Australian perspectives on church abuse. Part 1

austrALIA MAPI have much pleasure in providing through this blog a contribution on the topic of church abuse from the other side of the world. In Britain and the States, it seems that abuse in churches is only taken seriously when it crosses the line into criminality. Surviving Church blog stands for a far more inclusive approach to the issue of abuse, claiming that the word must be used for any misuse of power in a Christian context. This Guest Blog is an introduction to the way that Australian churches have begun to tackle this issue, indicating that both society and the church leadership are decades ahead of churches elsewhere in the world in this area. This may be a kind of beacon for churches who want to be ahead of societal attitudes in respect of power abuse. We need to show that bullying, humiliation and any kind of coercive control are unacceptable in a church context, just as they are being legally outlawed in a domestic context in the UK.

‘Currently’, Christine Standing our guest writer tells us, ‘the Australian Churches – both the Anglican Communion and Catholic Church – are leading the way out of a dark time in Church history where abuse is still ignored and child sexual abuse is in the process of being addressed – slowly. This is Part 1 of my letter to the UK Anglican Church from the Antipodes. I trust it brings hope. Part 2 will address the Historical Formalities that have been set in place, and Part 3, the outworking of these changes at Parish level.’

Leadership and Consequences
by Christine Standing

Leadership has consequences. Choose your leader wisely “for he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid, for he beareth not the sword in vain; for he is the minister of God, an avenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.” (Romans 13.4) The mystic in me says, Amen to that for patience under suffering can work miracles. Yet we see that slavery in Egypt had its limits: “The LORD said unto Moses, Go in unto Pharaoh, and tell him, Thus saith the LORD God of the Hebrews, Let my people go, that they may serve me. (my emphasis)” (Exodus 9:1) It is ironic that while Moses’ was on leave of absence up on Mount Sinai, his brother Aaron took over leadership with its hallmark of idolatry. This was not the ‘serving me’ that God had in mind for His people’s freedom. It strikes me that how, or whether, we are serving God becomes a test of our leaders by priests and laity alike.

Do church leaders help us to serve God; or do they take us into idolatry? Do they model Jesus Christ; or do they insist that we worship their own image and likeness?

In 2009, headlines in the Australian newspaper, Sydney Morning Herald emerged: “Prickly, obnoxious bishop must go, say alienated priests” Anglican clergy in Ballarat made a move that was a first in the church’s Australian history. They accused Bishop Michael Hough of bullying and harassment that had damaged relations beyond repair. The clergy said that at least half the diocesan priests had made formal complaints. Abusive emails Bishop Hough had sent to various clergy marked ‘strictly personal and confidential’ were described as “long, denigrating and abusive … “When he gets upset with a priest, he sends a long, denigrating and abusive email marked ‘strictly personal and confidential’. It was when we got together we found a whole series of people had been treated that way.”” It is not only the overt actions that do harm, the sense of isolation can be destructive too and how can clergy serve their congregations well if they are in the grip of such harm?

Bishop Hough is described as, “gracious and charming in public but vindictive and vitriolic in private”; a peculiar cross between Australia’s two best-known bishops, Sydney’s Catholic cardinal George Pell and Anglican archbishop Peter Jensen; he could be “incredibly pastoral but if people rub him the wrong way there can be a different response”.

The pictures emerges of a polarised personality. On the one hand, “a great teacher, a visionary, but he needs people around him who can manage people” but on the other hand he was also a “difficult, obnoxious, prickly person who has poor people skills and an abrasive manner. He upsets people. Bishops are usually urbane, empathetic people” not Jekyll and Hyde.

For his part, Bishop Hough when asked if he were a bully, responded with humour: “That’s like, ‘Have you stopped beating your wife?’ I’m not an orthodox bishop in terms of style. I get out and about the people. I’m not a bully, I’m not about harassment, but I expect clergy to get out there. You can’t spend all day writing a sermon.” Bishop Hough asserted that the priests were “a small group of malcontents unable to adapt to the changing church.” Asked if he might resign or be removed, he said: “Not a chance. I’d have to do a lot worse than what they are accusing me of. Traditionally, it’s the big ones, adultery, theft, heresy” and possibly in an appeal to Romans 13 stated: “I think God put me here and the people of God in the diocese want me here.”

Humour can be a psychological defence. A sparky person can distract from the main theme, and speaking generally, can gloss over the serious matter of abuse. This is avoidance. Keep the person on track!

