Church of England moves on abuse

Sarah-Mullally-1080x675Tucked away on page 4 of the Church Times this week was a story of great interest to the concerns of this blog. The House of Bishops which met last week have approved sweeping changes in the way that sexual abuse reports are dealt with in the Church of England. This follows a report, called the Elliot report, which was responding to an individual victim called ‘Joe’. He was sexually abused by a senior churchman, Chancellor Garth Moore. Joe’s particular complaint against the church was that he felt that no one wanted to listen to him, especially the senior members of the hierarchy. Charged with responding to this Elliott report, Bishop Sarah Mullaly, Bishop of Crediton, recommended to the bishops that procedures in responding to victims should be comprehensively revised. The church’s safeguarding procedures are described as ‘fundamentally flawed’. Among her recommendations was one which prevents insurance companies blocking the provision of pastoral support for victims. Joe also commented on the fact that since the publication of the Elliott report in March there has been complete silence on the part of the bishops. It seems now that through the promptings of Bishop Sarah, the same bishops have now pledged their support for all the reforms suggested by the Elliott report.

The implications of this story are profound. In the first place it is likely that the bishops will have to agree on procedures which apply right across England. No individual bishop can be allowed to hide behind his or her locally defined understanding of the needs of his/her diocese. In other words, no bishop, for example, will be allowed to protect an individual when credible accusations of abuse are made. We have seen how one particular diocese in England, Chichester, harboured (protected?) a disproportionate number of clergy who had aroused suspicions in the area of sexual abuse. Bishops in the future will no longer be able to exercise discretion in this area. They will all be committed to following guidelines set down by a centrally appointed safeguarding committee.

A second development which dovetails into this news from the House of Bishops is that all the safeguarding officers in the Church of England were recently addressed on the subject of spiritual abuse. These officers have traditionally been charged with the protection of children and vulnerable adults within each diocese. It is likely that these Diocesan officers will be alert, along with their Bishops, to a potential future wave of accusations asserting abuse which do not involve sex. All the bishops from the Archbishop downwards must be aware that accusations of this kind which are not properly investigated could give rise to expensive legal cases in the future. The church has already had to face up to expensive pay-outs for victims of sexual abuse. Church leaders must realise that any abuse, and this blog is full of examples, is potentially a very expensive matter for the institution as a whole. Leaders, bishops, safeguarding officers and clergy, need to have a proper understanding of the way that abuse is not just about sex but it is more fundamentally about power and emotional exploitation.

The survivor, Joe, who was the subject of the Elliott Report was also abused by a Franciscan friar who later became a bishop, one Michael Fisher. It is interesting that the abuse there is described as ‘emotional’ rather than to do with sex. This single word would suggest that both the Report and the bishops who had it analysed and unpacked for them by Bishop Sarah are finally beginning to get it. From these two directions we now have the stage reached where emotional exploitation and spiritual abuse are entering the vocabulary and thinking of all the bishops of the Church of England. This is progress indeed! What would I, as editor of this blog, like to see happening next?

The first thing that it is important for everyone to understand is that power abuse exists on a continuum. Whether it is acted out through a boss shouting at an employee or a deviant exploiting a vulnerable child, power abuse is endemic in almost every part of our society. It is acted out in firms, families and institutions of all kinds. For centuries it has been tolerated, even condoned as part of the way that things are. Women in particular have got used to the idea that the can be humiliated, belittled or, on occasion, sexually abused by people who believe that they have power over them. The first thing that needs to be challenged is the all too ready tolerance of destructive power games that exists in so many places. In particular, power games need to be exposed and challenged in church settings. We need to be reminded constantly of Jesus’s words: ‘In the world rulers lord it over their subjects… but it shall not be so among you. Whoever wants to be first must be the willing slave of all.’

The second part of a hypothetical educational process for bishops and others who wish to understand how power abuse should be challenged, is to learn to recognise the personality profiles of those who are most likely to engage in this kind of behaviour. I said something about this in my previous blog post and I would refer the reader back to that. Fundamentally the principle of power abuse can be summed up in a few sentences. The person who exercises inappropriate power over another person is likely to be someone who in the course of their lives have had their personality undermined by bullying. Exercising gratuitous power is a way of trying to recover what has been lost. Such narcissistic behaviour is an attempt to make up for the deficit in the individual’s self-esteem.

