Some weeks I made reference to the fact that I was an incumbent in the diocese of Gloucester when Peter Ball accepted a police caution for illicit activities towards young men in earlier years. This caution resulted in his resignation as bishop of the diocese. This all happened in 1992 and I cannot have been the only person who was left wondering about the actual facts of the bishop’s alleged behaviour. Nobody said anything at the time as to whether or not Bishop Peter was actually guilty of a crime. Words like misunderstanding and mistake floated around to confuse the straightforward question, was he guilty for not? The press and the Church reported part of the truth, the police caution and the resignation, but the public was left to speculate what was in fact behind this dramatic and sudden departure.
Last week in the Church Times there was a fascinating new piece of new information on the affair. It came from an individual who had known a lawyer present when Peter Ball was being interviewed by the police in the original 1992 investigation. This lawyer had reported that Peter Ball ‘sang like a canary’ – in other words he had made a full confession of the various misdeeds for which he was later sent to prison in 2015. At this point I want us to think, not about Bishop Peter’s crimes, but the way that other people were reacting to what was being revealed back in 1992. It is hard to imagine that senior members of the church, including the then Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey, did not have an accurate understanding of what had been revealed in the investigations and interviews of the time. No doubt more facts will emerge as a result of the Goddard enquiry . More formal censure no doubt may well be handed out to the church leaders of the time for their actions and inactions in dealing with the affair. But it was clearly an unprecedented crisis for the Church of England. So far we have heard in response stories about failures of memory and claims of ignorance. These will no doubt be challenged as not representing what really went on behind the scenes at the top of the Church of England.
In thinking about the bluster and denials so far heard from those church leaders who were around at the time, I want here to suggest a more generous interpretation of the facts as we have them so far. Senior members of the church, here the then Archbishop of Canterbury and his senior staff were faced with a totally impossible and unprecedented situation. A bishop had failed in his calling. The failure was a serious one and it had the power to severely undermine the institution in which this bishop had responsibility. Because there was no real precedent for this event, one can imagine that there would be a kind of numbing of thought as the powers that be looked for ways to deal with it. The first response would be to defend as best they could the institution which had been betrayed by Bishop Peter’s behaviour. To help them in making a defensive response to protect the church, they seemed to have had on their side at the time a media and a public opinion which also saw the church as a bastion of stability in society as a whole. Persuading the police and prosecutors to go no further than issuing a caution was a way of allowing the church to continue in its stabilizing role in society with the least possible damage. From the perspective of 2016 we can see that this attempt to protect the institution was short term and ultimately doomed to fail. Eventually chickens would come home to roost. At the time however the success in damage limitation was impressive. It seemed to allow the good ship, the Church of England, to continue to sail along without visible damage above the waterline.
Alongside the defensive measures to protect the Church of England was another psychological process which I would speculate was at work among those who knew the facts about Bishop Peter’s crimes. There was a need not only to defend the institution for which they had responsibility, but also they had to defend their own sense of personal integrity. I see in operation what I would call the PLU (people like us) phenomenon. Bishop Peter is and was a cultured, educated and socially at ease individual. He was well-connected with royalty, politicians and the social elite of Britain. From the perspective of the Establishment he was definitely ‘one of us’. ‘People like us’ do not commit crimes of this kind and when they do they create a sense of vulnerability and unease among the people that have connections with them . The social elite of Britain, and indeed ordinary people, are very good at projecting criminal behaviour on to other groups which they can mentally refer to as a ‘them’. Criminals are the people who are not like us, they have no moral sense, they are the riffraff of society. The moment that someone ‘like us’ commits a crime, we suddenly find ourselves able to imagine ourselves as a criminal. That is a thoroughly uncomfortable and unwelcome feeling. We realise that we have a shared humanity with a criminal because they are ‘like us’. We have already allowed an identification with them to take place and their criminality in some way contaminates us as well.
Another way of talking about this tendency to mentally separate ourselves from the evil-doing of others is to think of ourselves a living in a variety of tribes. The way we have allowed ourselves to think is to see the evil of the world in the tribes other than our own. It is always the ‘them’, the member of enemy tribes, that are guilty of horrible anti-social actions. People like us, people in our tribe never, we believe, behave in this way. From the Archbishop of Canterbury down, nobody in the church at that time could embrace the reality that a man of the highest social credentials and who had served the institution of the church for 30+ years was capable of criminal behaviour. The effect of this realisation was to threaten the sense of who we, the fellow members of the tribe, are. We are brought close to a recognition that everyone, even members of our own tribe, is capable of evil action. If members of our tribe, people like us, can fail, then we have to face up to the possibility of evil, even criminal behaviour being somewhere inside us waiting to erupt. However much the Bible speaks to us of original sin, most of us want to believe that we are fundamentally decent honourable people and that such evil is a long way away. It is much more comfortable thinking this way.
In 2016 we are entering a period when we can no longer protest our innocence because we are a particular kind of person, a person with the right kind of education and social background. There is no longer a boundary between respectable innocent people and the rest. Criminal antisocial behaviour has come randomly to affect people of any kind or background. Society as a whole is weaker through this realization. Because evil can exist anywhere, even within our own tribes, among ‘people like us’, we sadly have to be a little more suspicious and a little more cynical in our interactions with others. Regretfully the days of automatic trust of the stranger are being taken away from us. Each and every betrayal of others, whether in the church or beyond, weakens the bonds of trust and goodwill that has hitherto bound the church and society together.