On the Sunday programme this morning which is broadcast every Sunday at 7.10 am on Radio 4, there was a salutary tale about sexual abuse in the Church of England. And yet it was not just about sexual abuse. It seemed to reveal a state of panic among those who manage the Church of England at the highest level.
This radio story can be told in broad outline. In 1984 a young lad called Matthew (Matt) Ineson, then aged 16, was sexually abused by a priest, one Trevor Devamanikkan. In spite of this harrowing experience, the young man went on to become ordained himself and by 2012 he had become Vicar of Rotherham. In that year Matt become involved in dealing with a sexual abuse case in his church school. This eventually led to some kind of intervention by both the Bishops in the area, Steven Croft and Peter Burrows, As part of the involvement with these bishops, Matt told each of them about his own abuse. Both Bishops appear to have done nothing, either to have involved the police or to follow up pastorally on the allegations of Matt’s own abuse. The original issue of the church school caretaker also seems to have become buried by inaction or apathy.
In 2013 Matt disclosed his experience of abuse to another senior churchman, Martyn Snow, now Bishop of Leicester. This was in the context of a meeting about pastoral responses towards offenders. Martyn Snow objected to the advice given by Matt to an offender and, in spite of being told that Matt himself was a victim of a crime, made an official complaint against him for his pastoral response. By this time Matt was beginning to find the stress of being an unheard victim too much to bear and he resigned his living in the course of the year 2013. He submitted full accounts of all his experiences to the Diocesan Bishop, Steven Croft and Bishop Peter Burrows with copies to the Archbishop of York. By 2015, with the help of a solicitor, Matt had submitted a complaint under the Clergy Discipline Measure against his abuser and the six senior clergy who had failed to respond appropriately to his serious allegation of sexual abuse. This Clergy Discipline Measure proved to have a legal limitation. All the accused have hidden behind a provision that states that a complaint must be made within a calendar year of an offence. An extension can be agreed only if the accused concur. Needless to say, the rapist and the six senior clergy have not wanted to surrender this protection afforded to them under church regulations., Meanwhile Trevor Devamanikkan has removed himself from the scene, prior to his criminal trial, by recently committing suicide.
This story might have been overlooked by me as just one more example of institutional failure on the part of senior churchmen. But another story has come my way in the past few days which suggests that the Church of England may be trying to keep the lid on a full-blown crisis. I cannot for obvious reasons reveal too many details about this account except to say that the case involves an English diocese. A woman known to me had cause to speak to her Diocesan bishop about a friend who was apparently suffering spiritual and financial abuse in her local parish. The bishop referred her to the Diocesan Safeguarding Officer and my friend made an appointment to see him. She spent some time with the Officer and was struck by his highly professional and perceptive questions. He promised to consult others, including the local police as there were questions which touched on possible criminal behaviour in the case. He also expressed concern for my friend’s physical safety.
After having had a good level of communication with the Safeguarding Officer, my friend was surprised to receive a terse email a week or two later expressing regret that he could do nothing for her and that she should contact her local police station. My friend immediately believed that the Officer had been ‘nobbled’ by someone who wanted to shut down her complaint. In other words my friend may have stumbled across something big and the Officer had been required to terminate any further enquiry. Am I or my friend being paranoid? I do not think so.
What might be going on? The Church of England may be lurching into what is a cover-up of child and other forms of abuse of massive proportions. As we saw in the case of ‘Jo’ and his abuse, the management of this crisis seems often to be being directed by insurance companies and lawyers. They are apparently attempting to shut down information as much as they can. Steven Croft seemed to be speaking not from the heart, when speaking his memories of Matt’s experience on the radio this morning. He seemed to be speaking from a lawyer’s script. That is always going to be bad news when the church, in the person of its representatives seems to be only interested in preserving reputations in preference to caring for real people.
These two stories have made me feel quite gloomy. So frequently in the past months, the Church at the highest level has shown itself to be incompetent in dealing with abuses of power within its structures. Even those who are otherwise decent and conscientious individuals are being used to defend the ‘system’ from its massive failures from the past. How many more scandals are going to erupt? Is the church going to become a tainted environment that no one can trust? Are children going to be prevented from attending Sunday School for reasons of safety? Safeguarding must be as much about integrity, honesty and openness. The box-ticking culture to create safe spaces may been fine as far as it goes but is a tidal wave of past wrong-doing going to overwhelm the church before it can get its structures into place?