The third part of a fantasised address to senior churchman about power abuse, would be to point out how the institution itself seems to encourage narcissistic behaviour. Thus even those who began ministry with a sincere desire to serve rather than dominate may fall into the trap of behaving in a way that seeks to put others down. The language of promotion, preferment and hierarchy in the Church of England is all calculated to encourage narcissistic tendencies in susceptible individuals. To counter this there should be a strong emphasis on every clergyman having a mentor, one of whose primary tasks is to check self-inflation. Out of such tendencies to want importance, there comes the desire to misuse the power that has been given them.

I have every hope that Bishop Sarah Mullaly will prove to be a key person to understand these dynamics in the church and among the clergy. I have always believed that a tendency for narcissism is less often found in women. Thus she may find it easier to identify these power-seeking tendencies among her fellow clergy, especially the male variety. Bishop Sarah’s name came up in one of the comments on this blog recently and I am hoping that she may be directed to the existence of this blog. There is certainly plenty I would have to say to her in encouraging her in this vital task of educating the bishops of the Church of England in a fresh understanding of power abuse in the church. If these tendencies are unchecked or unchallenged, they could destroy or extensively damage the institution. Other churches will be helped with their own issues on power abuse if the Church of England were to set an example and get its act together to understand what is going on. I certainly hope so.

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.

27 thoughts on “Church of England moves on abuse

  1. Thank you, an excellent article. As you say here and in other posts, not all abuse in church is sexual in nature. Reflecting on this, I feel all types of abuse in church contexts come under the overall heading of “spiritual abuse” because, simply put, the Church’s remit is a spiritual one – viz to witness to the love of God in Christ and the work of the Spirit, and to teach people about their identity as beloved sons and daughters of a heavenly Father. So when things go wrong in a given church – whether of a sexual, financial, emotional or other nature – people will experience the same as they would in a secular context but are also at risk of taking the abuse to heart at a deeper and more distressing level. As I see it, if unjust situations persist in church life and there is no-one one can safely tell about things that have been happening, one begins to question not just one’s judgement and sense of personal worth but the organisation itself and the truths it has taught and, potentially, one’s spiritual identity and destiny – areas invisible in the secular realm (the police, the fire service, schools, the NHS and so on). In other words, things unravel from the core when there is unresolved abuse in the Church. So, though the secular world can be held to account for any number of tragedies and abuses (religious persecution included), the one thing it cannot be guilty of is spiritual abuse since its remit does not include teaching people about their identity in Christ – whereas, in my view, the Church can because that is its raison d’être. So I think it’s an excellent thing that the bishops are discussing abuse in the Church, what constitutes abuse, the notion and language of spiritual abuse, accountability in the church, and where to go next. Thank you for bringing this to light.

  2. Thank you Stephen for drawing our attention to that which was “tucked away on page 4 of the Church Times this week”. I found it heartening.

    Eleanor, I couldn’t agree more: ” all types of abuse in church contexts come under the overall heading of “spiritual abuse” because, simply put, the Church’s remit is a spiritual one” and context is everything where we are trying to interpret meaning. It demonstrates to me that, while the secular world is leading the way on these issues, there is a different slant when we are speaking from within the church about the church.

    I don’t know how some churches go about discovering whether abuse such as bullying has taken place. I know that in some quarters a Committee is drawn up which comprises a psychologist among others. Where power and emotional exploitation is happening the question has to asked, ‘what drives that person?’ Sure, maybe it is a ‘power trip’ but that alone tells us nothing really. Narcissism is a specific category of Personality Disorder. Psychology Today notes: Narcissists cut a wide, swashbuckling figure through the world. At one end of the self-loving spectrum is the charismatic leader with an excess of charm, whose only vice may be his or her inflated amour-propre. At the far end of the spectrum reside individuals with narcissistic personality disorder, whose grandiosity soars to such heights that they are manipulative and easily angered, especially when they don’t receive the attention they consider their birthright.” I think the problem for Selection Committees for the priesthood is that they assess these individuals before their illness can soar to such grandiose heights. Being IN the priesthood may feed narcissism where it is dormant.

