The power of flattery – Newcastle NSW continued

christ-church-cathedralAbout 30 years ago, a clergyman was describing to me his arrival in a new parish. The parish was in a particularly wealthy part of the Cotswolds and many of the notable parishioners entertained each other with lavish dinners fuelled with copious amounts of wine. The new Vicar found himself invited to one of these events. He suspected that he was in fact being socially evaluated to discover whether he belonged to the mysterious group which he described as PLU (People Like Us). It is not clear whether he passed this test but there were other forms of scrutiny that were going on during this dinner party. He was told about the history of his church and the way things, from the perspective of his hosts, had always been run. There was more than a subtle hint that these arrangements for organising the church worked extremely well and there would be no need for any changes in the future. Alongside all the charm and the sumptuous hospitality there was also a veiled threat and subtext. If you change things, we, the socially powerful members of the church, will make life difficult for you in the future. The clergyman describing this scene did not conform to these subtle threats. He started to run the church with the needs of all his parishioners in mind rather than just the small group who had been organising things for a long time. The invitations to dinner dried up very quickly.

I was reminded of this anecdote when I read the account of Greg Thompson, the Bishop of Newcastle in Australia. The main part of his story was outlined in the previous post. Having written a hasty account of the drama of his describing how he himself had been sexually abused by a former bishop of the diocese, I went back to read again his verbatim statement. I had remembered in it a similar account of socially powerful people attempting to manipulate the bishop in his early days in office. Bishop Thompson arrived in his diocese at the beginning of 2014. He was of course aware of the historic issue of child abuse in the diocese, but the information he possessed was only what he had gleaned from the media. He decided to conduct a listening process across the diocese, meeting laypeople in the evenings and clergy during the day. He was asking people what they believed to be the priorities of the diocese and the kind of leadership they expected from him. What he found disturbed him. There was still an enormous amount of sympathy for the clergy who had been disciplined under his predecessor for the sexual abuse of children. The plight of their victims seemed to be ignored. In his first nine months, the Bishop also accepted several social invitations from prominent lay people. On every occasion, he again heard the same message from his hosts. From their perspective, the disciplining and defrocking of the clergy involved with paedophilia had been far too harsh. It was now his task to restore them. All those who putting pressure on Bishop Thompson had bought into the narrative that there was a hidden motive in his predecessor – homophobia. It seemed to be a convenient accusation rather than one based on any kind of evidence. They seemed unable to grasp the enormity of the damage that these clergy had caused by their behaviour.

As a response to this moral blindness on the part of some of his church people, Bishop Thompson arranged for two men, victims of sexual abuse, to speak to the 350 members of Diocesan Synod about their experiences. The response in the main was of overwhelming support for the victims. Various motions were put in place to ensure that good child protection policies would exist in the future. At the same time others were highly critical and questioned whether digging up the past served any useful purpose. This group felt that attention to survivors was bringing shame on the diocese. Pressure from this small faction intensified after the Bishop went public with the story of his own abuse in 2015. Letters were written both to the Royal Commission and to the leaders of the Anglican Church in Australia. These cast aspersions on both his character and his competence to act as a bishop in the church.

During 2015, a distinguished former Chancellor of the University at Newcastle, Professor Trevor Waring came to see Bishop Thompson. He recounted how he had been publicly shunned and shamed because he had been involved in the disciplinary process against the defrocked Dean Graham Lawrence and others. Others, including the Professional Standards Director and his staff, had had their property vandalised. The harassment extended to threatening emails and a campaign of rumour and hearsay against the Bishop himself and his staff. There was a suggestion in the proceedings of the Commission that such behaviour was being fermented and coordinated by the former Dean himself. It was also alleged that meetings were taking place among the members of the congregation still favourable to the former Dean.

In reading of the painful way that certain members of the Cathedral congregation had turned on their Bishop after initially welcoming him, I was reminded of my earlier anecdote from the Cotswolds. Some people will smile and try to flatter you into colluding with their wishes. When they do not get their way, they may turn on you and use their social power to undermine and attack you. The use of power in this situation is every bit as strong as when making a direct angry threat. It is, however apparent that the sympathy of the Commission was firmly with the Bishop. It was recognised that he along with the Professional Standards Director and his assistant Bishop had worked hard ‘to promote social justice rather than pomp and ceremony’. In contrast to the behaviour of a powerful minority of church people, the wider public have applauded the stand of the Bishop in this area. To quote the final words of the questioner: ‘in coming forward and making public your own abuse to provide an example to others that they can do the same, you seem to have given a voice to people who could not previously speak, or perhaps in some cases could speak but not be heard. If I might be permitted an indulgence, can I say that that fact, in combination with the pastoral care and support that you have provided directly and in good grace, whether on the streets of Newcastle or in the corridors of this Royal Commission, to many survivors of abuse and their families – I think it can be fairly said that there are many people who would be very pleased that you did come to this diocese and at the hour in which you did.’ The Bishop’s response was simply: ‘And I have drawn courage from them’.

