of the C of E which “impressed upon me that referrals to child protection and safeguarding professionals must not be reduced and urged me not to include any concerns that may be taken as a criticism of clerics or staff for not filtering or verifying allegations”.

Martin Sewell, a retired child-protection lawyer, who has represented the diocese of Rochester on the General Synod, said that the tragedy demonstrated “the deep systemic problems” and lack of expertise within church safeguarding.

“Worse, the coroner remarks that nobody took responsibility for steering the case from start to finish. We see this time and again. The Church has evolved a successful strategy of learned helplessness. . . Worse still, some unknown senior church person tried to dissuade the coroner from making this plain in her report. She puts that attempt into the public domain. There need to be resignations.”

He concluded: “Alan Griffin’s case was plainly never a safeguarding concern, but its mishandling foreseeably led to his death. Safeguarding needs to be preserved for the clear, serious cases.”