  3. Eleanor. It was good to read your comment. Of course all church abuse is spiritual abuse but we have to subdivide because some abuse is criminal and some not. The Church has focused on the criminal end of the spectrum but is less interested (so far) on the spiritual abuse that is not criminal. For the time being, I think, we need to separate out these two forms of abuse, the criminal and non-criminal, to prevent people getting the wrong end of the stick. Even the word ‘abuse’ is reacted to with many misunderstandings. Some people only equate abuse with sex or violence. The law is beginning to catch up here with its notion of ‘coercion and control’. We are not disagreeing but I want to retain more subdivisions in the way I describe things.
    Christine. We are such a long way from the kind of investigations you are suggesting when the church has barely started talking about bullying and spiritual abuse. The time for investigating committees is when the church authorities begin to talk about the whole issue and it really has not started yet. It is however heartening for me that there is a small light on the horizon which was not there five years ago. I detect a greater sensitivity to these issues from a variety of sources, but we are still in the very, very early days.

    1. All church abuse is spiritual abuse as well as the other “secular” components. Doesn’t the law recognise emotional abuse these days, and isn’t that the same in non theological terms?
      I’m glad you highlighted this article, Stephen. I had seen it, but assumed that nothing would happen for years, if ever. Let’s pray that is not the case.
      By the way, could people pray for me. I have been offered a chat “to off load”. The person concerned is kind hearted and well intentioned. But my brief chat so far suggest that they are the kind of person that jumps in before you have finished speaking with a suggested solution. Cycle of reflection anyone? Going straight to “action” before fact finding and reflecting? “Have you thought of . . .?” “Why not speak to the Warden…?” Oh come on! I’ve done all that, it didn’t work! So if people could pray that I will keep my temper and my manners! It won’t help my relationship with the people in power here if (s)he can report that I was rude!

      1. OK. I’ve cracked starting italics, but not ending. “as well as” was supposed to be in italics, the rest in normal.

        1. Doesn’t the law recognise emotional abuse these days, and isn’t that the same in non theological terms? Here, Domestic Violence Laws in Australia, state “1.28. Some jurisdictions’ legislation expressly includes ‘emotional abuse’ or ‘psychological abuse’ as a form of domestic violence. Broadly, these terms relate to behaviour by a person towards another person such as tormenting, intimidating or harassing the other person, for example by making repeated derogatory taunts. The legislation in some jurisdictions where ‘emotional abuse’ or ‘psychological abuse’ are not expressly dealt with nevertheless covers at least some kinds of conduct that could be described by those terms.”

          It is thought that such domestic violence laws will transfer to churches too. Certainly, if my experience so far is anything to go by that is now the case. Bullying is indeed being taken seriously by the Diocese.

          The chat to offload sounds like a good idea. Has the person got qualifications? Have you ascertained that this has come from the Diocese? In other words, is this offered by the Diocese or is it an informal arrangement ? The arrangement can, but might not be, a ‘duty of care’ issue because of a potential case. That’s OK but it could be a good idea to clarify. Here in Aus the Diocese offers such pastoral counselling where bullying is alleged but states that it is separate i.e. the counsellor is not in touch with the Diocese about what he or she hears.

          You know, it’s quite alright to tell a counsellor that they are jumping in before you’ve finished speaking. The counsellor/counselee relationship is exactly that, a relationship and you have a say in how that goes. If you think that you might lose your temper over this perhaps it is best to say something early on, when it first starts, rather than leaving it until you feel the temper rising? Forewarned is forearmed! All the best with it.

  4. Thanks Stephen. You in the UK may be a long way from the kind of investigation I mentioned but here in Australia a case against a Bishop has cost the Anglican church dearly:

    “An Anglican bishop is being officially investigated for misconduct in an unprecedented case that could cost the Australian church nearly a third of its financial reserves.
    An independent investigator will examine allegations of bullying and harassment by Ballarat bishop Michael Hough against clergy and laypeople in his diocese.
    The Ballarat diocese chancellor, Michael Shand, QC, announced the decision by the Episcopal Standards Commission at Ballarat’s synod council on Friday.
    It has been estimated the investigation by Sydney lawyer Geoff Kelly will cost about $400,000. Depending on his findings, the commission will set up a tribunal with power to depose the bishop — also unprecedented in Australian history — which could cost another $350,000. Mr Shand told the synod this would be paid by the national office.”

    I think this has exercised minds!

