In the Church Times last Friday, there was a story that touched me personally. It was about a retired Bishop, John Satterthwaite, who died last year in his late 80s in a care home. During the 60s I had had dealings with this clergyman when he was first appointed to be a church bureaucrat in Lambeth Palace to look after relationships with churches abroad on behalf of Archbishop Michael Ramsey. I was then abroad in Greece studying the church there and sponsored by his office. Bishop Satterthwaite never married and so in old age he entered a care home after living for many years in Cumbria. While in the care home, he began to suffer from dementia and eventually died. The story in the paper was about the fact that he had, in the last months of his life, been subjected to abusive treatment at the hands of a woman carer. The mistreatment included bathing him in cold water and neglecting him in other ways. Without going into further details, anyone would find this story shocking. I however feel almost certain that there is another story to be told beyond that of the abuse of a vulnerable confused individual by a middle aged woman. Chris is often reminding us of the plight of care-home workers and how they are manipulated to the point of exhaustion by managers and proprietors who see the care home business as a means of making a great deal of money. Whatever the crime of the woman carer found guilty of abuse, it would appear that the care home industry has in many places become an example of institutional dysfunction. More and more stories are told in the press about the plight of some elderly people at the hands of their unskilled and underpaid carers. We also hear at the same time of the way that the caring instincts of the majority of the labour force are squeezed and exploited. Large numbers of people, particularly married women who are not free to take other forms of work, work very hard in what is often a ruthless and exploitative environment. The beneficiaries are the care home owners.
Why do I mention the issues of care homes in this blog? It is not just because this is a particular concern of Chris, but because I see parallels between churches and the places for the care of elderly people. Both are institutions concerned with vulnerable people. Obviously the type of vulnerability is different in each case, but arguably people who find their way into church are people who looking for support and help which makes many of them potentially vulnerable to abuse. In the case of care home residents, the vulnerability is obvious. But it can be claimed the potential for receiving abuse applies not just to the residents but also to the staff. Working for hour after hour on minimum wage, trying to show human compassion to confused elderly residents is never going to be easy. Stories of bullying, understaffing and a climate of fear are all too common. Chris has direct experience of this shadowy world of exploitation and greed.
These stories that erupt into the press from time to time about care home nearly always involve harm and abuse done to residents. Most residents have relatives who visit and many of them are sensitive to changes and new unhappiness in their confused loved ones. There is of course a body of inspection set up by statute to oversee care homes, the CQC, the Care Quality Commission. No doubt they do a good job in many places but one suspects that by giving notice of their arrival many examples of neglect and abuse are covered up. The whole industry is too obsessed with making substantial profits ever to be able to rid itself of its underworld of oppressed staff and neglected patients. To repeat, there are bound to be good examples of care and compassion for the extremely vulnerable elderly, but equally we will often find places where the reality is dark and abusive to staff and patients alike. The difficulty of ridding the care home industry of these problems will always remain as long as the economics of running care institutions depend on employing many unqualified, unmotivated and underpaid staff. In other words there is a tragic inevitability for these scandals to occur from time to time. The structural problems are, in other words, endemic.
The problems of abuse in the church are also endemic in the system. I am not of course claiming by this that every church allows such abuse or even that the majority of churches are not places of human and spiritual flourishing. But, as with the care-home system, there are some institutional structural issues that create the potential for danger in some places. In the first place there is a breed of church leader who thrives on being the centre of attention and power. A desire for power may have caused him/her to seek a role as a minister in the first place. Over a period of time their style of leadership may become a source of danger to others, particularly when unhealthily dependent relationships have been established. Also, while churches of course do not officially have a profit motive for existing, in America (and sometimes in Britain) some leaders are paid obscene amounts of money to lead a congregation. In the church that we visit from time to time, Trinity, Brentwood, the leading pastor is paid between £80,000 and £90,000 p.a. When such a sum is handed out, there is likely to be an incentive to cover up and suppress anything that could challenge the leader’s position and threaten his hold on power. The congregation at Brentwood appears to be riven by politics, in the sense of power games and information control. Truth and straightforward dealing seem to be in short supply and there seems to an obsessive preoccupation with the protection of the huge assets of this congregation. The simple rule seems to be that in any institution where power (and money) is to be found, there will be found the potential for and actual existence of corruption and power games around this exercise of power.
To summarise it can be claimed that every institution, sacred or secular, has potentially a problem with the abuse of power. The abusive use of power is a particular threat where vulnerable people are gathered, the very young, the elderly or just ordinary people who look for support. In the secular world inspections are made of the institutions which deal with the young and the elderly. While there is no doubt that these inspections are sometimes flawed and incomplete, at least they happen. The church on the other hand seems to be trusted to manage its own affairs and be thought to be above suspicion in this matter. It is this complacency about the abuse of power in the church that needs constantly to be challenged.