Briefing: Ecclesiastical’s child abuse claims shame – CEO Hews’ admission too little too late?

Note saying sorry

If Ecclesiastical CEO Mark Hews is sorry for how the insurer has handled non-recent child sexual abuse claims, should he not be addressing the victims rather than shareholders?

Ecclesiastical has come under fire in the recent past for its handling of non-recent CSA claims.

Post revealed last February that the insurer and law firm BLM had used a ‘desktop’ expert, who had never met the claimant, to justify offering a knocked down claims payout based on a second hand psychiatric profile of a survivor while he was hospitalised following a suicide attempt.

Leading church figures, a safeguarding expert and others called out the insurer’s behaviour, arguing that Hews needed to “put his house in order” following “unethical” and “shameful” practice.

Prior to this, we reported on unacceptable and “callous” language being used by staff in Ecclesiastical’s claims department to describe a survivor. In a cache of emails, obtained by Post, it was even suggested the claimant should be “bought off”.

Also in 2019 it emerged in an inquiry that Ecclesiastical had given advice to the church that led it to cut off key pastoral care for a survivor, something the insurer has previously denied. Claims director David Bonehill and compliance director John Titchener, who has since departed from the company, left the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse red-faced after being hauled over coals over the company’s response to the Elliot Review of 2015.

When we published the February story I personally reached out to Hews to ask whether he had anything to say on the matter. At the time, he remained stoically silent and I was given a generic response from the press office.

Interestingly only a month later in March Ecclesiastical published its Annual Reports and Accounts for 2019; a document that also appeared on Companies House last week when it came to our attention. Within it Hews addresses the matter head on, in a way that I might have expected him to when I approached him in February for a response.

Some survivors spend years seeking an apology. But it almost feels like Ecclesiastical wanted this expression of regret in to slip under the radar – a reassurance for shareholders rather than stakeholders.

When asked whether this comment marks the most definitive thing the business has come to an apology Post has been pointed to various statements that are on the company’s website and reminded that the inquiry is ongoing.

True Hews says on the insurer’s child abuse page: “We are committed to handling all claims made by victims and survivors against the organisations we insure with sensitivity, empathy and integrity.” But as the cliché goes sorry is the hardest word, and within statements seen by Post from 2017, there are assertions which the insurer point blank denied it had taken steps that it would later have to face up to during a grilling at IICSA.

Namely in a July 2017 response it stated: “The assertions in the review misrepresent the facts and we have the documentary evidence to prove it. We were not asked to participate in this review and were not given the opportunity to set the record straight. Contrary to what the Elliott Review claims, we did not advise the Church of England to withdraw pastoral care from the survivor. We have always been clear that pastoral care and counselling can and should continue in parallel with an insurance claim.”

And in an August 2017 response it blasted consequent coverage of the review for fuelling a “misconception” over how claims were handled, adding that it had “documentary evidence” that it was the church’s mistake for pulling its pastoral care.

Which brings us up to date with one of the insurer’s latest attempts to address this issue.

It could be argued that Hews’ comments were at the front of this document and that writing in a results document, which is sent to the stock exchange, is one of the biggest public statements a listed firm can make. Ecclesiastical Insurance Office plc has Preference Shares listed on the London Stock Exchange.

But do victims of abuse spend hours trawling through company websites looking for admissions – no matter how small – that a company might not have got it right? Post approached a group of survivors to see if they had seen it and to get their opinions.

Not only had no one in the group spotted it one survivor responded: “I can’t think straight for anger and anxiety over … Mark Hew’s recent company account’s statement, the self-praise, the admission of not getting everything right, the lessons learned, the referral to Moving Minds for every new claimant, yet the WITHDRAWAL of offer of help on my particular case, the donations here, there and everywhere, but the unwillingness to repair a life that they helped destroy, yet held the responsibility (and power) to repair …” 

The church makes up a core contingency of the insurer’s customers. Indeed, Ecclesiastical and the Church of England have an almost symbiotic relationship. A large chunk of the insurer’s profits going to charitable enterprises within the church, while a vast quantity of Ecclesiastical’s premiums are understood to filter back from it. Ecclesiastical board members, or board members of parent company Allchurches Trust, have frequently been senior church figures.

