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.


  1. All organisations with a reputation to maintain will not want to admit or accept bad conduct in their midst, and especially at the top.
  2. Many abusers are extremely good at maintaining a respectable, kind and trustworthy appearance.
  3. If someone appears nice, it is unpleasant to think of them, still more to accuse them, of being abusive.
  4. 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.
  5. 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 –

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.”)
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.)
  10. 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.
  11. 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…

  • Matthew+Perry

    1st August 2023 at 7:38 pm Reply

    Well put Penny.
    I saw the two programmes about Peter Ball here, they were shown on Swedish television. I was aware of his convictions but even so I was shocked, particularly since I heard him preach as an undergraduate and found him inspiring; I contemplated joining his “Give a year to God” scheme, in the end I did a DPhil instead. I suppose that those of us who are not tempted to such actions tend to expect others not to be also. My guess is that people start with small steps and as they get away with them each subsequent opportunity is taken further.

  • Stephen Sheridan

    1st August 2023 at 7:38 pm Reply

    Thank you Penelope

    You have given a very good analysis of the reasons for why such appalling crimes are not more easily detected. I would add that that abusive psycopaths of a paedophilia nature gravitate to positions where they have more opportunity to groom and exploit such as teaching, religious positions, the medical profession and law enforcement. Then as you point out in your point 4, pride (which includes the individual arrogance of those in power) helps defends them.

    A rigorous process of weeding them out at the start and detecting suspicious behaviour during their tenure should be built into the structures of such high risk institutions. It is a very sad fact that both the CofE and the Catholic Church (I speak as a Catholic) continue to fail badly in this regard. Welby and his Archbishops recently fired their advisory body designed to protect against sexual abuse for reasons that they have failed to explain. Similarly Pope Francis has an appalling record of supporting bishops who aid his doctrinal manoeuvrings, while they have records of sexual abuse or covering the abuse by their colleagues – this has backfired on him many times during his Pontificate.

    Establishments in both Churches continue to behave with arrogant incompetence in clearing up the mess, while simultaneously proclaiming their own moral virtue. It constantly amazes me that clerics, who of all people ought to be the most humble, behave with a level of moral arrogance that betrays the superficiality of much of their thought. Those in authority in the Church should do proper and observable penance for the crimes committed by those in authority in their organisations who behave abusively. That would show real Christian observance and an acceptance of responsibility. The sacrifice of Christ to take on the sins of humanity could be considered as God doing penance for the negative consequences of giving humanity free will – something perhaps to debate here?

    It would be good if other institutions observed a similar policy – that includes the arrogance of our current King in such instances, political parties and the police forces. The latter are now so compromised that abolition and starting again from scratch may be the only option.

    In Ireland the Catholic Church was all powerful until its appalling record was uncovered and it is now at a massively low level of credibility. The Church in Poland currently reigns supreme partly through its martyrdom and focus of resistance against Communism, but who knows what dark skeletons may be uncovered and change this in the future?

    There is a rich vein of drama to mine in your fantasy world Penelope on this issue. For instance, one would assume that the Church on Ragaris would set up some kind of internal audit body to watch for such issues, but “quis custodiet ipsos custodies”? And what happens when the abusive cleric involved is a vital part of negotiating a peace treaty to end a terrible war? I must admit that I am more on the Rorschach from Watchmen end of the spectrum on that regard – “even in the face of Armageddon no compromise!” I would be a terrible leader!


    Thank you Penelope and keep up all the good work that you do.

  • Stephen Sheridan

    3rd August 2023 at 1:45 pm Reply

    I have just watched the documentary about Ball on YouTube – so depressing on how the establishment of the Church, politics and monarchy combined to persecute the victims. Given the original filmed comments by the man himself – it was clear that he was a massive narcissist with highly suspicious proclivities. the statements by senior CofE clerics showed amazing insensitivity. Finally our current King (who rapidly makes me a republican with every passing day) is shown as being either as nasty and arrogant or a man of staggering and moronic naivety.
    Both the major churches need a thorough purge and re-structure.

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