Monthly Archives: December 2017

Church faces pressure on abuse issues – the tempo increases

In recent weeks we have seen an increased tempo in the press coverage of church abuse stories. As I wrote last week there have been some revelatory scenes at the Independent Inquiry on child sexual abuse. It appears now that even after the Nolan report, which was a response to earlier Catholic sex scandals and came out in 2001, some Roman Catholic bishops and religious orders in Britain have done very little to improve safeguarding within their Communion. It is as though many Catholic clergy are completely unaware of all the scandals that have occurred in America and Ireland. These well publicised stories have done much to diminish the Catholic Church and especially its leadership in these countries. Apart from suffering enormous reputational damage, the Catholic Church in the States has had to pay out hundreds of millions of dollars to survivors. This has virtually bankrupted some Catholic dioceses in that country. Equally, similar scandals in Ireland have seriously lessened the influence of the Catholic Church on Irish society. One by-product of this social change is that it is now very hard to persuade young Irish Catholic men to join the priesthood.

Up till this moment, one would have liked to think that the problems of the Church of England are nowhere near equivalent to those experienced by the Catholic Church in Ireland and America. What is being presented to us now, in great part thanks to Gilo, is a glimpse of the lack of readiness on the part of the C of E to face up to its own scandals. In other words, there is no sense that the Church is putting in place the necessary procedures to deal with any fresh allegations of past misdemeanours by its clergy. There has been some decisive action to deal with the criminal perpetrators of child abuse in the church, but this has been more at the instigation of the police and the courts. The impression given to us by Gilo is that the church’s part in the process of dealing with past felonies is to huddle together with lawyers and insurance company representatives and discuss the amount of money that should be paid to victims to avoid legal liability. There is no sense in the correspondence received (or not received!) by survivors that the church understands or grasps the enormous damage and devastation caused to these survivors. Financial settlements may be part of an answer. Far more needed is the offering of healing. This could involve acts of open penitence by leaders, a readiness to go the extra mile in admitting the failures of an institution that has allowed these things to happen. As I said in a published letter to the Church Times two weeks ago, there needs to be a fresh understanding how every example of sexual abuse is made possible by a church culture that for too long has tolerated bullying and power abuse. Also, a conservative theology that makes leaders or a book ‘infallible’ is also one that tolerates destructive power games. These can do so much damage.

The energy of Gilo over the past few weeks, as articulated in his open correspondence with Archbishop Welby, has brought up several important issues. Some of these he shared with our blog several months ago. Gilo has identified, over and over again, the way that safeguarding in the Church of England has been unhelpfully confused with the concerns of lawyers and insurance companies. In other words when a claim of abuse is made, the first response of the Church is to go into a defensive mode. They seem then to have no concern for the welfare of the survivor; they rather worry about a potential financial liability. When a survivor is met by this kind of legally defensive response, they may find themselves totally discouraged. Many of the survivors may be among the least powerful members of our society. They may also be carrying the burden of emotional damage from their abuse. They will simply not have the stamina to endure this kind of adversarial confrontation. Neither should they. Their memories, their account of events may be challenged and disbelieved. Gilo through his articulacy and stamina has rightly challenged the church to see how inappropriate this kind of adversarial approach is to a group of hurting vulnerable people. His vigorous challenge to the Church authorities to improve the process of helping and supporting survivors has been supported by a powerful group of 20 church people and theologians who are concerned with these issues. Each of them in different ways calls on the Archbishop and General Synod to put in place a new system for dealing with the victims of sexual abuse which is open and built on care and respect. All of them agree that the task of dealing with cases of past sexual abuse must be backed up with mandatory reporting to the police. The days of dealing with erring clergy can no longer be left to ‘in-house’ methods of discipline. Mandatory reporting will help create a new climate and culture of integrity and transparency.

Last week I published an extract from a legal opinion about compensation and apologies. I am still hoping that this sentence will be relayed to the church leaders who appear to believe that defensive denial is preferable to pastoral care and support. I am hoping that once this piece of legislation is recognised as being of relevance to the whole practice of safeguarding in the church, that it may help to create a new spirit of openness, love and care.

Two survivors known to me personally have recently made formal complaints of sexual abuse against church leaders. It will be interesting to see whether their complaints receive a better hearing because of Gilo’s efforts. I certainly hope so. I finish with some of Gilo’s words. ‘There doesn’t seem any ownership of the crisis … these need the clear call of leadership required to shift the church into structural and cultural change and towards authentic justice.’ Amen to that.