The Royal Commission hearing from which we have drawn material happened only on November 24th. It demands our attention as well as our sympathy and prayers. May the cause of right, justice and light prevail in the place of darkness and moral confusion that seems to have infected a group of Christians on the other side of the world.

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.

15 thoughts on “The power of flattery – Newcastle NSW continued

  1. Amen. I see here things I have seen before, people are much the same the world over. The Team Vicar who used to cultivate people (actually men, she didn’t care for other women) and then when they didn’t do her bidding, fall out with them. In all three cases I saw her put them forward for ministry, and then try to stop what she had started. Trying to prevent one fellow’s ordination.
    The apparently large group of people who will stick up for the powerful at the expense of their victims is normal. It is of course the reason why it is so hard to get any action. Look at the recent case of the serial killer sent to prison for a whole life term for murdering young gay men he “met” on the internet. At least the last death, and possibly the one before, occurred simply because the police refused to do normal checks such as the handwriting on a suicide note, or DNA on a bed sheet. These young men apparently had no value as human beings. It’s that attitude that allows all kinds of abuse to flourish.
    And I’ve also met the Bishop who will not admit that abuse happens. In my case, bullying. But the same institutional sin.
    These are terrible happenings. God’s strength be with Bishops who won’t kow tow.

    1. The link worked. Yes, that was an appropriate find wasn’t it. Robert Caddies came up in another post too. I can’t find it at the moment but it seems like he has been a major player all along in keeping his personal power base.

      In my part of the Australian world there are so many house churches – an impressive number of them. I can’t help but speculate that these power bases are the cause of blockages that send right-minded people away from the Anglican Church.

    1. One very telling phrase. “Liz is a force unto herself”. Bit of a loose cannon? The person who advised her to stick to the abuse bit and leave Satan out of the equation was giving good advice. It just makes you look weird. Of course, if it is provable that the abusers are using the terms, fine. Well, not fine, but if it’s provable that’s different. Do these folk, on either side, have a connection to the Anglican Diocese? It’s a pretty big can to have to carry.

  2. I am always suspicious of satanic sexual abuse claims. In 1995 a distinguished academic in the UK, Jean La Fontaine, produced a report which showed how the fashion for blaming Satan for CSA was a fevered fantasy that was dreamt up by American taught social workers and conservative Christians. These ideas were rampant in the first half of the nineties. Interestingly no one has from that day attempted to revive the fashion, at least in the UK. A great silence fell on all the former enthusiasts. One solitary academic Valerie Sinason, kept on promising to produce ‘evidence’ but so far nothing has appeared since her very odd book from around 1992. This newspaper report links the claims to a conservative Christian group so I, for one, suspects their methods for blaming Satan. Of course child abuse exists but you do not have to create a scary and damaging mythology around it.

  3. I am always open to a skeptical approach. However, that is different from being ‘always suspicious’. I have met people in my professional capacity who have been ‘ritually abused’. I am not blaming Satan for that; I am blaming the people who allowed themselves to become Satan’s servants. However, there is a level at which we can say, “we wrestle not against flesh and blood but against spiritual wickedness in high places.” Here, we can blame Satan.
    I think you do the subject a disservice by terming it a ‘fashion’. As a therapist I know how difficult it is to bring these matters into the public domain. The reason is plain; patient confidentiality.

    1. You’re the professional here, and will have the experience. I think it’s because there was a rash of these ritual abuse allegations, and now there are none. And it’s not that the accusers were Christians. They just thought what was going on was strange and jumped to conclusions. In some cases there was no abuse, and there was no Satanism. But children were removed from their families and irreversibly damaged.

      1. I’m not sure what you’re saying. Are you saying that people have speculated wrongly; that there were bad consequences as a result; and so the subject of Satanism has been dropped?

  4. The other consideration is that “Satanism” is often an excuse for kinky sex and not much else. In this case perhaps including with children which is appalling. But often consensual. Even if people describe it that way themselves, is it really? They are using the term to give themselves a thrill because it’s “naughty”.
    Abuse is always abuse. And the abuser is always to blame, not Satan.

    1. Firstly, I am not alarmist, Stephen. I am not “pushing a line” as you put it.

      Secondly, whenever a person appeals to their credentials rather than the discussion in hand and when they speak only in speculative generalisations, there is no longer an argument, in the academic sense, to be had. To base yours on “I have just read a suggestion…” based on one man leads to a straw man argument, and as such, is invalid.

