One point to come out of Joe’s moving letter to the House of Bishops is the issue of the way that an insurance company had the power to dictate how victims of abuse are treated. It is quite clear from Bishop Sarah’s presentation to the House of Bishops that there has been, until now, a policy of defensive blanking towards victims of abuse the moment legal proceedings are initiated. To put it another way, when an individual seeks to obtain legal redress from the church, the shutters come down and the victim is effectively shunned by the very people s/he had once looked to as protectors and sources of strength. The victim now becomes abused twice – the first time by an abuser and now by the grotesque shunning by leaders of the institution.
In fairness to the bishops of the Church of England, there seems to have been no personal and individual policy agenda at work. The pastoral shunning of victims was a policy apparently enforced on behalf of the insurance companies and their lawyers. All the bishops of the Church of England seem to have accepted it as agreed practice. The procedure was laid down, no doubt, as a way of protecting the insurance companies from making expensive payouts. These payouts may in fact eventually cost the Church of England millions of pounds as the horrors of the past are slowly brought to light. The survivors so affected have in many cases had their lives severely damaged. Every parish in the land may suffer as a result as they have to begin to make new payments to protect themselves from future claims of this kind. This will no doubt have some impact on the work of the church at every level as money is diverted from other projects to pay for the extra premiums.
The Elliott Review has recommended that the situation of the past, when insurance companies and their lawyers dictated the response of church leaders towards survivors, must come to an end. The previous approach, the blanking of survivors like Joe, was bankrupt both morally and practically. We await to see how a new pastorally sensitive policy emerges from the old, arguably inhuman, practice of the bishops. The fact that Joe himself is now linked to our blog will, no doubt, result in further information on this process being provided here in the future.
Alongside the Elliott review is currently another abuse episode within the church, the response to which also does little credit to the Church of England or to its House of Bishops. A woman, now in her 70s, claims to have been abused by the eminent former Bishop of Chichester, George Bell. This claim is quite different from the one investigated by the Elliott Review in that there are good grounds for questioning the detailed facts of the claim. I have recently been directed to a website which has been set up by a group of eminent churchmen who are concerned to protect the reputation of Bishop Bell. They believe that the recent payout of £35,000 to the woman together with an apology from the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of Chichester was done with unseemly haste. I have looked at the evidence put on the website. This suggests that while the woman indeed suffered abuse at the hands of a churchman, there is possibly or probably a case of mistaken identity. The enquiry that led to the apology and payout also failed to consult a number of potential witnesses. A key person who is familiar with Bishop Bell’s papers held in Lambeth Palace Library and the author of a recently published biography, Andrew Chandler, was not approached. Also not spoken to is a surviving domestic chaplain who lived at the Palace at Chichester during the time of the alleged abuse. The apology seems to be based on a police statement that the Bishop would have been questioned, if he was still alive, about these allegations. Since he died some 58 years ago this is of course not possible, but the failure to speak to the few people who can remember the personnel and the geography of Chichester at that time, seems to be a lamentable failure. I was also struck by the fact that the Bishop of Chichester went public with the apology without having consulted with the Dean of the Cathedral. Common sense would have suggested that the Dean would have been a key person to have on board if such an apology was going to be made.
The reader of this blog will have to satisfy themselves whether or not the evidence against George Bell is based on firm evidence or not. I would however suggest that way the church has responded with such alacrity to the allegation of abuse seems to be evidence of a moral panic rather than a careful thoughtful response to a serious allegation. The admission of abuse by the Bishop of Chichester on behalf of a distinguished predecessor, while leaving so many questions unanswered and unresolved, would appear to have come about for reasons quite distinct from a new culture of openness on the part of the Church. Cynically I suspect we again see the hand of the Church’s insurers at work. It is obviously simpler to admit to a case of historic abuse and deal with the whole issue with a modest payout rather than go through an expensive process of enquiry. The House of Bishops, wrongly I believe, may have thought that an admission of guilt in this case would show the Church in a good light. What has been shown, in contrast, is that the Church and its House of Bishops may be having policy and decisions made for them by a group of anonymous individuals within the insurance fraternity. These policy decisions once again have little interest in historical truth or the pastoral care of abused individuals. Whatever the final truth about these allegations connected to Bishop George Bell, it is clear that a thorough process of uncovering the truth of these allegation has not been put into place.
Bishop Mullally will be insisting that allegations of abuse against members of the Church are responded to in the future with proper process as well as compassion and care for the victims. It would seem also that the House needs to be held accountable when cases of past abuse are admitted a little too quickly in a situation where the interests of insurance companies can be protected by, say a non-disclosure agreement. It remains to be seen whether the House of Bishops can claw back moral authority from their lawyers and the colluding insurance companies. No doubt if the Church and the bishops who lead it start to do the right thing in facing up to the appalling legacy of abuse cases within the institution, there will be a massive financial penalty to face in the future. But it is clear that moral integrity and pastoral sensitivity are hallmarks of a Church which is seeking to live by the example of Jesus. The blanking and ostracism of victims like Joe must never be allowed to happen again. Morality must always trump expediency.