Return to Blog

During the weeks of disruption owing to intermittent flu and my house move, I have not been properly able to engage with the seasons of the Church’s year. I am of course aware that today is Good Friday but somehow the events of today have not moved me to write on the theme of the season as they should. Suffering comes in so many forms and the physical pain of Christ on the cross is one incomprehensible extreme of pain. While recognizing this, we need always to remember how many other forms of pain that humanity can experience (and cause). It is futile to say that because one pain is terrible it is somehow ‘worse’ or ‘better’ than another. Every pain is awful in its own way and it is an honourable task for anyone to resist pain and to fight it on behalf of others. This may involve standing up to the powerful who seek to exploit the weak and cause them pain.

The pain of the abused may or may not be physical but it is often life changing and life denying. The Church, especially the Church of England at the moment, is being woken up forcibly to the experience of individuals who have been abused in the past having their lives sometimes ruined in the process. The particular story which stuck out for me in the past seven days was the story of a woman, Dr McFarlane, who was sexually abused at the age of 16 some 40 years ago by clergyman in the Chichester diocese. The part of the account that stood out was the fact that she had had to spend £40,000 of her own money on lawyers to prompt the church to act. This would require a grit and determination that many victims would simply not have. During the process which led to these expenses being recovered together with a further £40,000 damages, Dr McFarlane had to endure two hours of hostile questioning by a psychiatrist who was trying to undermine her story on behalf of the insurance company. It was later admitted afterwards that the approach of the company and its lawyers allowed ‘limited scope for personal and sensitive engagement’. During the questioning, according to The Times, it was suggested to her that she, was at the age of 16, somehow a complicit consenting partner to the parish priest who abused her. Two things come from the story which give us grounds for hope. The first thing is that the Church of England may realise that it cannot ever again be a party to such appalling abuse that took place through the aggressive questioning by the lawyers of a church insurance company. The second hopeful part of the story is that Dr McFarlane has not had to sign in any confidentiality clause. Rather she has persuaded the church that there needs to be a ‘protocol review meeting’. This will potentially change completely the way that sexual abuse issues are handled in the future. If claims for damages against a body within the Church of England are made, there will be a fresh approach which does not resemble the ordeal faced by Dr McFarlane and no doubt many others in the past.

It is also clear this past week that the case of Bishop Peter Ball will not go away. I have further thoughts about the dynamic in the church at the time which made his abuse possible but I will keep that for a separate blog posting. Both Ball’s case and the McFarlane case create considerable upheaval in the church as to the way the church has to deal with skeletons in the cupboard. Each case that emerges from the past is another blow to its reputation but also its financial stability. With many parishes up and down the country unable to pay their quota, it would be a disaster if, for example, all individual parishes had to pay additional premiums to cover themselves from legal claims for past abuse. The insurance companies, as we have seen above, can no longer protect themselves from claims by aggressive cynical lawyers. If they adopt the approach of pastoral sensitive understanding of these claims, they will have to set aside far more money to meet future claims.

The Church of England at last appears to ‘get it’ over the area of sexual abuse by its officers and clergy, past and present. It can no longer pretend by obstruction, intimidation or denial that these things are not happening. This owning up will be extremely expensive, both financially and in terms of its reputation. The next stage may well be when the church begins to recognise that people, especially the vulnerable, may have been abused in a whole variety of other ways within a church context. This blog has identified many other ways that power is and has been abused in church settings which has nothing to do with sex. Were the potential tsunami of claims against the church for historic sexual abuse to begin to include all the other forms of abuse which this blog identifies, the Church as an institution might not be able even to survive. Will the people in the pew be willing to pay for many new legal claims against the church for the sins of the past?

This blog post does point to a somewhat gloomy future for the Church of England if even a small amount of the pain and suffering inflicted by its leaders in the past were to be deemed worthy of legal redress. There is however hope that this wave of claims of abuse could be neutralized. This would involve a fresh understanding of the way that power abuse takes place within all institutions. I for one detect an incredible naivete among bishops, clergy and laity about the likely effect when unsupervised leaders work in an institution which lacks accountability. My own expertise, such as it is, would not pretend to be able to diagnose every part of the processes that lead some clergy to abuse, bully or misuse their power in some way. I just know that it happens frequently and that there are models within the psychiatric literature which offer some explanations of what is going on. Some of these I understand and I continue to struggle with new theories all the time.

