Ecclesiastical faces fresh allegations of unethical treatment as case of ‘suicide watch’ claimant comes to light

Child on a swing

Exclusive: Ecclesiastical’s CEO Mark Hews is being called upon to ‘put his house in order’ after experts have been left shocked and appalled at the ‘unethical’ practice of desktopping an abuse victim on suicide watch labelling it ‘shameful’ and ‘very disturbing’.

Insurers have previously faced criticism by the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse on their handling of CSA claims.

Post has now been contacted by a vulnerable non-recent Church of England child sexual abuse survivor – referred to as Tony – who had their Ecclesiastical settlement offer knocked down by over one-third using evidence of a psychiatrist who had never met the claimant. The psychiatrist confirmed to Post the practice is common in the industry.

Tony was hospitalised, following a suicide attempt, when the lower offer based on the expert’s assessment was made. He was given only 21 days to accept it, which he believes was ‘unethical and unfair’ due to his vulnerable state at the time. He had rejected a previous higher offer of settlement.

Writing at the time, Richard Scorer, Tony’s lawyer at Slater & Gordon, flagged concerns in correspondence with the insurer.

“Do they seriously expect me to present this news to my client who is on suicide watch?” he asked. “I am extremely disappointed that this has occurred without any warning to me and places me in an impossibly difficult situation. Your clients have a responsibility to the victims of sexual abuse and to conduct themselves with care and concern to those victims.”

In further correspondence Scorer said of Ecclesiastical’s handling of the 2017 case: “I anticipate my client will be extremely distressed. Given that he is on suicide watch I am extremely concerned for his well being. Please make it clear to EIG that I no longer regard them as a trustworthy negotiating partner.”

Ecclesiastical implemented its set of guiding principles in 2016, which were intended to minimise difficulties faced by claimants in the system.

Ian Elliot, safeguarding consultant and author of the 2016 Elliot Review into the Church’s handling of CSA claims, told Post: “The details of this case […] illustrate very well the limitations of using an adversarial process as a means of reaching a settlement with a vulnerable claimant. It is not a fair process. Where a person is known to be at risk, then the process should be paused until they are able to contribute.

“There are alternatives that can be used but seldom are which is a tragedy.

“I am not medically trained and so I cannot provide informed comment on the opinion provided by the expert here, but my reaction to it is one of incredulity. It is taxing to make a professional assessment of someone who has been the victim of abuse, but to attempt it without meeting the person does not seem reasonable to me. And then to apportion a percentage to causative factors, is hard to accept. 

“Vulnerable victims who come into the court process have to be sensitively managed. There is a duty of care here that does not seem to have been exercised.”

The Bishop of Buckingham, Alan Wilson, described Tony’s case as “very disturbing.”

He added: “It must be said that the company has tried to refocus its values, but has failed hopelessly in this case.

“It strikes me as extraordinary [that an assessment was made without the expert having met the claimant]. At the very least I would expect a medical practitioner to have met the survivor.

“There is also the awful spectacle of the company talking about someone in a way that is inappropriate behind their back.”

Phil Johnson, chair of support group Minister and Clergy Sexual Abuse Survivors, said: “The behaviour of [Ecclesiastical] in this case is utterly shameful. The assessment and judgement of someone without ever meeting them and with no means of challenging their conclusions is positively Orwellian.

“The subject, (Tony) was a psychiatric in-patient at the time and as such clearly did not have the capacity to fully understand or agree to anything. The fact that this psychiatrist was hired by the church’s insurer in order to undermine a vulnerable victim’s compensation settlement is even more shocking.”

Co-editor of Letters to a Broken Church, a core participant in IICSA’s hearings, known as Gilo, said: “Survivors are routinely thrown by the Church of England into the velociraptor circus of Ecclesiastical Insurance and its representative BLM whose joint operation in Tony’s case was astonishingly unethical and re-abusive - as in many other cases.

“The church should be making sure that its lawyer and insurer work in line with the church’s foundational principles and stated policies. And the church and Ecclesiastical should now each put £100million into a redress fund to repair the damage each have done to so many survivors, so that restorative justice can begin, and lives rebuilt.

“Mr Mark Hews, CEO of Ecclesiastical, should be called upon to put his house in order and make sure his operation begins to act ethically and ends the re-abuse of survivors his business has been getting away with for so long.”

There is no mention of desktop reports in IICSA’s September report into Accountability and Reparations, in which it set out a number of recommendations for insurers and others to adhere to in approaching CSA claims and claimants. In the report it suggested one option could include agreeing on a joint expert to prevent a polarisation of views identified by insurers and claimant lawyers.

When approached by Post, Professor Tony Maden, a professor of forensic psychology at Imperial College London who has pursued research into violence risk assessments and the mental health of prisoners, confirmed he had been asked to offer his opinion on multiple CSA cases where he was not expected to meet the claimant.

Maden said: “I am often asked by solicitors acting for claimants and/or for defendants in personal injury claims to comment on documents and to prepare so-called ‘desktop’ reports. I see nothing wrong in principle with that approach so long as the parameters and limitations of the opinion are made clear. It can have the advantage of avoiding a further medicolegal examination, which many claimants find distressing if not traumatic.”