While Ecclesiastical has sought to diversify somewhat more lately – for example targeting the heritage sector – it is not a customer base the insurer can afford to alienate. Particularly with tensions flaring over Covid-19 business interruption coverage, as reported by the Church Times.

At the General Synod earlier this year, which resembles something like an ecclesiastical version of a parliamentary gathering, the church voted by a landslide in favour of redress for survivors, following an emotional and heated session on historic abuse. Survivors themselves have called on the insurer to pay into any scheme.

Perhaps worryingly for Ecclesiastical, Archdeacon Julie Conalty of Tonbridge within Rochester, said during proceedings: “Surely we have the capacity to do justly, to act mercifully and even to be generous. Surely we have the capacity to question our insurers about their practices and indeed our lawyers. It occurred to me that actually we can change insurers if we don’t think their methods are ethical. I change my electricity supplier.”

Ecclesiastical is not the only insurer to face criticism for how it has handled abuse claims. I have previously written about RSA and Zurich facing the music. The Association of British Insurers has itself come around to considering changes to limitation rules and participated in hearings earlier this year.

Last September IICSA slammed the ‘hostile, baffling, frustrating and futile’ civil and criminal claims processes, recommending a raft of reforms.

The particular issue with Ecclesiastical is that it is the only one that has tried to hold itself above the parapet – frequently touting its 2016 guiding principles as a marker of its own good behaviour (“I am delighted that these efforts have led to recognition on a wide front,” Hews says in his CEO statement) – before the rug was pulled from under it.

In its closing submission to IICSA the insurer said it had learnt from previous claims where correspondence was not “sufficiently sensitive” to a claimant’s position. It claimed it had acted not just to protect its good name but to dispel any impression of its claims handling which might dissuade any other victims. One wonders if it has learnt from this at all?

And if EIO’s position from this response is that … “apologies can generally be given without prejudicing the customers insurance position” why isn’t it making a bigger show of remorse?

Because if Ecclesiastical wants its brand to live up to its name and make amends, the management should think about how and where they try to make peace with the past – and consider what the insurer can do to help the survivors it has, in Hews’ own words, put through a “difficult and painful process.”

Statement from Hews in Ecclesiastical’s 2019 strategic report:

“Overall we successfully deal with thousands of claims every year and I am pleased to report that 98% of surveyed customers were satisfied with how we handled their claim last year, and 93% being very and extremely satisfied, which is consistent with previous years.

“However, there have been a few claims relating to historical sexual abuse over 30 years ago, which have been difficult to handle to the satisfaction of all concerned. I am speaking here of claims for physical and sexual abuse which represent a very small percentage of our total claims (less than 0.4%), but are particularly traumatic and challenging for victims and survivors and must, therefore, be conducted with sensitivity, empathy and compassion. Sadly for a very small number of survivors, the experience of bringing a claim has been a difficult and painful process, not helped by the adversarial nature of the civil justice system within which we must all work.

“To this end, we welcome the work of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse and have contributed positively to the Inquiry’s consideration of how the civil justice system can better deliver reparations to victims and survivors. Ecclesiastical works hard to settle claims fairly on a full and final basis with the agreement of its claimants and with the benefit of such claimants normally having received independent legal advice.

“While we do not always get everything right, Ecclesiastical Insurance Office itself strives for the highest standards in the industry and we were the first insurer to introduce and publish clear guiding principles having obtained survivors input. We have also taken a lead in working with a number of claimant solicitors to improve the claims experience within the current civil justice system and have introduced several positive changes including offering the services of psychological rehabilitation specialists Moving Minds to offer counselling support for every claimant.

“That said, it is clearly impossible to turn back time and undo the damage of childhood abuse, and so we all continue to learn how best to support and help those who have experienced it within the church or elsewhere. Moreover we encourage and support the church and many of our customers on the implementation of strong safeguarding practices so that childhood abuse is prevented in the first place.

“Striving for continual improvement is essential for any business, but is vital for one with a purpose like ours. I am delighted that these efforts have led to recognition on a wide front.”

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