Serious church failings in abuse case show need for change

By Savi Hensman
March 17, 2016

A review of how the Church of England handled allegations of sexual abuse by senior clergy has revealed serious failings. In recent years, similar problems have come to light in other churches and major public institutions. These raise important questions about child and adult protection, truth, power and justice.

A survivor, known as ‘Joe’ or ‘B’, has revealed that he was sexually assaulted in the 1970s when in his mid-teens, then emotionally exploited when he sought help two years later. He tried to inform dozens of priests and bishops but even those who met him failed to act, or indeed to keep records of conversations.

Most of those he told “were essentially good people in a dysfunctional institution riven with inertia. Kind words were never going to be enough in the face of a crime/justice issue, but, because it was perceived primarily as a pastoral issue, my hearers drifted along in the same boat as everyone else – a boat that was carrying their church careers reassuringly forward,” he wrote in 2015 in the Church Times.

Some were, or became, bishops. Apparently he also wrote repeatedly to the office of the current Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, with no response. When at last he took legal action seeking compensation, pastoral support was cut off abruptly.

According to the Elliott Review report, published in March 2016, the survivor’s claims “are credible. They contain a tragic catalogue of exploitation and harm.” His attempts to get help from the church “resulted in frustration and failure”. Meanwhile his health was badly affected. Even when robust policies were in place, they were not consistently put into practice.

"I was horrified to hear and read of the abuse suffered by the survivor in this case. It has clearly devastated his life. I apologise profusely for the failings of the Church towards him,” said Sarah Mullaly, the Bishop of Crediton. “I know we have made some progress but we still have so much to learn and to do, and we need to do it quickly.”

Also in mid-March, the national Goddard inquiry into child protection by institutions in England and Wales has begun to look into the Church of England, among other organisations. The focus is on the Diocese of Chichester, where several clergy – including the Bishop of Lewes, Peter Ball – went on to be convicted. Compensation has also been paid to someone believed to have probably been abused when a child by the late Bishop George Bell and who was fobbed off when she reported it.

As in other churches and secular bodies, the problem is obviously not one of a ‘permissive society’. Abuse happened earlier too, when moral codes and social cohesion were supposedly stronger. But it has not gone away in less supposedly repressive times.

Likewise senior church leaders implicated in not acting promptly and effectively include ‘traditionalists’ and ‘liberals’, Anglo-Catholics and evangelicals, people associated with paternalism and managerialism. There are no easy answers as to why things went so badly wrong and how this can be prevented in future.

Clearly, well-written policies are very important. But if there are too few skilled and motivated people to put them into practice, they do not have enough clout or are continually undermined, procedures may be not be followed.

However if survivors’ suffering is to be consistently acknowledged and those at risk safeguarded, it is worth trying to identify underlying factors. I would suggest that three interconnected features were usually present when things went badly wrong.

Firstly, the interests of an institution were put above those of people treated in a violent or exploitative way, because of organisational values and a culture which rewarded conformity. People of faith might describe this as idolatry – when a principle or organisation is worshipped, even if this involves human sacrifice.

Sometimes this is for supposedly worthy reasons. A faith group, social services or police department, care home or other organisation or network may be thought to be doing good work, which would be damaged if the public or funders lost confidence. But this can end up destroying the reputation it was supposed to protect, along with people’s lives.

Secondly, there is a widespread lack of understanding of the grave effects of child and adult sexual (and other forms of) abuse. This may be because either the frequently damaging effects of misuse of power in intimate settings are not sufficiently known or the victims are not of sufficiently high status.

It may seem surprising that although churches may appear obsessed with sexual morality, many Christians have a patchy understanding of the damage which can occur when boundaries are crossed. But sometimes discussions on sexuality and sin fail to distinguish between simply disobeying ethical codes and harmful crime. Or those on the receiving end are regarded as too unimportant to be worth seeking justice for, especially if the perpetrators are elders, clergy or senior professionals.

Thirdly, there is extensive reluctance to accept that people who do much good and may often be kind, even heroic, can also do appalling things. Some people believe that vilifying abusers shows opposition to abuse. But the result is that if someone is liked and respected, those around them often find it near-impossible to accept that they are an abuser; or, if the abuse comes to light, that it is really that bad.

The world is not neatly divided into goodies and baddies: in Christian language, all have sinned, everyone falls short of God’s call to love every neighbour as oneself. But this does not make the grave impact of violating trust any the less.

If abuse in church and other settings is to be uprooted, it is time to recognise, repent of allowing, and challenge the misuse of power and harmful wielding of privilege. This applies in all settings, personal as well as public.


© Savitri Hensman is a widely-published Christian commentator on politics, religion, welfare and allied topics. An Ekklesia associate, she works in the care and equalities sector.

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