Tony told Post the first figure he was offered was lower than he felt he could accept, but feeling under pressure he accepted the second: “The initial offered settlement was completely derisory. It took no proper consideration for the lifetime effects of this kind of abuse. This seems to be the norm with all abuse cases. But is completely wholly inappropriate and inadequate. 

“In comparison to the level of cover and care that [Ecclesiastical ] insure against, it is disgracefully clear that its parameters for dealing with a damaged water pipe are significantly more compassionate and comprehensive than those of the way they deal with a damaged human being.”

Prior to reporting his abuse and suffering mental health complications that prevented him from working, which Tony believes was as a result of re-awakening the trauma, he had been a successful professional pulling in a near six-figure salary.

In documents released under a data subject access request and seen by Post Ecclesiastical’s lawyer BLM used Maden’s notes to draw conclusions on the case and attributed just 10% of Tony’s difficulties in later life to abuse he had suffered. Because Tony alleges he had been abused by two individuals, one who has not been convicted, this was then sliced to 5% in this case.

A letter from the desk of BLM abuse practice head Paula Jefferson to Tony’s lawyer stated: “As noted above Prof Maden’s preliminary views are just one of the factors which have been taken into account when putting forward the offer which accompanies this letter. For the avoidance of doubt the sum offered does not equate to a valuation of 5% of what might be an award of damages where there are no other causative factors.”

However, Ecclesiastical documents, dated March 2017, obtained via the data request demonstrate that Maden’s prognosis was a major factor in assessing a settlement offer: “We based our [initial] offers on an educated guesstimate that [redacted incident of abuse] would be 40% responsible on causation, [redacted incident of abuse] 10% and the other 50% being due to other factors in his life – difficult parenting, emotionally deprived by his adoptive parents, father’s difficult relationship.

“Following this we approached our own proposed expert Professor Maden, to see what his preliminary view was based on the chronology of the claimant’s medical records and claimant’s expert’s report. His early view was that it was likely to be 10% due to the abuse [by both perpetrators] and 90% other factors.”

A further March 2017 document on the case, seen by Post, stated: “The general conclusion was that the handling was very fair and reasonable and indeed it could be argued we had gone too far to accommodate the claimant.”

Post contacted Hews directly about the case, instead receiving a response from an Ecclesiastical spokesperson: “We have great sympathy for survivors and the impact that childhood abuse has had on their lives. We continuously review our claims handling process to ensure we treat survivors as sensitively and empathetically as possible. As previously stated, we have learned important lessons about the potential distress caused to survivors by discussing the details of their case in the media. For this reason, we will not comment on individual cases or claims.

“We welcome the independent inquiry into child abuse, IICSA, and we are making constructive input to improve the claims system for the interests of survivors. As stated in evidence to the IICSA, EIO settles claims on a full and final basis and most claimants accept settlement with the benefit of having received independent legal advice. Whilst we do not always get everything right, EIO itself strives for the highest standards in the industry and was the first to introduce clear guiding principles with survivors’ input. Most importantly, we encourage and advise our policyholders to implement strong safeguarding practices so that they can better prevent childhood abuse in their organisations in the first place.” 

A spokesperson for BLM said: “When dealing with cases of abuse we always seek to be empathetic and understanding, and have regard to the individual circumstances of each claim. We work with our clients to whenever possible, settle claims without the need for court proceedings which can be distressing for claimants. Throughout this matter we maintained an open dialogue with the claimant’s solicitors. We understand from victims and survivors that seeing a medical expert can be traumatic. Consequently, in this case we instructed a medical expert to conduct a psychiatric assessment based on the medical records available to enable negotiations to proceed quicker and to avoid the need for a medical examination.”

A Church of England spokesperson said: “The National Safeguarding Team has been alerted to this case and has had contact with Tony. The abuse he describes should never have happened and as a Church we unreservedly apologise for our failure to protect the vulnerable, as highlighted by our IICSA hearings. We have passed on his concerns to the insurers, once he raised them with us and we are glad he is receiving professional support.”

Considerations on use of experts in CSA claims in IICSA’s 2019 report into Accountability and Reparations

“It is also a feature of the adversarial system of civil justice that the views of claimants’ and defendants’ experts will often be in opposition. Billhar Singh Uppal said “more often than not, the other side’s expert’s opinion will be diametrically opposed. It will be all to do with something else, very little to do with the abuse”. Carolyn Mackenzie, complex claims director at RSA, agreed that “more often than not, there seems to be a real polarisation of view between experts”. To counter this, single joint experts could be used, subject to an agreed protocol.”

On codes of conduct to be drafted by the Local Government Association and the Association of British Insurers:

The codes should also include guidance that:

  1. Claimants should be treated sensitively throughout the litigation process;
  2. The defence of limitation should only be used in exceptional circumstances;
  3. Single experts jointly instructed by both parties should be considered for the assessment of the claimants’ psychiatric, psychological or physical injuries; and
  4. Wherever possible, claimants should be offered apologies, acknowledgement, redress and support.

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