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.