Church of England accused of 'marking own homework' after Dean returns to work following safeguarding scandal

By Gabriella Swerling
March 16, 2020

Christine Wilson, Dean of Lincoln Cathedral.

The Church of England has been accused of “marking its own homework” after a Cathedral Dean left her post amid an abuse scandal - but was allowed to return to work following extra training. 

The Very Reverend Christine Wilson took a leave of absence in April 2019 following a complaint about how she handled a safeguarding allegation concerning the Cathedral’s chancellor.  The Dean of Lincoln Cathedral, Very Reverend Christine Wilson - who was the first woman to assume the role and whose appointment in October 2016 was approved by The Queen -  said that she needed to take a leave of absence for “personal reasons”. 

At the same time, the Chancellor Reverend Canon Dr Paul Overend abandoned his post after just 14 months. The sudden departure of two of Lincoln Cathedral’s most senior clergy left the congregation “shocked and baffled” as they demanded they had “a right to know what is going on” while the details of the allegations remained shrouded in secrecy.

It can now be reported that Rev Dr Overend is due to stand trial later this year after he denied indecently assaulting a woman. The charge relates to the period between April and July 1997 when the defendant was a chaplain at Cardiff University. It is understood that the alleged incident involved a student at a party.

He was granted unconditional bail and is set to stand trial at Cardiff Crown Court in June.

However over the weekend it emerged that the Dean is set to return to her post despite the majority of a safeguarding complaint against her being upheld.

The revelations have sparked outrage from prominent campaigners against abuse within the Church of England who claim that “abuse festers in a culture of secrecy”.

Gilo, a prominent Church of England abuse survivor and co-editor of Letters to a Broken Church, said: “Religious systems under review shouldn't be able to mark their own homework.

“The lack of transparency in the way the situation has been handled does not instill much confidence. Nobody knows what the Dean did or didn't do. People are left to assume that she failed to act on a disclosure. But it's all rather secretive.   “Furthermore, throughout this time, the Dean has kept her role as Senior Independent Director on the board of Ecclesiastical Insurance Office (EIO) [which is responsible for compensation payouts to abuse survivors, and], which has come under fire for its unethical and callous treatment of survivors.”

An investigation by the Bishop of Sheffield judged that the Dean’s error was out of character and unlikely to be repeated. She will now be able to return to work at Lincoln Cathedral following further safeguarding training. The complaint was brought by the Church of England's national director of safeguarding Melissa Caslake.

She said: "It is vital lessons are learnt, and in this case further training undertaken, when our policies and procedures are not followed, to ensure the church is a safer place for all." The Bishop of Sheffield, Peter Wilcox, judged that the matter should be recorded conditionally and remain on record for four years.

He said he took into account Dean Wilson had admitted misconduct and “expressed genuine regret” in not following the correct processes. During consideration of the complaint, the Dean had voluntarily stepped back from exercising ministry.

Dean Wilson said in a statement following her reinstatement that she “has learnt important lessons in responding well to survivors and understands the importance of making apologies when the church gets things wrong”.  She added that she “is looking forward to resuming ministry in the Cathedral, serving the city and the county”.  

However, Andrew Greystone, a theologian and victims advocate said: “This is a prime example of the continued opacity of the CofE on safeguarding issues, and it should worry us all. 

“We know that a senior church figure mishandled a safeguarding issue, and that it was sufficiently serious that she was suspended for a year. 

“Now we are asked to carry on as if nothing happened. Surely it is inappropriate for an investigation like this to be carried out by a colleague. What expertise or resources does the Bishop of Sheffield have for the role? Why are we not allowed to know what he uncovered? Most importantly, what has been done for the victims, whoever they are?  

“Even after the cases of Bishop Peter Ball, Revd Jonathan Fletcher and John Smyth QC, the Church of England continues to deal with safeguarding failures in a cloak and dagger way. 

“The church has failed to learn that abuse festers in a culture of secrecy. There is a crying need for the church to embrace independence in the investigation of safeguarding failures.”  Lincoln Cathedral has been hit by a string of high-profile departures in recent months. Not just the Dean and the Chancellor, but also the Bishop of Lincoln, Christopher Lowson, after he was suspended by the Archbishop of Canterbury last summer over the handling of safeguarding allegations. Furthermore, the Subdean of the cathedral, The Revd John Patrick, announced his retirement last year.



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