Identifying with evil

de-peoplelikeusSome 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.

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.

9 thoughts on “Identifying with evil

  1. Ah, yes. The idea that people who do bad things are in some way different. With the corollary that if they aren’t different, that means they didn’t do the bad things! People who do bad things look just like you and me, sometimes they are you and me. I get really fed up of the way clergy stick up for each other even when they know the other guy is wrong. (With some honourable exceptions, Stephen!)
    Things were different not so long ago though. I don’t mean it used to be ok to abuse children! I mean, it used to be the case that you couldn’t do anything unless the victim agreed to let you, and they often didn’t. And also, if it involved older girls, particularly, there was the double standard that a woman who had sex was a slag, while a chap was just doing what came naturally. What was probably precocious sexual behaviour due to abuse was taken as evidence that the girl was no better than she should be. And I must say, I have seen boys behaving in a sexually knowing way, too. How to protect a child who doesn’t entirely act like a child? There’s still a lot of it about. I mean, the assumption that it’s kind of ok if the child says yes.

  2. I am not at all surprised that the allegations against Bishop Peter Ball took so long to be properly investigated.

    The ‘Old Boy’ network that has operated in the Church of England has gone far beyond epidemic.
    My experience with Church hierarchies’ is one of absolute indifference.

    The vast distance between ‘Devotee’ and ‘Master’ has an ocean of complexity between it that I reject utterly and with contempt.

    The issue of the church shooting itself in the foot over the thunder of Praise bands ‘Christian Stardom’ and celebrity is to me one of the most bewildering.

    The guardians and protectors lap up theoretical correctness.
    Oh yes, we can talk about ‘Gay Marriage’ at length but, victims of mental and physical abuse (Even those who take their own lives) are not even on the back burner.

    Chris Pitts

  3. Tyu 44

    Thanks EnglishAthena,

    Well, all I can say is I must stick to my guns on this issue. My honest experience is one of utter rejection.

    I speak of countless letters and phone calls to church leaders, promises to; ‘Get back to me as soon as possible’.

    I think I can give some proof of this. As you know Surviving Church blog started after a letter of mine (Mine?) was published in the Church Times. The truth is this, I did not write it! Stephen had to pretty it up, put it in intelligible (Academic?) terms? It went back and forth many, many times before it was begrudgingly put in. So I stick to my guns on this and claim the utter disempowerment of my class and, as a, “Butterfly that escaped the wheel” (Formally, disempowered by illiteracy) dare not let myself hope.

    I believe that from now till I hit Cemetery road, not an inch of progress will be made in real terms on the question of, praise bands, Christian stardom, Christian celebrity, and hyper fundamentalist programming, in out of control fellowship theatres.



  4. I think it is a bit more complicated than “The old boy Nework” and as a fopmer member of the Crown Appointments Commission, I can provide further insight. Peter Ba;; was Bishop of Lewes and when the Brighton Bombing took place he rushed over to Brighton and deeply impressed Margaret Thatcher.
    From then on she used the influence of her Appointments Secretary to get a Diocesan Bishopric for him.The system has now changed, but, at that time, the elected embers of the Commission from the Synod held much more say. (Now there is a process of application and interview,none then.) Some of the members knew about Peter Ball but did not share what they knew with the Appointments staff or the Archbishops. His name came up for every Diocesan Appointment and they did their best to block him.Finally when if came to the Diocese of Gloucester two names were put forward; one who met the needs of the Diocese and the other was Peter Ball. On referral to Downing Stree,t Ball was given reference.So the Diocese was landed with a Bishop who did not meet their needs and he had to resign just after a year in the post. ( I was elected to the Commission after this).
    Since then the whole process has been revised, New Clergy Disciple systems have been put in place (under the old system I was a pastoral advisor trying to help clergy who had been suspended) Also 10 Downing Street has now given up its control of Church appointments and we have seen a strong shift in attitudes to sexual abuse. That is why very many of the Discipline cases, now being dealt with, took place years ago. This is not to say that things are now OK, and the examples given on this blog and In Stephens book “Ungodly Fear” still need to betaken seriously. But things have improved , if only slightly. And where is the control over free and independent and many other sorts of Churches and other faiths? This is something that Governments are not willing to handle but does need more more control other than that provided by existing Criminal law.

  5. Robert, it will definitely happen again. Just a couple of years ago, a cleric was moving to a new diocese. When he was DBS checked, it was discovered he was on the sex offenders register. His previous diocese had never checked. To save money. In fact, it had even been suggested that he did not need the check, since he had been doing the job elsewhere. That this could happen in a era when allegedly everyone knows how important it is, is frankly, unbelievable.

    1. I am not saying it wont happen again.Christians above all should expect sinners to sin but the whole attitude has changed and there is more chance of catching up with people than there was when the approach was totally Laissez faire.
      I sused to be one of the Archbishops’ Pastoral Advisors and recall one meeting when a distinguished Clergyman made the remark “Those of us who hear confessions know it is totally hit and miss as to who gets put on the (black) list.

      1. Confession is a problem. People need to talk safely. But if someone confesses to a crime . . . I’m afraid I stick to my guns. It hasn’t changed anything like enough.

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