October 7, 2020

Shame is the overriding emotion I feel reading that nearly 400 figures within the church establishment have been convicted of abusing children over the last 70 years. Shame, anger, but not all that much surprise.

“Many of these cases demonstrate the Church of England’s failure to take abuse seriously, creating a culture where abusers were able to hide,” the independent inquiry concludes. Too many bishops were more concerned with supporting those who had been accused of abuse than looking after the victims. Abuser priests were quietly moved on to a new parish when news of their activity reached the attention of their bishops. The language of a “fresh start” and “forgiveness” became a kind of cover for deeper concern for reputational management. Those who had been abused were treated like a problem that needed to be hushed up, made to go away quietly.

It was at St Paul’s that I first heard the weasel phrase “reputational risk”. It wasn’t used with respect to child abuse, but was a catch-all warning for anything that might potentially tarnish the good name of the church. The irony, of course, is that the fear of reputational risk may have been the very thing that led the church to cover up many of its dirty little secrets.

Of course, over the last 70 years the Church of England has changed beyond all recognition. The “long withdrawing roar” of the Sea of Faith, has removed the old deference towards the clergy which meant abuser priests were believed over their victims. The last time I wore a clerical collar in the street, a passing motorist wound down his window to shout “paedophile” at me. Even so, the line that it is all very different now is still unconvincing. In 2018, over 2,500 “safeguarding concerns” about children and vulnerable adults were reported to dioceses. Some of these may well have been as unfair as the malicious shout from the window of a passing car. But some of them won’t have been. There are still abusers in the church. And the collapse of deference has not deterred them.

The church, when I joined, used to have a very clubby feel and there was a sort of vestry chat that would look upon and describe lay people as “Muggles”.  Now frowned upon in all but the most defiantly Anglo-Catholic of circles, it was an expression of clerical solidarity. This, in itself, is not a bad thing. But it engendered a kind of closed ranks mentality when ‘one of our own’ was accused of something. And there was often a kind of gloomy Gothic creepiness about clergy bonding that bracing sunshine of secularisation has done much to dispel. Not that child abuse in the church is a peculiarly Anglo-Catholic thing. But with evangelicals it generally seems to have a more sado-masochistic expression, as with the punishment beatings handed out by the abuser John Smythe on the Iwerne Trust Christian camps, or the naked ice-baths and beatings delivered by Rev Jonathan Fletcher. I experienced something of this kind of abuse myself and the emotional scars will always be with me.

So although much has indeed changed, I still don’t really trust the whole “much-has-changed” line. It is true that what is now called Safeguarding has become an over-riding obsession within the church’s hierarchy. And at times it seems that the whole apparatus of church administration is bearing down upon this issue, with continual directives seeking paper exercises to monitor the situation. I suspect that part of the church’s highly defensive reaction to Covid has been driven by this concern. And the worry about Safeguarding will, I fear, be used as a reason to introduce even greater centralisation into church structures. This, in turn, will alienate further many clergy already alienated by the way the central church is busy accruing to itself the sort of authority that has traditionally been located on the ground, in parishes.

But the evil of abuse is highly adaptive and can inveigle itself within even the most administratively focused of approaches. For despite the voluminous interventions of the central church, there remains the problem that church people are largely too biddable, too conflict-averse when it comes to this enemy within. Wickedness often places itself adjacent to virtue as a mechanism of disguise. And those of us who feel it our calling to recognise the good in other people can be poor judges of the dark side that can sit closely alongside it.

The problem is that when someone is exposed as an abuser people fall over themselves to re-remember what they thought of them, not wanting to be counted among those who were fooled. And so we build up a picture of the abuser in which it now seems obvious that they were what they were exposed to be. But this is a dangerous retro fitting of the imagination.

A man such as Bishop Peter Ball, for instance, was widely recognised during his public ministry as a man of great virtue. In 2015, he was sentenced to 32 months imprisonment after admitting the abuse of 18 young men over a period of 15 years. So now Peter Ball is remembered as a nasty creepy paedophile. And, of course, he was. But this picture of him doesn’t help us discover the people who are like that and currently operating in the church. He was perceived as a remarkably holy person – which is why the then Archbishop, George Carey, failed to believe the accusations of abuse against him and why Prince Charles could write to the bishop saying: “I wish I could do more. I feel so desperately strongly about the monstrous wrongs that have been done to you and the way you have been treated.”

If we simply dismiss such sentiments as the establishment looking after itself, we will miss the way in which paedophiles not only were, but continue to be, highly plausible. To speak of a cover up is a form of self-comforting delusion. The truth is much more disturbing. People really did genuinely believe that Ball was a man of great virtue. And we may well believe that about some of the abusers currently operating within the church.

The report is correct to advise that ultimate responsibility for Safeguarding should be taken away from bishops. The pastoral responsibility that bishops have for their clergy presents a conflict of interest when it comes to the need to weed out clerical abusers. The power and responsibility for safeguarding has to be an independent matter – but not as a way for trust in the church to be re-established. Abuse often takes place when we trust too much, too indiscriminately.

The language of love and forgiveness must not be diminished by all of this. That is the church’s core message – yes, even for abusers. But some acts of forgiveness are above our pay grade and reserved for God alone. The Peter Balls of this world will also have to face the judgment of God. But this side of the last judgment, it is the church’s job to protect the vulnerable. And that requires us to have a more clear-eyed assessment that, notwithstanding the commandment to love and forgive each other, sin also exists as much within the church as it does elsewhere.

The need to root out evil is always a work in progress. Let us not tell ourselves that things are better, even if they may be. Let us not be confident we now have the right tools the address this issue. The enemy is always among us.