0n the day when the official enquiry into child sexual abuse begins in Britain under the chairmanship of Justice Lowell Goddard, we hear that as many as one in twenty children in Britain may have been the victims of sexual abuse at the hands of family, teachers, clergy or other adults. To judge from my own memory of the sexual abuse committed by adults among my contemporaries in the 50s, it was probably one in ten that went through this ordeal. That unpleasant memory has to be set to one side for now. What we are noting now is that the child abuse enquiry is meeting at the same time as the Commission into the past wrongs at Trinity Church Brentwood. Although the first is not due to report its findings for another seven years and the Trinity Commission is reporting in the autumn, they do share certain things in common. Both are both taking place in a totally new climate. What happened in the past is now seen to be totally and completely unacceptable. The child abuse enquiry will reveal how men who committed appalling acts against children were quietly shuffled out of jobs to take up other posts elsewhere. They were again free to abuse. Such cruelty, abuse and exploitation were somehow kept under wraps, not least because the victims were often not believed. The voice of the weak, especially the abused women and children, was given no credence. Today in 2015, thank God, the voice of those abused is being heard.
After my book, Ungodly Fear, came out in 2000, I received a number of letters, mainly from women, who echoed the stories of abuse recounted in my book. I answered them all as best I could even though the help I could suggest was very limited. At that time there seemed to be no awareness of Christian abuse in the church by those in authority. Although the book did not touch on the abuse of children, there were a number of letters resonating with my recounted story of a woman who was raped by a minister in the course of Christian counselling. That woman has now sadly died of cancer and her perpetrator was never charged. The letters that came to me recalling similar incidents, also revealed a complete failure of oversight and an unwillingness to do anything to bring the perpetrators to account. A combination of indifference and incredulity seemed to meet those women who sought help. In short, nobody wanted to know.
The situation in 2015 is a little better. The Jimmy Savile affair has opened up people to the possibility that people who perform public service like clergy, teachers as well as entertainers can abuse their positions to cause harm to those weaker than themselves. We live in a world where the stories, such as told in my book, are met with greater credence. People who tell stories of abuse long ago are now believed. For many this enables them to start a path to healing. The first thing to help them is to be heard and to be believed.
I make this lengthy introduction to the ongoing saga at Trinity Church, Brentwood because the people who suffered appalling mistreatment in the past at this church are finally being believed. The process which has started through the calling of a Commission to investigate past wrongs, may produce a document which will change the way things are done in churches for ever. Dozens of people have sent in their experiences of mistreatment at the church and school over the past 30+ years and to the Commission. John Langlois, the chairman, and his team are speaking to most of them over the summer and they hope to publish a report in the autumn. From past performance John should do a thorough job and a revealing account of the tortured history of this unhappy institution will be revealed. It will not be a perfect report as, no doubt, important aspects will not make the final report. The allegations of criminality in connection with the tortuous financial arrangements of the church will not be investigated by the Commission. No doubt, if the national press get hold of the story of the church, there may be pressure on the Charity Commissioners to compel them to open their books. The sort of things that are being investigated are the climate of fear and humiliation at the school and the experience of individuals who found themselves objects of power games perpetrated by leaders, especially Michael Reid, the disgraced Pastor who left in 2008. Sexual harassment, from lewd jokes to actual seduction, were also part of the culture of the church. The alleged criminal act that has sparked off the setting up of the Commission was the claim by one Kathryn, who wrote for this blog under the pseudonym of Sally, that she was raped by a senior church member. The context of the rape was, according to her claim, within a regime of relentless humiliation of her and all the other Bible school students when they came to Peniel in the 80s from the States to study at the church. Her readiness to stand up and be counted after this long period is a testimony to a great deal of courage and the resilience of the human spirit. It is also opportune that her story has now been able to be heard and acted upon. We can thank the climate of today which, as I have said, is far more open to making a response when accusations of such terrible crimes are made.
My hopes for the Commission report is that it will be read widely, particularly by churches that belong to the Evangelical Alliance. The Evangelical Alliance has given a sort of accreditation to a large number of conservative Christian organisations and groups over the years as long as they sign up to a statement of faith. It has never, as far as I know, expelled a church for immoral or corrupt behaviour. The only recent expulsions have been for not toeing the conservative line on the gay issue. The Commission report may well persuade the EA to insist that all Alliance members sign up to accountability measures which will protect women and children in particular. In short the Evangelical Alliance may come to demand ethical standards from its members alongside statements of doctrinal conformity. My own research in the 90s into the life of congregations normally affiliated to the EA suggested that moral standards among independent pastors were sometimes extremely low.
A hard-hitting report, such as we hope the report on Trinity Church Brentwood will be, may well open the mind of the wider public to the need to insist on high standards of accountability as well as morality in churches just like other public bodies. Safeguarding measures to protect all vulnerable people, and that means almost everyone, will come to be a priority in every congregation. The work of this blog, the constant addressing of abusive practice in church and Christian settings, would then theoretically be redundant. But perhaps that will not happen for a number of years yet. But we can hope and work for further movement towards that end.