      Thirdly, I was at Ellel Grange in the early 90s. You are mistaken that they were “converting everyone in sight to the idea that problems of all kinds could be sorted by spiritual warfare with demons”. Yes it was part of the teaching but what you are saying is out of balance.

      I leave the last word to C S Lewis: “There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors and hail a materialist or a magician with the same delight.” C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (originally 1942; this edition: Harper Collins, 1996) ix.

    2. Yes, that may be the case in the popular mind but SRA has key concepts, clinical picture, and diagnosis. A discerning person can tell the difference between ‘the naughty’ and the spiritually depraved.

      Theologically, regarding “the abuser is always to blame, not Satan”, why should it be ‘either / or’, why not ‘both / and’? there is a level at which we can say, “we wrestle not against flesh and blood but against spiritual wickedness in high places.” I am not saying that an abuser should be let off the hook because ‘Satan made him do it’; an abuser has freely joined forces with Satan and must face the consequences.

  5. I have just read a suggestion that Jimmy Savile dressed up in strange clothes before abusing the young. That does not make him a Satanist but someone who may have wanted to use pseudo-ritual to further his nefarious purposes. So I agree with Athena. The interesting thing is that since the Home Office report in 1995, there has hardly been a squeak from those who formerly pushed this line. Even Ellel Grange who were in the early 90s converting everyone in sight to the idea that problems of all kinds could be sorted by spiritual warfare with demons has gone quiet. To call it a fashion is not entirely wrong because that is a word that might explain why suddenly the discourse vanished at the same time as the Home Office report. As a former Diocese adviser on the paranormal and the occult, I noted that at no point were Anglican advisers expected to buy into this alarmist approach. Having sat with 40 other advisers on two occasions, I noticed that at the training sessions not a single one of them had ever met SRA, even in the 90s. Satan was apparently keeping clear of more than half the Anglican dioceses of Britain it would appear! We were dealing with other forms of possession but not ritual abuse.

  6. Christine, I wouldn’t necessarily disagree that “evil” exists. There is a great deal in this universe we do not understand. And of course you’re right, it can be both the abuser, and Satan. I was over simplifying my views. I’m sorry. You’ve probably seen yourself, people somehow managing to excuse either themselves, or the abuser if it is someone else, and making it sound as if it’s not their fault. We should be compassionate to those who behave badly, too. God has enough compassion to go round. And particularly fairly obvious things like drug pushers who are themselves hooked on drugs, and that sort of thing. But even things like showing God’s love to Fred and Rosemary West, for example. Though both of us may strongly doubt whether it would have been received! So it’s a complicated matter. My teaching on deliverance issues is that it is rare. It wasn’t that it never happened. And I have encountered such things at least three times in my life, once very recently. But I don’t “work” in the field. So for those who do, more encounters are to be expected. I’m very conscious of the other readers, not just those of us who post. I probably wasn’t clear enough, and we need to be. It’s a serious matter.

  7. Thanks for your fulsome reply, EA. No we don’t disagree on the subject of the existence of ‘evil’. The Bible has 430 references to it. The practical difficulty, as you and I have touched on, is that of diagnosis, or identifying it in practice. And again, yes you are right, I have had my share of experiences of people excusing themselves. A patient, a very good-looking and personable young man turned to me during a one-to-one session and said, “I’m a good person really, you know.” I was thinking on my feet as I responded, “Is that what the parents of the children you sell drugs to think?” I’ll never know whether my challenge produced good fruit or not. He wanted to think of himself as good; the fruit of his actions led to death. What else could I have said to cause him to think? (Rhetorical question!) That was the extent of my compassion on this occasion but compassion it was.

    Your introduction to the subject of showing God’s love to Fred and Rosemary West. Interesting. I think maybe we are given grace at the time should we need it. I remember a prison counsellor who attended the cells late one night. Prior to entering she asked what the defendant had done. He had raped his grandmother. She responded, “I can’t do this” and walked away. The purpose of this illustration was to train us into the (secular) knowledge that we need not take everything on. We should stay within the limits of what we could take. Personally, my first thought regarding this man was a question, “Had the grandmother molested him as a child?” Again, I’ll never know but this illustration serves to say that God is quite capable of giving us grace in a given situation. For me, it is about being obedient to God at all times – something that I don’t always achieve.

    I have had probably more experience than most in the occult and deliverance ministry. I was put in a church team where such things surfaced quite often. The vicar would often invite me work in that area and follow up people who needed to then be strengthened in their faith. I’d say that this also strengthened my faith as I watched people becoming healed and strengthened!

    Indeed, it is a serious matter but one that we cannot ignore.

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