The story so far is polarised. We have hurt and disaffected priests and laity on the one hand, and on the other a Bishop confident in his God-given role; confident that the status quo historically left him without blame or consequence; and minimising those he had hurt. The Age stated, ”at least two Anglican dioceses in Australia, growing numbers of clergy and laity are in open revolt against their local Bishop” and the “Bishop of The Murray in South Australia, Ross Davies…has been under siege from his clergy, and laity, for at least two years.” All of this was “much to the embarrassment of the church’s increasingly inadequate national leadership.” Aaron seems to have been left in charge of the Church and the resultant lack of moral courage.

Here, we are a far cry from the release offered by the words “Let my people go, that they may serve me.” It is as if leadership had descended from the mountain only to find that under the bishop’s leadership, golden calf, idolatry, and all are in full sway.

What to do?
The Anglican Church at this time was at a loss to know what to do. A anonymous priest noted: ”if these circumstances were happening in the private sector, the CEO would have been stood down. Unfortunately, it’s beyond mediation.” Here, we see private sector thinking brought in to move the church forward.

The task was given to primate and chancellor, Melbourne QC Michael Shand, who was said to be “trying desperately to find a way forward.” Finally, it was referred to the newly-formed national Episcopal Standards Commission at Ballarat’s synod council where it was “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.” The Catholic CathNews took an interest. Added to which the church now faced “weeks of highly unfavourable media coverage and months more of increasingly dysfunctional behaviour within an important diocese.” Golden calves are expensive.

When asked if he would resign to save the investigation costs, Bishop Hough said: “I’m not sure why I would go. Whatever garbage went on at the synod, our business is preaching the gospel and building the church, and I’m an integral part of it. There’s a lot of exciting stuff going on….I don’t have time to muck around with this. I’m too busy on God’s business”. On December 21, 2010 headlines read: “Departing bishop takes hammer to bitter chalice”. During a service, he literally took a hammer to his chalice and smashed it in what some interpreted as a bitter act of defiance.

Ballarat finance committee chairman Vernon Robson said the conflict had been divisive and had created uncertainty, and that “in the interest of all the parties,” the investigation should proceed with the church making “the necessary resources available.” Here, we see that money talks. Financial considerations and bad publicity for the Anglican Church in Australia became the impetus for what followed.

I have taken time to explain what led to the formal changes because I believe that many priests and laity who have been subjected to abuse will be able to relate to elements in this story. It has been a story of intractable difficulties which were, finally resolved and have had the endorsement of Law. Future targets of abuse will be able to avail themselves of the ground that has been gained here.

“Let my people go, that they may serve me” was not to be an informal in-house arrangement. The formal steps that were taken is outlined in Part 2.

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.

7 thoughts on “Australian perspectives on church abuse. Part 1

  1. I was amused in a grim sort of way by your description of a pink, frilly and flouncy priest demanding kisses. (I assume a woman!) I quite like hugs and kisses, but in theory, you should be able to say no. I’ve known two woman priests who were inclined to trap you into an embrace that you didn’t welcome! Though that’s a different sort of manipulation.
    Thanks for your explication of the Australian situation. And interesting that the Bishop was challenged about bullying and denied it. I wonder if a Bishop of my acquaintance has had a similar experience? He did the speech, “Some people might say I’m a bully, but I totally refute that”. Methinks he doth protest too much. Looking forward to parts 2 and 3.

  2. Thanks EnglishAthena. Yes, there is a grim smile to be had in that. At the psychological level, can too much of the saccharine be a mask? And, exactly, we should be able to say no but don’t we find it difficult! How to extricate from the matronly grasp! Actually, I hadn’t realised how much ‘theatre’ goes into these moment. This is subtle stuff but we do tend to know when ‘performance’ has too much theatricality about it.

    And, yes the denial about bullying that was turned into a joke. What defences do we employ when that happens?

  3. For anyone confused, I worked out that the pink and flouncy priest story actually refers to a comment on the post “Church of England moves on Abuse”. Interestingly, I read it as the priest doling out kisses in a manipulative way, rather than demanding them… Christine’s comment could be read either way I think. The manipulativeness is the same in both cases, and the way the story points to the subtlety of abuse by neglect.

    1. You’re right ! Dolling kisses out as a means of manipulation and control. You have to be in the ‘in group’ to get them. The signal is, if you don’t get the attention, the pink wonderland, you are in the ‘out group’ and to be shunned .

  4. It’s pretend affection, whether they incline a cheek or fling themselves at you! I guessed that Christine’s priest was exchanging in a completely consensual way! But only with the favoured ones. Who glowed nicely.

    1. It is! Manipulation and control, I allege. We ‘get it’ yet there are still Dioceses that don’t. There is a growing number that do.

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