Estimated reading time: 6 minutes
The omnishambles that was a Church of England’s safeguarding investigation made Basil Fawlty’s hotel management skills look exemplary in comparison. But, unlike Fawlty Towers, this was no comedy. When a tiny smidgeon of concern, or more accurately, the rumour of a smidgeon of concern about Father Alan Griffin arose, the buck was passed from person to person as fervently as a live hand grenade. It exploded in someone’s face. Tragically, that someone was an innocent man.
The heart-breaking story of how this came about would be hard to believe unless you were familiar with the C of E’s safeguarding procedures. Like so many stories of wrongful allegations, it is rather complicated, so bear with me.
The ‘Brain Dump’
It began in 2019 when an official in the Anglican Diocese of London was retiring and he suggested to his Archdeacon that he should undertake what he called a ‘brain dump’. This ‘brain dump’ was information that he had gained over the previous two decades concerning past and ongoing safeguarding matters. Of course, this begs the question of why these points had not been raised earlier and could suggest that either the official didn’t think they were significant or that he had been negligent in his duty. However, in my view, such is the fear in the Anglican Church of being blamed for failing a possible victim of child abuse, however unbelievable the allegation, that he wanted to avoid any potential comeback in his retirement.
According to the coroner Ms Hassell: “this [brain dump] ranged from descriptions of past convictions that had been dealt with and recorded, through to current safeguarding concerns that might or might not have been acted upon, to what witnesses described as gossip.”
A Fatal Misunderstanding
The nature and indeed the origin of the doubt about Alan Griffin is murky. The head of operations, the official performing a ‘brain dump’, alleged that Father Griffin had told him he had “used rent boys”. It seems someone took this to mean that he had abused children. To quote the coroner again: “Notwithstanding the view expressed to me by the head of operations that the phrase related to visiting adult male prostitutes, it formed the basis of the allegation of sex with minors.” More about this later.
Nobody Takes Responsibility for Steering the Investigation
So began the buck passing. What happened next is best described by the coroner again.
“The head of operations said in evidence that he was simply giving information, it was not his decision what information was recorded, rather he left that to the archdeacon and the director of HR & safeguarding.”
“The archdeacon told me [the coroner] that it was not his call to decide what was and what was not gossip, and so he had asked the director of HR & safeguarding to be present at subsequent meetings with the head of operations.”
“The director of HR & safeguarding told me [the coroner] that it was not for her, but for the safeguarding professionals to make an independent assessment and to decide what allegations were investigated and how.”
“The safeguarding manager said that she was invited to the meetings simply as a note taker and that she had recorded “Allegation is this person has HIV and with knowledge continued to sleep with people” because that is what the archdeacon wrote in his note of the first meeting with the head of operations, not because she had made an independent assessment of this.”
“The archdeacon said that the first note was inaccurate, he knew it was inaccurate because it was hastily taken down, and that is why he had asked for a formal notetaker to attend subsequent meetings.”
“However, the safeguarding manager said that nobody told her this, and on receipt of the document describing the allegation that he knew had not been made, the archdeacon did not correct the document, nor did the director of HR & safeguarding.”
“Thus 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”. [my italics]
Although the safeguarding adviser tasked with dealing with this investigation thought that an approach should be made to Father Griffin by a member of the clergy on a welfare basis, and she requested this, it did not happen. So, she made the initial contact and discovered that Father Griffin had become a Roman Catholic, therefore she emailed her safeguarding counterpart in the Roman Catholic Church.
Vital Information Absent from Email
According to the coroner, ”the email disclosed Father Griffin’s HIV status; it was inaccurate as to detail; it did not properly represent her view of the allegations; and [My italics] it did not include reference to the fact that Father Griffin had attempted suicide when diagnosed as HIV+ approximately nine years earlier”.
The safeguarding adviser who contacted the Roman Catholic Church told the coroner that she viewed Father Griffin’s situation purely in terms of welfare and supporting a vulnerable man. She said she did not consider that there was any substance whatsoever to the allegations.
However, she passed this information onto another safeguarding advisor in the Roman Catholic Church, so it was treated as a safeguarding referral.
Consequently, Father Griffin found himself the subject of a safeguarding investigation for over a year without the allegations or their source being plainly set out to him. Anyone who has been subject to a prolonged safeguarding investigation will be aware of the mental torture this causes. Remember the well-publicised cases of Paul Gambaccini and Cliff Richard.
Alan killed himself on 8th November 2020.
Initial Allegation Retracted
Finally, and far too late for Alan, the original allegation that Father Griffin had said that he had visited ‘rent boys’ was retracted by the Archdeacon. You may recall that this was the allegation that led to the outrageous chain of events that caused Father Griffin to take his own life.
On the final day of the inquest, the Archdeacon was recalled and asked if the term [rent boys] was his own rather than Father Griffin’s. To quote from the Prevention of Future Deaths Report: “He immediately said yes, the term was his term and Father Griffin had not used it. He thought that Father Griffin was generous with hospitality and paid for meals out and perhaps he had misinterpreted that. He said that Father Griffin had never actually said that he had paid for sex”.
Urgent Need for Change
What is shameful is that the Church’s response to this indefensible failure of natural justice is to have a ‘lessons learnt’ review, without apportioning blame. Firstly, a ‘lessons learnt’ review is not enough. A change of attitude towards safeguarding is urgently needed. It’s not just that the process is amateurish, uncaring, and sometimes dangerous. There is an inbuilt prejudice against the defendant of an allegation. The belief that the complainant is always telling the truth is so ingrained that they are automatically called ‘victims’. As members of FACT are extremely aware, this is not always the case. People make wrongful allegations for a variety of reasons, sometimes they misremember what happened, sometimes they misinterpret what happened, and sometimes they lie for personal gain of some kind.
Secondly, to not apportion blame when negligence has caused the death of an innocent man is unacceptable. Sanctions don’t necessarily have to be applied to those responsible, but responsibility should be admitted.
If you believe that the tragedy of Father Griffin’s avoidable death must never happen again, please write to the Archbishop of Canterbury.
His address is
The Most Reverend and Right Honourable the Lord Archbishop of Canterbury
Lambeth Palace, London, SE1 7JU
You can also write to the
National Safeguarding Team
Great Smith Street
The coroner’s Prevention of Future Deaths report can be found here https://www.judiciary.uk/wp-content/uploads/2021/07/Alan-Griffin-2021-0243-Church-of-England-Published.pdf
Lord Lexden made a speech in the House of Lords concerning this episode and it is available here