Australian perspectives on church abuse part 2

royal-commission-into-child-abuse-newChristine continues with the second part of her presentation of the issues around church abuse from the Australian perspective. We see how the Australian system has not been slow to set out definitions covering abuse in a church context. Interestingly it would appear from Christine’s account that the Anglican Diocese of Worcester in England is also ahead of the game in its definitions of abuse. The statements contain important insights into their understanding of what abuse is. In particular they avoid the confining of abuse to only people who are ‘vulnerable.’ Hopefully we this mark the beginning of a retreat from this somewhat patronising approach to abuse and declares what the author of this blog has known for a long time that the abuse of power in the church can catch up almost anyone in its grip.

Historical Formalities

Anglicans in Australia were amongst the first in Australian history to establish a national institution when they created a General Synod in 1872. The synod had representatives from every diocese and in 1962 was established on a formal constitutional basis as a clearly autonomous part of the Anglican Communion.

One of the functions of the General Synod is to “make Canons, Rules and Resolutions relating to the order and good government of this Church including Canons in respect of ritual, ceremonial and discipline…”. Here, “The Episcopal Standards Commission is responsible for the investigation of complaints against bishops who are subject to the jurisdiction of the Special Tribunal.” It was by then “investigating 13 complaints by clergy and lay people that Bishop Hough bullied them”.

Laity were irritated by what they saw as “the commission’s glacial pace” and lack of comment. When leading layman Euan Thompson wrote in March complaining that justice delayed was justice denied, commission director Christopher Thomas replied that justice hurried was also justice denied.” This impasse was to be broken. The Australians, under a member of the Ballarat Cathedral Council formed a lay lobby group called BLAB (Ballarat Laity Against Bullying) to show the commission that lay people were serious and to put a petition to the Ballarat synod later [that] month calling on Bishop Hough to resign.

In 2010 the Bishop took sickness leave. He departed his post in the same year. Thus the messy business of removing a contentious priest was brought to and end. A new era now emerged for potential complainants. This was due in part to the Professional Standards Act 2010 (Ballarat Diocese) when it came into Law. Thus formal Laws came into being to replace what should have been a spiritual given that we love one another. Did we really need another Moses to write another set of Laws? Apparently so, but this time laity were in the forefront of the battle.

A year earlier, in 2009, The Protocol Under the Professional Standards Act was passed. This gave Dioceses an instrument in law that covered many of the issues that were required if a just system were to be put in place. (I believe that this has covered all of the Dioceses in Australia including Catholic.) Its purpose:

The Office of Professional Standards is established by the Archbishop to provide support to people who make complaints about abuse and other misconduct by Anglican clergy, church officers, church employees and volunteers in the Diocese of Melbourne and other subscribing dioceses in the Anglican Province of Victoria. The Director of Professional Standards is as independent as possible from the Church but is paid by the Church.

It includes a section on Clearance for Ministry and Faithfulness in Service, which is a national code for the Anglican Church in Australia. Its purpose is:

“intended to identify the personal behaviour and practices of pastoral ministry that will enable clergy and church workers to serve faithfully those among whom they minister. If the behaviour and practices it outlines are followed, our communities will be safer places for everyone, where integrity is honoured, accountability is practised and forgiveness encourages healing and does not conceal misconduct.”

The Professional Standards Act defined certain terms:

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

“bullying” means “the repeated seeking out or targeting of a person to cause them distress and humiliation or to exploit them and includes exclusion from a peer group, intimidation and extortion;”

These definitions are important because they give complainants the language that carries weight in law. Within an organisation it is not enough to use the term, ‘abuse’ to mean one narrow thing, that is ‘sexual abuse’; the term covers other forms of abuse that may be more pervasive in some settings.

Faithfulness in Service expands the basic definitions seen here in detail.

Formal Responses to Abuse
The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse and related inquiries is another Australian ‘first’ and a triumph of leadership. The establishment of it “was announced by then Prime Minister Gillard on 12 November 2012. Historically, the Commonwealth has not played a significant role in the handling of sexual abuse issues, as this is the responsibility of state and territory governments. It was, however, deemed appropriate to obtain a national perspective on this matter.”

The Chair of the Royal Commission, Justice McClellan, “observed at an early stage that the Royal Commission would stand ready ‘to challenge authority and the actions of those in power”. This will, I imagine, have many readers breathing a sigh of relief.

The Interim Reports can be seen here:

Interim Report Volume 1

Interim Report Volume 2

These Interim Reports deal specifically with child sexual abuse. However, that does not mean that general subjects such as bullying and harassment have been neglected. A brief search of different dioceses reveal ‘How to Make a Complaint’ pages such as the Melbourne Diocese, which includes sexual, physical, spiritual or emotional abuse by clergy or Church officers.

Concluding Remarks
Part 1 and Part 2 of this essay have related historical reasons why a formal ‘top-down’ legal arrangement came into being and the role that priests and laity had in promoting better governance in churches. For brevity’s sake I have refrained from comment frequently. This makes for rather a dry reading, however, with the help of ‘Surviving Church’ let us make this an interactive document with which we, as priests and laity, can formulate a way forward in our own areas.

In Part 3 I shall relate how this is working from the ‘ground-up’ perspective where bullying, and abuse in all its forms, is currently being addressed.

Postscript: I am in touch with Worcester Diocese in the UK where an informative page: Preventing Bullying and Harassment offers, among other things, ‘Actions you can take yourself’. ]

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.

4 thoughts on “Australian perspectives on church abuse part 2

  1. Do they do it in practice, though? Sorry to be so cynical, but loads of Dioceses have good policy documents, including the two I know don’t actually do anything!

  2. Totally agree EnglishAthena. I am cynical too. In airline safety systems this dynamic is described thus: The safety system relies on ‘Safety Climate’. This is the written (top-down) arrangement. So it all sounds well and good. On the other hand, we have ‘Safety Culture’, which is encapsulated in the term, “how we do things round here” from the ground upwards. (In aviation an example might be to allow alcohol on the flight deck) As you will know know, “how we do things round here” is often typified by the loudest mouth (or sometimes the sneakiest) and thus the safety culture deteriorates into a flaccid mess, which does good to no-one. Safety critical industries know all about this; they have to for insurance reasons.

    However, as I outlined in PART 1, the Church too has to have an eye for safety because it costs them if they don’t. Bishop Hough nearly wrecked the finances of the Anglican Church. Enter the Insurance Industry again.

    Personally, I think it is time to write up someone’s experience as an academic paper and get it published. Then send it to Archbishop and, over time and where the circumstances permit, send it to appropriate Bishops and their Insurance companies. In other words, draw their attention to what is going on and don’t allow it to stay below the radar. Michael Hough’s behaviour only lasted until BLAB got involved and publicised matters.

    I await to hear any news from anyone about their experience of the insurance industry and how that works.

    1. I’m glad about that. Maybe they would have been helpful to me had I gone there. But I always wonder.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.