Clergy attack plan for secret courts

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The Independent Online
Plans to replace the Church of England's 900-year-old consistory courts with tribunals which would be heard in secret have come under fire from clergy.

On the opening day of the Church's General Synod clergymen attacked new proposals to move disciplinary procedures behind closed doors, saying that justice had to be seen to be done.

The members of the House of Clergy were speaking in the first public debate on the planned reforms published earlier this month after an 18- month review. The report, Under Authority, was broadly welcomed by clergy and will be discussed by the whole Synod later this week.

Impetus for change has come from a series of headline-grabbing scandals involving the sexual indiscretions of clergymen. But the Rev Robert Ellis, communications officer for the diocese of Lichfield, said openness was crucial.

"What are we frightened of? I earn my living doing crisis management in a diocese when things go wrong. The Church of England has got enough credit in the bank so when something does go wrong, we can ride the storm and by doing it in public we are conveying the message that we are confident of what we are doing."

He added that without first-hand access to disciplinary hearings journalists would rely on third-hand accounts which would fuel speculation.

Canon Alan Hawker, who is presenting the report to Synod, pleaded for support, claiming that the present system was "discredited". He said: "There have been three consistory courts in 30 years. This does not mean that the clergy are as white as the driven snow. The reality is that 99.99 per cent of all disciplinary cases in the last 30 years have taken place outside the procedures laid down to deal with them."