    There is in Perth Diocese, WA., a Policy document for Complaints Procedures. It sets out the guidelines for making complaints and what is to be expected. There is a Complaints Committee:

    A Complaints Committee will be appointed by Diocesan Council and will perform functions as described by the Policy. The purpose of this Committee will be to hear the complaint independently so that an unbiased and objective decision or recommendation is made.
    The Chair of the Committee should be a Professional Mediator or Person with extensive people management skills.
    Membership of the Committee should include a Member of Clergy, at least one man and at least one woman and, where possible, should include a psychologist.
    The Director of Professional Standards shall be the Executive Officer.

    I am impressed. I’ll send you a full copy if you give me your email address. I’d like to know if there is anything like it in the UK.

    1. Thank you Christine. I am impressed. Does anyone know if there are any mechanisms in the UK for investigating non-criminal complaints of abuse in the Church? I somehow doubt it but I would love to be proved wrong. This Australian precedent will have repercussions but it may take a year or two. If, Christine, you would like to write up this case more fully, then I will gladly include it as a guest blog post. My email address is on the front of the blog. Another Australian ‘first’ is the Royal commission on child sexual abuse in churches. The Jehovah’s Witnesses, as I understand it, came out of the questioning fairly lamentably. We in the UK are hosting our own enquiry but it will be several years before anything appears in print. Once again this would make a good guest post, if there is material about the impact of this Commission on main-stream churches. When is it to be published?

      1. My experience suggests there is not. Twenty years, and no-one has ever pointed me in that direction. On the contrary, mostly people suggest that it would not be morally right for me to pursue such matters in that way. Of course, firstly, I only have real experience of two Dioceses, and as, mentioned in the blog, each Bishop is Lord in his own Diocese, and therefore operates completely independently. It means among other things that they cannot learn from each other unless they are prepared to admit to a problem to another Bishop over the coffee table! You say Chichester has been the worst, but I wouldn’t think Gloucester has been too hot.

  5. Thanks Stephen. Shall do.

    Last week, I went to a training event for the world first Safeguarding Project to learn what is to be included. It was led by a policewoman who has been appointed by the Catholic Church

    Safeguarding Officers can be drawn from non-Catholic Churches too.

    The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has a webpage which is pretty comprehensive:

  6. I’ve mentioned before that the new protection officer has not contacted me, even though in theory I must be on their files. So I wonder if now they’ve been on a course I can look forward to an email? In my experience in the shared car on the way home, most people (laity as well as clergy) tend to go away from a course with exactly what they came with!
    I’m no shrink, but I am not totally convinced that narcissism is the only reason for bullying, nor that all bullies have been bullied and have been damaged in some way. I think we all have that kind of behaviour in us, in a way. We are chimpanzees, after all. I think some bullies are just nasty people, and I think some have never really thought about what they have probably been told is “strong leadership”. This is true in secular life, too.

  7. Hi. Your first paragraph: If I were you I’d take the initiative and contact them.

    Second para: You’re right. Narcissism in not the only reason behind bullying. Nor have all bullies been bullied – not that such a thing would excuse them. Another reason, which you touch on is that they are simply unregenerate. I am currently working on a piece that outlines the many ‘roots of bullying’. Currently, it is turning into a magnum opus! One thing I keep returning to is how on earth some people went forward to selection and training when references MIGHT have weeded out the unregenerate; mentally fragile; theatrical; odd; prickly; and so on. Maybe it’s time to hold accountable those who gave glowing references where non was warranted.

    1. All references can be seen nowadays. And you can be sued! That cramps people’s style. The alternative is the confidential phone call. I am not the only one who would consider that to be potentially immoral. How can it be accountable? You could say anything!

  8. Sorry, it’s me again. There’s a lot in your blog, Stephen, and I keep thinking of more points. Firstly, yes, women have had to get used to being treated worse. A slap on the bum, a remark that is unkind and then the comment, “Oh, it was only a joke!”, so now it’s your fault for not having a sense of humour. But I beg to differ about “identifying types”. You cannot and should not be punished before you actually do something. Protection and prevention are always the problem with abuse, and indeed crime. But the people who do bad things cannot easily be identified. They look just like you and me. Sometimes they are you and me.

  9. At last a distant bell tolls. Spiritual abuse is real! Now who is going to challenge the turn or burn brigade and help the victims?