Bankruptcy of morality among American Evangelicals?

Various commentators in America, both secular and Christian, have noticed that the word ‘evangelical’ has become damaged in recent months. Christians in the UK who still want to use this word as a self-description may need to be aware how many Americans regard this word as, at the very least, suggesting moral insensitivity. The Christian Right which represents the bulk of white evangelicals in the States has become aligned with a number of appallingly behaved individuals in American politics. No longer is a strong moral character demanded of the politicians who represent the conservative evangelical voter. Next week we may be witnessing the election to the Senate of the unrepentant paedophile Roy Moore. To vote for him involves effectively jettisoning ethics, truthfulness and straightforward honesty in favour of crude partisan politics. The Christian Right has apparently narrowed down morality to a couple of issues – the non-availability of abortion and the end of gay-rights. Every other moral principle can seemingly be discarded.

The recent recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of the State of Israel is also part of Trump’s attempt to keep faith with the Christian Right. We have to remind ourselves why this disastrous piece of American foreign policy matters to the hard-Right Christian tribe. It matters because these are the Christians who believe in the imminent Second Coming of Christ. The books they read suggest that the complete occupation of the Holy Land by Jews is part of the end time scenario. In one version of the belief in Christ’s return, the whole world is going to be catapulted into a state of disaster, war and ruin. It is only after this ‘Tribulation’ that Christ can return. A belief that our world is hurtling towards a Biblically ordained destruction helps to explain why many Christians simply do not care about nurturing the environment. There is thus an unholy alliance between right-wing Christian apocalypse thinkers and others who would rape and destroy the world’s resources for economic advantage. It is chilling.

Although I had hoped not to write about President Trump again, I find that it is difficult not to comment on the way that public discourse in America has been cheapened and coarsened in such short time. Even a year ago the evangelical voters who support Trump would not, I believe, have wanted to throw their lot in with an outrageous character such as Roy Moore. Something has drastically shifted in a very short time inside the spirit and conscience of many formerly decent people. What has happened to allow Moore even a small chance of winning? I think that the answer has to lie in the fact that conservative Christians have traditionally been required to think in terms of a strong polarisation between good and bad, truth and falsehood. Because right and truth could supposedly always be found in the Bible, discussion or debate was unnecessary. The conservative voter never learnt about the subtlety of debate. So now he has little ability to discern truth in a maelstrom of falsehoods and declining moral behaviour within political life. Because honest political discourse within the Republican party has been largely destroyed by the falsehoods and immorality at the top, the loyal base is forced to sacrifice moral conscience to continue their old loyalties. The need to defeat their political enemies has become the issue, not personal morality or decency.

I hope that this crude type of evangelical political thinking does not spread to our own country. At present we are fortunate in not having a political party closely aligned to apocalyptic right-wing Christian thinking. Although the gay issue is still important to many individuals, it has not created itself as a dominant idea in a political party. We also do not have to face individuals who want to challenge decades of scientific research in favour of a free for all, anti-ecological, model of economic development. But there are dangers and we need to be on our guard.

In the first place we need to understand and educate our children to see how dangerous polarised binary thinking is. We cannot have proper debates about anything when it is assumed that one side has all the right answers and the other has absolutely nothing to offer. That is the totalitarian pattern. Political decisions have to be made about economics and other issues of government. All of us recognise that because one course of action is being taken, it does not mean that the alternative path is without merit. It should be possible in schools to conduct debates and show this principle at work. For every decision that is made there are others that might have been made. A policy is made after other options have been considered. Few leaders, outside Trump’s America, genuinely believe that anything is black-and-white or that they can have a monopoly of truth.

Christians in many places are unfortunately encouraged to think in this highly polarised manner. They are led to believe that there are always biblical answers to complex problems. That is how the Christian faith and indeed the Bible is being presented to them. They are being failed both spiritually and intellectually. One has to say to such people as they consider truth in both politics and religion: ‘Look at the world and realise that there are precious few black and white issues in either politics or religion. The world is full of ambiguity and uncertainty. Decisions may be required from politicians and leaders of all kinds, but these will often be hard to arrive at. Even when they are made, such decisions are not infallible. A decision, the best possible we hope, is the result of an exercise of judgement and wisdom; it does not arise from some pre-existing infallible knowledge.’

