Another bishop stands up to bullying

thompsonOver the past couple of years, I have been following on and off the proceedings of the Royal Commission in Australia which is seeking to uncover the truth about child abuse. Recently the commission has been listening to evidence about the Anglican Diocese of Newcastle in New South Wales. It is, like the stories of other churches, a story of cover-ups, abuse and long-term denial. Over the last 24 hours, however, this story has taken a particularly dramatic turn. The Anglican Bishop of Newcastle, Greg Thompson, has spoken to the commission about his personal experience of being an abuse victim at the hands of senior clergy in the Newcastle diocese. As a young man seeking ordination he revealed that he was sexually abused by the then Bishop, Ian Shevill. This abuse took place while watching a film with another priest named as Eric Barker. He also took part in the assault.

The Bishop had originally revealed some of this information in a radio interview in 2015. His giving evidence to the commission cost him a great deal and he broke down in tears while giving his evidence. Because of these experiences, he had arrived in the diocese in 2014 determined to continue the work of his predecessor and uncover the networks of paedophilia in the diocese and in the cathedral. A former Dean of the cathedral, Graeme Lawrence and two other priests had been removed from office in 2012. The task of working to ‘clean up’ the scandal-ridden diocese was impeded by the efforts of powerful laypeople in the diocese who were apparently determined to suppress any attempts to uncover the full truth. The situation at present is that the Bishop feels unwelcome in his own Cathedral because of this level of opposition. It is of course an appalling situation for him to face.

This is a shorter blog than usual as I want to leave my readers with the moral conundrum of what should ideally happen in this situation. Should the Bishop continue to face up to his opponents and push on to provide truth and light in the place of supressed evil? Standing up to bullies is a costly matter and it may be that the Bishop’s struggle will be at the expense of his mental health and well-being. The Royal Commission will be making its observations in due course and we hope that Bishop Thompson will be vindicated in his struggle to bring this tragic tale of cover-up and abuse to some kind of conclusion. Meanwhile we are left to wonder about the psychology of a group of powerful individuals who feel the need to blame victims of sexual abuse in their attempt to protect their influence and power.

Yesterday I was speaking to someone about this blog and they made the straightforward observation that religion and sex often seem to go together. I responded by pointing out that both were ultimately about power. The situation in Australia that is now being uncovered is not just about the evil gratification of some senior churchmen who commit appalling sexual crimes. It is also about institutions which are so enamoured of their power and influence that these can never be challenged. The institution and the positions of those with it must be preserved at all costs even when there are people are being sexually abused and humiliated within that same institution. It is hard to see how the Anglican diocese of Newcastle will easily recover its integrity and good name. The general public will be, no doubt, deeply suspicious of all church people in that area. The Roman Catholic Church in Ireland has suffered a similar massive blow to its reputation which will take decades to recover from. In the Australian situation we are not just talking about the sexual abuse of children by churchmen. We are facing the unbelievably ugly face of an institution that even now cannot own up to the sheer hypocrisy of trying to supress and bury truth. Institutional abusive practice on this scale is like a form of cancer which eats right into the very sinews of the church. Can the church in this part of Australia recover from this double evil? It remains to be seen.

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.

14 thoughts on “Another bishop stands up to bullying

  1. I should perhaps have indicated that the ‘other side’ had expressed their opinion to the commission but the chair seems to have given them quite a grilling. I wrote the above piece in a hurry because it seems to have been an extremely dramatic turn of events to have one bishop claiming to have been abused by a predecessor. I cannot think of any reason why Bishop Thompson should be lying. If I have allowed my sympathy to put one side over at the expense of an even-handed approach, then all I can say is that the Bishop’s version describes very well the way that people behave when faced with an unacceptable truth. I shall be following the story with close attention and will refer to it when appropriate. My interest is more in the denial process than in the actual details of the assault.

  2. Stephen, I hope my one-liner didn’t come over as curt. It has been 34 degrees here today and I am ploughing through old files – tedious. I am with the Bishop on this one. I think his candid revelation has necessarily made him vulnerable. The letter that questions why Bishop Thompson took no action at the time of the abuse “thus potentially exposing other members of the diocese to danger” seems very ungracious in the circumstances; hurtful even. Unless we have walked in the shoes of someone who is exposing such ills we should tread warily. It is no easy task.

  3. It’s a substantial thing that a victim of abuse should rise to become a bishop himself, a man of authority, and one hopes that he has a network of supporters to hold him up during this process.

    Stephen, I’d like to query your statement that both religion and sex are “ultimately” about power. My understanding is that Jesus came to show us the divine power vulnerable but effective in self-giving love, which he explicitly contrasts with self-seeking worldly power. Although religion and sex very often are fields for the exercise of unredeemed power, I would have to suggest that they are “ultimately” gracious opportunities for the very different power of love….