    I accept my betrayal, I believed men not, God.

  10. Thanks for everyone’s prayers and thoughts. The chat went well. Quite merry in patches, as the lady in question turned out to be quite the raconteur, complete with funny voices and impressions of her first incumbent, and the train passengers when she went for an interview in my old Diocese! And she didn’t jump in, and she made it abundantly clear that she regarded the matter as confidential. That was important, as I’ve known a lot of situations where clergy have not kept my confidences. An hour and a half, you can’t cover everything. We never got on to “after all that I was hoping for a little love”. But very useful and pleasant.

  11. Good to hear, EA! On the way to better things, hopefully. I’ve come home feeling more cheerful than for some time, after also having a very pleasant and encouraging conversation about my situation.

    1. It won’t make any difference. The person concerned has no power. I want someone to do something a) for me and b) about the situation. However emotionally helpful a conversation may be, if the person has no power, neither of those things are going to happen. But I’m glad things are turning upwards for you. I’ve had you on my prayer list for a long time. I was very concerned. All the best, sis.

  12. Hoping we see the same here in the US. I serve as a diocesan misconduct prevention and training instructor, but all we address is sex. I can also tell you that I have faced serious emotional and financial abuse from clergy, and to date the diocese not only ignores the issue — it blames me.

    1. VA Episcopalian Thank you for this piece of information. I love your job title! The fact that misconduct is defined for you by someone else other than you, the prevention officer, must drag heavily. How dare anyone tell you that sex is the only form of misconduct that happens and needs to be prevented! Do you meet with similarly named officials across the States? Do they suffer from the same restrictions? It seems that the UK and the US Anglicans will be traipsing over to Australia to have the abuse strategies there explained to us. It is in fact a crazy situation that we have such a narrow definition of abuse. When we hear from Christine about her Australian experiences, we may be able to get a more coherent picture of how the Anglican church is failing its members in two English speaking major provinces in this aspect of church life. We may be able to use the Australian material to lobby our respective establishments. Stay with us VA Episcopalian. This agenda will be explored over the months and your experience will be invaluable to the argument. I am beginning to see the focus of a ‘political’ approach to the subject is for us to keep saying that the bishops must widen their understanding of abuse. A slogan along the lines of ‘Power abuse in the church is about more than sex’ needs to be shouted at full volume at all who will listen.

    2. Blaming the victim is standard fare, as you know, VA. Stay strong, you’re right. My current Bishop doesn’t believe in bullying either! Meaning he thinks it doesn’t happen. He worries about false accusations! It’s hard when you seem to be alone, though. I’m sure we will all pray for you. This cross fertilisation is very useful. Maybe something will happen that will help us all.

  13. Hi VA. Sorry to hear about your experiences.

    The title “diocesan misconduct prevention and training instructor” sure will attract the bullies. It also seems that if all you address is sex (I assume you mean sexual abuse) those guilty of abuse of a non-sexual nature will keep themselves clear of allegations of abuse themselves.

    I am about to send in my drafts to Stephen but from your story so far I’d say that people cannot make up their own definitions. There should be some reference to abuse and/or bullying somewhere in your regulations with definitions. Do you have access to such regulations online?

    For instance, the Episcopal Standards Commission has this definition:

    “abuse” to mean “bullying, emotional abuse, harassment, physical abuse, neglect, sexual abuse or spiritual abuse”

    I like this list because it puts sexual abuse in there with other forms of abuse, thus making it harder to ignore the other forms. And I echo Stephen’s slogan – ‘Power abuse in the church is about more than sex’.

    I’m sure your contributions will help us to formulate a useful agenda for the future.

    1. Now that’s useful. Good to see neglect in there. I have always felt it was a form of bullying. Favouritism is its conjoined twin.

      1. How perceptive of you EnglishAthena. I was recently in a Communion Service which held a very enlarged version of The Peace, during which time the vicar would flounce up to her favourites, all kiss-kissy, pink ribbons and unicorns, whispers and confidential smiles, whilst ignoring (here’s your conjoined twin) those who were out of favour, standing flat-footed in the pews. It is like watching a playground re-enactment in a school where gangs roamed.

        Funny how that saccharine sweetness can hold its sinister opposite, isn’t it?

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