Many evangelicals in America seem to be heading to a dark place. Because their teachers have been encouraging them to think in a binary way for a long time, we have this current tragic support of immoral deplorable political candidates without conscience or a proper grasp of truth. Truth, honesty and integrity seem to have slipped out of the qualities looked for in political representatives. Thus, these qualities even seem to be despised. Teaching black-and-white thinking, failing to encourage informed debate among their congregations – all this has resulted in the current moral and intellectual bankruptcy that we see today among so many American evangelicals. We never expected this to happen quite so quickly.

It is OK to say sorry in Church abuse cases

Recent church abuse cases have often ended up involving both lawyers and insurance companies. When such a legal process begins, communication between a victim and the church institution that harmed them has normally ceased. This is because of the common understanding that any apology or expression of regret by a church body is tantamount to an admission of liability. Thus, a victim such as Gilo, whose abuse was a matter of historical record, faced blanking and unanswered letters the moment that he sought legal redress for his abuse. An institution like the church is surely one where we would hope to be able to see an equal concern for justice and love in operation. From recent cases, not just Gilo’s, the legal response has been to shut down and try to shut out a victim who seeks a remedy from the courts.

According to an article written by legal expert, Professor Dominic Regan in the New Law Journal, this assumption that an apology to a victim is equivalent to an admission of liability is completely wrong. His actual word is ‘tosh’. There is a passage in what is known as a Compensation Act of 2006 which makes the following statement: An apology, an offer of treatment or other redress shall not of itself amount to an admission of negligence or breach of statutory duty. These few words are, according to the article, a restatement of existing law. But for people like Gilo and others who have experienced abuse from the Church, they are of enormous importance. Many people would have their sufferings considerably relieved if only the offending body felt itself at the start able to express regret, sorrow or apology. In the case of the Church, such an expression of regret might include the offering of pastoral care. There is a famous case of two children who died while on holiday in Greece by carbon monoxide poisoning. The company involved, ‘for legal reasons’, refused to apologise thus making the acute suffering of the parents far worse. Similar situations occur in medical negligence cases. A victim of a medical accident, by being shut off or treated as an enemy throughout the legal process suffers as much because of this blanking as from the original event. What the law is saying very clearly is that this kind of treatment is not justified by what the law in fact states.

It is hard to imagine how much extra suffering is endured because many institutions seem to be incapable ‘for legal reasons’ to say sorry. I mentioned last week the example of the social worker battling with the authorities of the Benedictine order. These men were presumably acting under the legal advice that to offer regret or apology to a victim was tantamount to laying themselves open to compensation claims. This misreading of the law enhanced the suffering of many survivors and all this additional stress is little short of scandalous. One wants the Compensation Act 2006 to be compulsory reading for every legal advisor acting for the Church in abuse cases. If ‘sorry’ is allowed to happen right at the beginning of the process of seeking justice, then some of the cases might never need to come to court. The Church as a body should be the one institution wanting to demonstrate a passion for truth, justice and love. It should never have to supress its expression of love because of the say-so of lawyers who, in this case, are not up to date with what the Law actually states.

In the article that I am quoting, Dominic Regan mentions a claimant who suffered a near fatal industrial injury in 2001. It resulted in post-traumatic stress disorder and this was by far the worst part of the injury. The initial absence of an apology from his employer made him angry and stressed with the consequence of poor relationships with his family as well as a drink problem. It took a court case for an apology to be forthcoming. Meanwhile the victim of the accident had died without ever hearing the apology. The small word ‘sorry’ would have made a tremendous difference for this particular individual. No doubt many church cases might have better and healthier outcomes if the institutions involved could feel able to apologise and do what they can to help without the fear of presumed liability.

It is a matter of deep regret that the bulk of the lawyers who represent churches are simply ignorant of this particular piece of law. I am thinking of the lawyers representing Trinity Church Brentwood. They repeatedly shut out victims and made it impossible for the church to make more than feeble statements of apology. We have course no means of knowing in this case what the church really thought about abused former members. Other churches are in the business of robust apology and self-examination. Gilo, whose case against the Church has been mentioned several times in different posts, seems to have met plenty of lawyers and insurance companies who seemed interested only in limiting liability for their clients. I would love to know whether Safeguarding Officers and Bishops up and down the country are aware that it is okay to say sorry. It will not make legal problems further down the line.

