by Canon James Mustard, Canon Precentor at Exeter Cathedral
The tragic circumstances of the death last year of Fr Alan Griffin have been the subject of national media attention. The Coroner’s report – a “Prevention of Future Deaths report”- released in July, described a litany of errors in the handling of safeguarding accusations. These accusations were found to have “no complaint, no witness and no accuser”, “no concern raised” and “no person said they had been the subject of or had witnessed any concerning behaviour, save that Father Griffin had been seen to have dinner with men in an Italian restaurant, for which he might have paid the bill.”
These vague insinuations, made in February 2019 by an outgoing staff member of the Diocese of London, formed the basis of a chaotic and shambolic safeguarding investigation, the details of which were never described to Fr Griffin, save that it was underway. It must have left him feeling afraid, uncertain and alone. On 8 November 2020, Alan Griffin took his own life.
A notable feature of this tragedy was the lack of any accusation or victim. Yet when Fr Alan became the actual victim of this process, the Diocese of London and Church of England were slow to respond. The Coroner’s report records a “lack of full engagement by the Church of England in the inquest process until June 2021”, seven months after the inquest commenced. The recent description of Fr Alan’s death as “unfortunate” may have been deemed prudent by advisors, but – in letters to the Church Times at least – it seemed to minimise the experience of the victim. This is itself a serious Safeguarding concern.
The Diocese of London and Lambeth Palace have responded to the Coroner and set out their initial steps to prevent future deaths, as required. The Church of England has expressed “deep regret”, and the Diocese of London, where Fr Alan served from 2001 to his retirement in 2011, has announced this month that it will conduct a “Learning Lessons Review”. But the Diocese of London will not apportion blame.
I knew Fr Alan Griffin personally, before he was in the Diocese of London. From 1978 he ministered and taught in the Diocese of Exeter. He was a lecturer in Classics at the University of Exeter, where I was a student in the 1990s. He was Assistant Chaplain to the University and Warden of halls of residence, later Assistant Curate of an Exeter parish. Alongside University Chaplains he ministered faithfully to the student community, from a chapel that was in the 1980s and 90s a vocations powerhouse. Alan was openly gay, a brave move at that time in Devon. As a young man, afraid to express my own identity, I was impressed that Fr Alan was never “in the closet”. His example gave me confidence to express myself similarly. I last saw him in his Rectory at St Andrew-by-the-Wardrobe in 2003, when I called in for a cup of tea, which he offered with typical kindness. So, I have a particular sadness at such terrible institutional failure. I have no doubt that many in the leadership of the Diocese of London and beyond are traumatised by Fr Alan’s death, too.
How could this have happened? Why was a retired, gay, priest not deserving of due process? Why might rumour around a retired, gay, priest lead to such a chaotic, and ultimately tragic, response? Will these be some of the “lessons learned”?
I am left with the uncomfortable possibility that the Church’s actions in this case might be an expression of something deeper than institutional failure. Is it unconscious, institutional, homophobia? Homophobia in the insinuation that a priest in an Italian restaurant must be up to “no good”? Homophobia in the willingness to take that insinuation and extrapolate from it, without question, a fantastical and grotesque narrative? Homophobia in an investigation of abuse which was poorly conducted as if the retired, gay, accused didn’t matter or deserve better? Homophobia in an institution failing to engage with the Coroner until seven months had passed? Homophobia in the failure, in the opinion of the Coroner, not to have “recognised errors and undertaken meaningful attempts at improvement by the time of the inquest”? If this is so, it is how appallingly ironic that these events coincided with the launch of the Church of England’s “Living in Love and Faith” project to discern how sexuality fits “within the bigger picture of the Good News of Jesus Christ”.
This tragic sequence of events took place between February 2019 and July 2021: this is not a historic or “non-recent” case. It resonates with an older miscarriage of justice: of someone betrayed by gossip, given a sham trial and silenced with nails on a cross, all to protect religious reputation. That injustice served to demonstrate God’s triumph over sin and death. It has challenged and inspired the Church for two thousand years. It called Fr Alan Griffin to ordained ministry. One can only imagine what a Coroner’s report would have made of that injustice two thousand years ago. How might it be similar to this Coroner’s Report?
May Fr Alan rest in peace and rise in glory.
The views expressed in this piece are the personal views of the author and do not represent the views of Exeter Cathedral
In this new age of Church ‘Safeguarding’, where members of the Church are being protected from the predation of clergy, there is a zealousness of intent; not only to see justice served towards the innocent victims of ‘clergy abuse’ (indeed, a worthy and a necessary objective to stamp out iniquity where it is being practised in the Church) but also the possibility of a concomittant exercise of injustice towards a class of clergy whose personal lives may be totally destroyed by malicious gossip or inuendo.
The instance, here, of Father Alan Griffin, a former priest in the Church of England, whose personal life was under pressure from unsubstantiated claims of sexual misconduct and abuse – when no actual claim of assault was found to contain a scintilla of evidence: to the point when he was led to take his own life – is a case in point where the outcome ended in tragedy for the clergy-victim.
There have been other cases in the history of the Church when accusations of misconduct – though unsubstantiated by actual evidence (apart, perhaps, from a mischievous attempt by an alleged victim to bring down the subject of investigation) – have been acted upon as though the alleged perpetrator had actually been charged in a court of law and found guilty.
Unfortunately, in today’s climate of suspicion of clergy misconduct, the old adage of ‘innocent until proven guilty’ seems to have been abandoned, with summary charges of misdemeanour becoming the order of the day. Once these charges have become public knowledge – through whatever means, but sometimes on the insistence of the allegedly abused person – a priest’s reputation can be indelibly marked as ‘abuser’, and no amount of apology after the unjust claims have been aired in public by those in charge of so-called ‘Safety Procedures’ will restore the status of innocence for the clergyperson.
Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand