Sex case vicars will be tried in new, secret courts

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The Independent Online

Bishops and vicars accused of sexual misconduct and bullying are to be tried by new courts held in secrecy by the Church of England. The disciplinary system for dealing with errant vicars will bring the Church's ministers in line with other professionals such as doctors and lawyers.

A proposed code, guidelines for the professional conduct of the clergy, will also set out standards of behaviour for vicars when they come into contact with their congregations. Clergy found guilty of serious misconduct will be defrocked or suspended from office while those found guilty of less serious penalties face a rebuke or a conditional discharge.

The new bishops' disciplinary tribunals will replace the 900-year-old system of consistory courts which hear misconduct complaints. Tribunals will be set up in each of the Church's 43 dioceses and meet in private.

A spokesman for the Church of England said the bishops expected a greater number of disciplinary cases to be heard. But he added that the administration of justice would be "much quicker" and cases where there was an overriding public interest would be heard in public.

Under the new procedure, parishioners will be able to use the written code to complain about vicars accused of sexual misconduct or being abusive or lazy. The tribunals will begin trying their first cases in 2005 but will have no jurisdiction to charge clergy with expressing "lawful political opinions." Complaints about "doctrine, ritual or ceremonial" will remain subject to the old system.

The new code is to go before the General Synod in February when it is expected to be given final approval. Bishops and other leading members of the Church of England now accept that there is greater need for the Church to respond to the public's concerns about the self-regulation of the clergy.

The eminent theologian, Francis Bridger, sets out some of his concerns about the problems facing the clergy in a personal account published alongside the code.

He writes: "Both tabloid newspaper headlines and more serious academic studies bear witness to the dark side of the Church's life, which cannot be denied. On one hand, there are the perennial stories of vicars involved in sexual shenanigans with parishioners , while on the other, investigation of child abuse by clergy demonstrates that the Church must take its fare share of the blame for a phenomenon that has all too readily been denied by society until recent years."

In a foreword to the code the Archbishops of Canterbury and York warn of the risks to which vicars are exposed. They say: "By its very nature, the pastoral ministry involves great trust. In dealing with the vulnerable and the weak, ministers need the trust both of those to whom they minister and the Church whose ministry it is."

They add: "Following the call and pattern of our Lord, there will always be a risk in such a ministry. This cannot be avoided and there are occasions when the clergy must take risks. Yet unwarranted risk must be minimised. We hope that the clergy will welcome these guidelines both as an aid to improving good practice and also as a warning of potential pitfalls."

The Clergy Discipline Measure that was introduced by parliament this year sets out who will sit on the new tribunals and how complaints will be investigated under the new system. Complaints can be brought against archbishops, bishops, priests or deacons in the Church of England. The most serious allegation will be for conduct "unbecoming or inappropriate to the office and work of a clerk in Holy Orders." But the clergy may also face misconduct charges for "neglect or inefficiency" and any act that "contravenes laws ecclesiastical."

Serious complaints will be investigated and prosecuted by a team of officers led by a senior lawyer who will represent the complainant in the new courts. A Church spokesman said that Adrian Iles, a barrister, had been named as the first "designated officer" who would be responsible for bringing the charges to court.

Complaints are first considered by the tribunal's registrar who will decide whether it has "sufficient substance" to further action. The registrar sends his view of the case to his bishop.

CODE FOR THE CLERGY

* Vicars must avoid inappropriate touching or gestures of affection

* Improper questioning or physical contact can be emotional or sexually abusive

* Vicars should not seek sexual advantage, emotional or physically, in the exercise of their ministry

* Vicars should consider the appropriateness of visiting parishioners at night on their own

* The clergy should recognise the importance of knowing themselves and their own emotional needs

* Members of the clergy should not use their position of power to bully, manipulate or denigrate

* The clergy should never seek any personal advantage or gain by virtue of their clerical position.

* Vicars should not undertakeduties when medically advised against it, nor under the influence of alcohol or drugs

* Blasphemous language and offensive language is unacceptable

* Vicars must not disclose what is said in confession, even after the penitent dies.