It would be right to say that having read this article by lawyer for others in his profession, I am left feeling angry. I am angry that something of such fundamental importance to the conduct of abuse cases in the Church seems to have been overlooked for so long. How many people who are the victims of church abuse have also been left uncared for and outside the orbit of pastoral care because of this legal ignorance? In this case the Law is providing a way that encourages and makes possible compassion, open communication and forgiveness- all Christian virtues. So this blog piece is saying in summary: it is okay to love, show compassion as well as apologise to someone who has been wronged without being accused of accepting legal liability. The Law in short allows us to be compassionate human beings trying to deal with a situation of suffering and pain.

IICSA – listening in on the Inquiry on Child Abuse

One of the events going on at present, relevant to our blog, is the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA). This commission set up by the UK government has faced numerous teething problems, including the resignation of two chairmen. Finally, we have reached the stage where witnesses are being heard and this public process began this past week. In the Inquiry there are to be several sections. The Anglican diocese of Chichester is to be investigated as well as scandals connected with children’s homes. To help those of us who are interested in the process, the entire public hearing is being streamed on the Internet with a five minute delay. This afternoon I spent an hour ‘eaves-dropping’ on this incredibly important Inquiry.

Today I listened to the evidence of a senior social worker who had been trying to work with the authorities of the Benedictine Order and others from outside who were concerned for sexually abused victims at their schools such as Ampleforth. This social worker explained to the hearing the complexities of dealing with an organisation so different from what is normally found in society. The Benedictine Order and the Abbot of Ampleforth Community have internal rules and lines of responsibility not easily understood by those outside. Above all the Benedictine structure instinctively resists any outside questioning and challenge. The witness today mentioned various problems he had encountered in around 2003/2004. In the first place he commented on the way that the institution he was facing seemed to be incapable of working proactively for child protection. The existence of probable abusers in the school had been known by four successive abbots but little had been done to protect children. One brother who was sent to prison in 2006 had been seeing a psychiatrist for decades. A poignant moment when the social worker read from an official statement put out by the Order. This declared that the first responsibility of the Abbot was towards the monks of the community. This appeared to supersede any responsibility for child protection.

The social worker’s evidence was describing a secretive and protective institution. Crimes were being committed and for a long time no one had the will or the courage to do anything about it. It will not be unexpected if we hear similar things about the culture of the troubled Anglican Diocese of Chichester. A culture which places great value in keeping secrets so as to protect the wider institution is dangerous. When institutions behave like this, vulnerable children may suffer and are damaged for life.

A further comment made by the social worker concerns the role of solicitors. It was noted that some of the responses by the Community were filtered through solicitors and other legal advisers. It did not give the social worker the sense that everyone was working for the same end – the safety of children. He realised that an institution which is governed by special rules and hierarchical structures will always want to protect itself against scrutiny and outside examination. It is to be hoped that the publicity that is being given to the Inquiry will help all the churches to have a better understanding of where their first responsibilities lie. Society already understands that the protection of children takes priority over every other institutional or financial interest.

In this blog we have spoken a great deal about belonging to a coercive group. I am reflecting on the way that any group which demands our allegiance for whatever reason will easily corrupt our thinking. There is something that happens to us and the functioning of our consciences when we shift between being ‘I and me’ to being ‘we and us’. Something changes. We start to think about the other people who make up the ‘we’. It is natural for us to be protective of them. When a institutional protectiveness has been going on for centuries, as in a religious community, it is likely that the individual conscience and morality is strongly affected. The strongest desire will be to protect to protect the community. That desire will be stronger that the promptings of conscience. Community, in short, may be stronger than individual goodness and conscience.

The Inquiry about child abuse in children’s homes and churches, Anglican and Catholic alike, will have to face this untidy overlap between a loyalty to an institution and the working of individual conscience. It is always a useful task for each of us to look at the way that our consciences are affected by the groups we join and the loyalties we possess. There is bound to be a tension in this double belonging – our conscience and our tribe. But as these child abuse revelations become more and more widely known through the Press, it will be important for Christians in particular to reflect on the human choices that have been made. Some thought they were doing the right thing in favouring the group. Membership of a church has made us naturally group people. But hopefully we never arrive at a place which covers up or fosters the evils of others. Nevertheless, we need to reflect on the way that otherwise good people have chosen to behave this way.

I will of course be returning to the IICSA hearings and to report some more of what they reveal. Little of the information will be brand new but the emotions of those involved, as they are streamed into a home, are a revelation in themselves. We need to ponder on the fact that it has taken a secular organisation to bring to account the Churches for their toleration of the abuse of children. This is a cause of shame but also source of hope that the future of nurturing the young may be done with the greater determination and love. Let us pray that love will overcome the evils of the past.