Diocese gives counselling code to priests

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The Independent Online
Priests or church workers suspected of relationships with parishioners will automatically be suspended from their posts according to a policy unveiled yesterday by the diocese of Oxford, the richest diocese in the Church of England.

The policy includes a code of ministerial practice, which says that "ministers", defined as anyone in a position of authority in the church, shall not enter into or continue any pastoral relationship for personal advantage, whether this advantage be sexual, financial, or emotional.

Ministers are also warned against visiting parishioners late at night when they are alone, or receiving visits themselves in similar circumstances. These rules codify common sense and good practice, according to the diocesan spokesman, the Rev Richard Thomas.

The guidelines were already being drawn up last year, when the Dean of Lincoln, the Very Rev Brandon Jackson, was tried and acquitted of charges arising from his relationship with a distressed woman whom he had counselled late one evening at her home, and a second time in his own house one evening.

The guidelines also ask priests to consider the place and time of a meeting and its duration; whether it is formal or informal; the arrangement of furniture and lighting, and "appropriate bodily posture and the use of Christian names and terms of endearment".

The Church of England has no central code of conduct on these matters, though most parts will follow a policy very similar to that of the Oxford diocese. If the alleged abuse involves children, the police are brought in straight away. But for allegations of improper pastoral relationships with adults, the diocese recommends that the priest be moved away while the allegations are investigated. The investigation is usually to be carried out by an assistant bishop.

The policy document, which is to be sent to all the clergy in the diocese, also includes a paper on "transference", warning ministers against signs that their counselling relationship may be entering into an improper phase. Danger signs include: "The pastor begins to look forward to the counselling session with a particular person. He or she ruminates about the appointment and cannot wait for the time to arrive."