Next time I want to reflect a further on why a culture existed that protected so many miscreants in the church from challenge and arrest. I also want report on the latest developments at Trinity Brentwood. Meanwhile it is good to be back and I hope my readers enjoy a peaceful and joyful Easter.

About Stephen Parsons

Stephen is a retired Anglican priest living at present in Northumberland. He has taken a special interest in the issues around health and healing in the Church but also when the Church is a place of harm and abuse. He has published books on both these issues and is at present particularly interested in understanding the psychological aspects of leadership and follower-ship in the Church. He is always interested in making contact with others who are concerned with these issues.

8 thoughts on “Return to Blog

  1. Oh, I’m glad you’re back for all kinds of reasons. Have you moved far? And I’m glad you’re well again. And Happy Easter. Are we sure that the church is up to speed on current allegations? I have a Bishop who only believes in false allegations. real ones don’t seem to be on his horizon. the past is one thing. Is the CofE guilty of convincing itself that it couldn’t happen again?

  2. Thanks English Athena. We have moved over the border into the Newcastle diocese, near where we used to live. We have found a smaller brand-new house which is very efficient in an eco way. The difficulty was finding a house with a fourth bedroom (I have to have a study!) within our budget. This house was only on the market for a matter of hours so we were lucky to get it. It has been very hard work with the aftermath of flu. The village church is friendly and the Vicar was a contemporary of my daughter at university (and is bright). So things are looking promising and my energy levels are returning to normal.
    As to your comment about the Church being up to speed, the answer is probably not. But this protocol review meeting will be watched carefully by many people and one thing that cannot be tolerated is the attitude of ‘no change’ We will see. I am preparing a piece on why bishops cannot tolerate the thought that people like themselves can do terrible things. There is a fascinating revelation in the Church Times this week that Peter Ball in 1992 never tried to hide his guilt but the church seems to have been unable to cope with the implications of that guilt.

  3. Hope your new vicar doesn’t frustrate you! You must be near the former Dean Of Durham, posts under “northern wool gatherer”. No spaces.

  4. Stephen, a Newbie here, who is being buoyed up by your blog.
    Yes, to “a fresh understanding of the way that power abuse takes place within all institutions. I for one detect an incredible naivete among bishops, clergy and laity about the likely effect when unsupervised leaders work in an institution which lacks accountability.” And that is so true.
    For a while, I was working on abuse (bullying) within the aviation industry, and have also worked in the NHS where coercion takes place. Recently, a new discipline has emerged that has its roots in safety systems within aviation and is applying them to the NHS. If we approached the organisation called ‘the church’ as a system, then we would be able to apply the systems approach there too.
    Aviation is currently undergoing the exposee of a systems failure on board aircraft, where gases leak from the engines into the cabin. Thus injuring people, pilots included. The industry kept denying that it happened, and that no-one was made ill. I approached the problem by calling a Conference. I did all the work on my laptop. What I did was call together all of the experts on the subject PLUS those who had been injured. It made for a spectacular conference, even though I say it myself!!! People wouldn’t leave at the end, and then we decanted to a pub. Since then, the papers written for the conference have been published, publicity is out, I also published in Hansard.
    If your heart is sinking because of ‘post-flu body’ put this idea in the pending tray because if there is a naivete among bishops, clergy and laity about the likely effect when unsupervised leaders work in an institution which lacks accountability, that should be the name of the conference (more or less – probably less). Media should be invited for the duration so that they can discuss with participants and see what goes wrong where unsupervised leaders work in an institution which lacks accountability. Call in a Bishop or two; academics; organisations that work to brings these ideas together. I wouldn’t mind presenting on safety systems and would get someone else to present on transferring them to a different type of organisation.
    Just a thought. Am I reinventing the wheel? Do you know of any such conferences or seminars? I know the Methodists have a regular Conference. Other conferences that I’ve noticed are specifically for children and young people. What I have in mind is the older age-groups. Maybe 30s onward? I would want to include the group in the ageing population who are disregarded due to ageism, or, as I have seen, “too well qualified” and so they get shunned…ever so nicely….but shunned all the same.
    Now I feel guilty. Please get some rest.

    1. If you wanted to latch on to an existing conference, each CofE Diocese may have a conference fairly regularly. Though I know of one that had none during the entire reign of one bishop!

      1. Thanks. I’m looking specifically for a Conference on Bullying / harassment. I’ve just found out that a friend is offering a paper in a New Zealand Conference. Unfortunately, it clashes with a previous engagement. Dhuh…

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