  4. I took the trouble to read all of the testimony of the Bishop to the commission. It has strengthened my partisan support of him. Particularly interesting was the way that ‘powerful’ people tried to get him on their side. They seem to have wanted him to ease up on the disciplining of the guilty clergy. I have seen this ‘sucking up’ process at work elsewhere in the church. I may do a blog on it as it is an aspect of abuse. ‘ Be nice to people in authority and get them on your side so that they do not rock your comfortable boat’.

  5. Haiku. My off the cuff remark meant to say that when sex comes in the area of Christian abuse it is one aspect of this misuse of power. We are not talking about the proper use of sexuality, only the dysfunctional expression. The same thing could said about money. Money is involved in power abuse and equally it is used for the purpose of life and creative purpose.

    1. I’m sorry that my quibbles are exasperating! However I think that focusing on the abuse of power means immersing ourselves in some pretty horrible and sinful realities, and I feel the need to keep a hold at the same time on “Whatever is true, honourable…” etc and remain aware that the hell of abuse is not the ultimate.

  6. http://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-11-26/catholic-priest-resigns-after-sex-abuse-allegations/8060284

    and March 2016

    Melbourne Catholic Archbishop accused of ignoring parents’ concerns, families consider legal action over parish priest John Walsh. One of the painful elements in this is where concerned people are ignored: “The parent group spokesman, Andrew Pope, said they were yet to receive a reply”

    On the other hand, “In a statement, the executive director of the Catholic Education Office, Stephen Elder, said… Importantly, there is no evidence to suggest that student safety is at risk in these schools.” He asked “aggrieved parents” to consider the “disruptive effect” their campaign was having on students, teachers and staff and “refocus their protest”.

    I am outraged that without an investigation the aggrieved parents are the ones to be admonished! It seems that there is no safety system in place to which Stephen Elder adheres.

    1. And these allegations have never been investigated it seems. The usual. The Archbishop removes him and he is to return to academic life. Where on earth are the police? I’m still thinking. Thanks for these links.

  7. I’m re-reading some of this, and will now take up the links in the light of the comments I made earlier on a later blog. I have to say, Stephen, that a lot of people think sex abuse is a peculiarly religion thing, and I really don’t agree. Bullying occurs where there is a stratified or caste system in operation. Sex abuse is a form of bullying. Now, I don’t actually think that one segues into another. Most bullies are not sex abusers, of course. But sex abusers are (always?) bullies. So, I think the link with the church is simply that it runs on a caste system. So it is easy to find someone less powerful to bully, it is easy to push the innocent third party into saying nothing (either because they are afraid they will be next, or because they look up to the abuser), and the self interest of the organisation is always going to be to support the powerful. I have always said that staying silent when you see bullying is the same institutional sin that allows sex abuse to flourish. Anyway, I have put Bishop Thomson on my prayer list, and I will read all the links now. Thanks Christine.

  8. The bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia, Shannon Johnston, condones bullying. In July 2015, I complained to the diocese about bullying behavior on the part of the rector of my parish, Bob Malm, and about questionable HR, governance, financial reporting, cash management, and governance practices in the parish (Grace Episcopal Church of Alexandria VA). The diocese brushed off my complaint, as well as my complaint about Bob Malm’s retaliation against me and my family, which included instructing church staff and clergy to ostracize us, to interfere with our participation in the life of the parish, and to deliberately misuse funds we gave to the church. In each case, the diocese said that these matters, even if true, were not of “weighty importance to the ministry of the church.”

    So just know upfront: Bullying is alive and well in the Episcopal Church, and not of any sort of moral or ethical concern to the diocese of Virginia.

  9. Thank you Eric for coming on to our blog. The situation you describe falls into a pattern that I have met very often. While this is no comfort to you in your situation, it may help a little to read on this blog the way that bullying, ostracism and shunning operate in the church. From my perspective there are patterns that are easily identifiable, once you know how to spot them. The trouble is that, as this blog is aware, remarkably few people in the church are wised up to seeing these patterns so the problems are brushed under the carpet. The brushing under the carpet of bullying by church authorities may rebound on the church one day just as the child abuse issues are coming back to roost. In twenty years time, bullying in church may be seen as totally unacceptable. Were the law to take the same view, the church could be sued out of existence. Conflict resolution is being taught in a few places in this country, but most clergy push away awkward people, as they see them, and situations are often never resolved. See my next post, particularly for the way that passages in scripture about unity are used to keep people in line. Your church is probably not fundamentalist but the power issues still have to be dealt with and there are not the skills around in training or in the episcopate.

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