Possible reasons for the C of E’s appalling record
I have recently attended safeguarding training, run by the Church of England, and it included homework before, between sessions and afterwards. So I have as required watched the harrowing 2-part documentary “Exposed: The Church’s Darkest Secret,” dealing with the serial abuser Peter Ball, former Bishop of Gloucester, and the ways in which the establishment, Anglican and other, enabled and covered up his crimes. (Strangely, although this was a BBC documentary, it is most easily found on Youtube.)
Peter Ball was a supposedly celibate monk and bishop, who sexually and spiritually abused many teenage boys over a long period of years, while a member of a cosy group of other abusive clergy and bishops. He was supported at the highest level after facts started to come out, to a degree that was at the absolute minimum culpably naïve and wilfully blind.
It’s not of course just the C of E – the evangelical world has been rocked with accusations of misconduct (much of it not criminal, I should emphasise) apparently not being dealt with properly at Willow Creek, Hillsong and now Soul Survivor – and other denominations, such as the Roman Catholics, have been facing these accusations for decades.
It made me wonder about the reasons why churches have been so appallingly bad at facing and dealing with sexual and other abuse, and also why I myself find it hard to believe victims. (See my thoughts on the Grenfell fire here: https://www.penelopewallace.com/an-egotistical-take-on-the-grenfell-fire/)
Churches seem to deal with the evil in their midst (even) less well than secular organisations, which ought to be odd.
- All organisations with a reputation to maintain will not want to admit or accept bad conduct in their midst, and especially at the top.
- Many abusers are extremely good at maintaining a respectable, kind and trustworthy appearance.
- If someone appears nice, it is unpleasant to think of them, still more to accuse them, of being abusive.
- Most organisations have an internal pride as well as an external reputation, which makes employees and even customers reluctant to believe the accusations of the outsider.
- The accuser/victim, especially a victim from long ago, is likely to be a stranger; the accused is someone the organisation’s members have an ongoing relationship with. They also have a family, who are (probably) completely innocent.
But for the church, in addition –
- The Church exists at least partly to do people good by bringing them on board. Therefore it is not only important not to wash the dirty linen in public, but there may even be a duty not to do so. The disgrace of a bishop may endanger souls.
- Some, perhaps most, churches have a particularly strong belief in submission to authority as actual moral duty, not just practical wisdom to avoid being fired.
- Because the Church isn’t just a practical organisation that makes money or administers public policy, but is also a “family,” there is likely to be (or to be perceived as desirable) a closeness of friendship and support between people working or volunteering at any level. I suggest that this makes it harder to believe evil say of a fellow church warden, than it would be of a fellow office manager in M and S. It means that you are likely to feel sympathetic horror when your apparently admirable colleague is publicly shamed as an accused abuser.
- If you are a victim of someone in power, you are almost by definition comparatively powerless, and likely to be an outsider to the establishment. The Church of England is traditionally (part of) the Establishment, in perhaps more senses than one; a place where the respectable are welcomed and listened to; canny abusers choose victims who are vulnerable and outsiders, desperate to belong because at the moment they don’t.
- Christianity as a whole does traditionally promote and admire endurance of suffering, humility and submission as following the example of Christ. This can be used to enable abuse, and was, by Bishop Ball. (“Let’s prove our holy submission by masturbating each other, because that’s the most humiliating thing we can imagine.”)
- The Church runs on huge numbers of volunteers (and their money!) who tend to be drawn from the more “respectable” members of society. So, again, the hierarchy is grateful for their help, and reluctant to doubt their bona fides.
- In many places and times the Church has been, and is, persecuted. This has led to the regrettable modern tendency of some Christians to interpret any hostility as demonically-inspired persecution, which should be resisted and firmly stood against.
- The Church is supposed to believe in justice, and not justice for the poor. The Bible has strong words for those who falsely accuse others. It is commendable to remember that accusation does not necessarily mean guilt; but again where the accuser is obscure and faceless and the accused is the admired close friend, this belief is taken too far.
- The Church preaches forgiveness. If a member has done something wrong, even very wrong, the Church is not entitled to throw them out, and say “Rot in prison/hell.” During my training session, a prison support worker (I think) rightly complained about churches who refuse to support repentant sex offenders. The Church of God must offer hope to anyone, which entails risk of various kinds, and complicated systems to protect the vulnerable, or past victims. (I am of course not saying that abusers should expect to be able to sit through a service alongside their victims, however repentant they are or claim to be; absolutely not.)
- Similarly, the Church preaches the possibility of repentance and new life. This means that if an abuser claims to be repentant and promises not to do it again, the Church should not sneer. This presumably is part of the reason for the horrendous way in which abusing priests were often just “moved on” to make a fresh start, their superiors wanting to believe in the repentance at the expense of their past and likely future victims; perhaps “trusting God” that the repentance claimed was genuine and would last. It remains hard to say “I forgive you (or “you can be forgiven”) but I’m still calling the police.” Marks and Spencers would not have this difficulty, because they don’t offer forgiveness.
- I myself, as a lawyer, almost always react to accusations with the thought “it may not be true, we don’t know.” I even wonder if this tendency is exacerbated by the huge number of novels, especially detective stories, that I have read where the accused is trying to establish their innocence; the stories where the innocent is reprieved from the gallows at the last minute. Agatha Christie, for example, repeatedly emphasises the horror of being falsely accused or even suspected. Literature written about people who are making accusations presumably exists, but is perhaps more often about revenge, and I don’t want to read about that.
All of this may help to explain why safeguarding training, cumbersome and time-consuming as it is, is so essential.
Love from the PPI Blogger
PS Thank you, Stephen, for your guesses about book 4…