Does the church really understand sexual abuse?

Back in February 2017 the Archbishop of Canterbury made an important statement on the topic of child sexual abuse in the church. He said that in future victims of such crimes were to be the priority over the institution. Also around that time Bishop Sarah Mullaly spoke to the House of Bishops and suggested that it was high time that the Anglican church operated according to identical procedures when dealing with cases of sexual abuse committed by church people. It was not good enough to have different dioceses responding in different ways. The time for a standard professional protocol was essential in dealing with these cases.

Last Saturday the Archbishop made an extraordinary claim on the Today programme on Radio 4. He suggested that the BBC through the Savile affair had a worse record over dealing with child abuse cases than the churches. This was arguably an exaggerated claim in the light of all the scandals in the churches that have come to light, even in the period since February. The first thing that the church simply does not seem to understand is that child sexual abuse is just as serious whether it happened 40 years ago or last week. The effects of that abuse are felt for the rest of the victim’s life.

In August the press made public the existence of an alleged perpetrator when the suicide of Father Martyn Neale from the Guildford Diocese in August was reported. In the account one senses that there are many aspects of this story that are not being shared with the public. Neale had been suspended from his parish two weeks before his tragic death. At the time of his death we are told that there was ‘an ongoing investigation by the Hampshire police’ and he had also been scrutinised by the Metropolitan Police. One needs to ask certain questions. Were the diocesan safeguarding authorities that far behind the process that there were no sanctions available to them before July? The allegations of historic sexual abuse, true or not, must have been circulating for some time. Does the church have no means of investigating such accusations or is it dependent on the police to deal with this sort of crime? All these questions are suggestive of an institution that is powerless on its own to tackle a sexual abuse accusation. This is what makes the Archbishop’s comments about the BBC arguably out of order. Someone suggested to me that the Church of England is at present engaged in a process of putting out fires connected with abuse all over the country. Few of the allegations reach the public domain. If this impression given to me by my well-informed source are indeed even partly true, then there must be a cascade of new victims being discovered all the time. Who is caring for them? Is the Archbishop in fact satisfied with the performance of Safeguarding Officers across the country? The suggestion is that identified victims are numbered in the hundreds. Each one of these victims deserves professional care. If this is being provided by the Church or its insurers, we are talking about hundreds of thousands of pounds being spent in ‘putting the victims at the centre of the Church’s concern’. One suspects, from the evidence of survivors known to the media, that this is not in fact happening. Many feel let down, not only by the perpetrators, but also by the crass way by which their voices are being left unheard even now. Bishops, Archdeacons and other senior clergy are accused of pushing aside many victims. Even today the rule seems to be keep everything hushed up as much as possible so that the institution will not suffer.

Behind the child abuse scandal in the church, there is another scandal to be explored. This is the seemingly complete ignorance about the way that power works in the church. I have been blogging on the topic of power and its abuse in the church for a full four years and I am amazed at how few people understand the problem. In a nutshell the issue for the church, as with any large institution, is to recognise how much power it possesses. Those in positions of responsibility whether bishops, clergy or ministers, have much influence at their disposal. They can use it, if they so wish, to bully or intimidate others. The spiritual power delegated to them by the institution is capable of being exercised in such a way that crushes others and renders them powerless. A bishop who simply rides roughshod over his clergy, in particular the ones that he does not like, is an example of authority abusing power. The minister who tells his people that they are going to hell unless they tithe their income is also abusing power. What the bishop and the minister choose not to understand is how their power is experienced by those below them. Simply having this power has, in far too many cases, created a narcissism which makes them insensitive to the feelings of those they are supposed to serve.

In my ideal theological college, there would be a course on power management in the church. By this I am not talking about leadership training. This would be a study of the issue of power, both in the way it is exercised and as it is experienced. Every student would be practised in the analysis of role play situations. They would be encouraged to identify and describe all the different ways that power was being exercised (or suffered) in these scenarios. If there was a general heightened sensitivity to power dynamics in the church, individuals within the structure would be better able to call out examples of the abusive use of power when it occurs. Bullying, abuse and coercion could be stopped in their tracks if we gave every member of the church permission to name and shame these abuses of power immediately when they occur. Every case of sexual abuse was possible because the victim or those around felt powerless to challenge authority. In other words, the structures of power in the church, because they were unchallengeable, facilitated bullying and in some cases sexual crime.

It was not good enough for the Archbishop to criticise the BBC when there is still so much wrong within the structures of power in the church. These often hold people back and sometimes crush them. There is a further narrative to be told by women clergy over the way that church structures have often oppressed them and demeaned them. Such appalling treatment has been made possible by the way that male clergy and others have sometimes applied their institutional authority. The Archbishop declares that the church has robust structures to protect the vulnerable without any apparent awareness of the way that criminal abuses take place alongside a multitude of other bullyings and abuse. These latter are little understood. Victims will hear the Archbishop’s statement as saying, we want everything to go on as before. Those in authority must be allowed to continue to use their power as they think fit. The right to enjoy power must continue because that is the way it has always been. If the weak, the children and women are abused in this system, then this is simply bad luck. The show must go on, the power that belongs to the powerful must continue to be exercised. If this is the message that is heard by church members or those outside the church, the rate of decline in membership will continue inexorably. One hope for the church is that it can rediscover the use of power as taught by Jesus. Then the church could be a place of liberation because those who have the institutional power have learnt how to serve others and wash their feet. That would be a church worth joining.

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 “Does the church really understand sexual abuse?

  1. Oh, wow. Powerful stuff. You are totally, totally right. The power thing; they really have no conception of the responsibility you have if you have power over people. You have to be prepared to be the one who breaks down that barrier of power. It is no use, for example, a Bishop’s being shy! Well, (s)he can be shy, but they must not show it. The Bishop has to be the one to reach out and say hello. Far too many don’t get it. I have yet to be invited to call a Bishop by their first name. Equal before God? I am not sure whether that is ineptitude, or wishing to cling to the sense of superiority. Depends on the Bishop, probably.
    Yes, I think the church does not get it as far as the way abuse works. There is now no excuse for that. The information is all out there.
    Bullying, too, lives with you all your life. It changes you, and it changes your life. And it too can cause suicide.
    Great post, Stephen. Pity wur Justin won’t see it.

  2. Excellent piece, Stephen. May I copy it to my Facebook page?

    And someone should bring it to the attention of Thinking Anglicans.

    Incidentally, I seem to remember Frances Ward did her PhD on the subject of power; we were in the same post-grad seminar.

  3. Stephen,

    Great piece. I have long advocated that The Episcopal Church move past sexual misconduct prevention training towards training that ensures that church is a safe place for all persons.

    As things stand, if it doesn’t involve sex, drugs, blood or murder, the church simply treats it as “not of weighty importance to the ministry of the church.” That is appalling.

    I’d also add, based on my experiences with former parishioners shunning me for complaining about an abusive rector, complaining about any sort of clergy misconduct is an act only the most resolute will undertake.

    That said, one’s true friends are exactly that, and remain with you, even if they don’t understand or agree with your actions. So I am lucky to have reached a place where I actually am glad for my experiences with an abusive clergyperson, regardless of his motives. A great deal of dead wood has been pruned away that would have otherwise been with me for years to come.

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