Church of England

When did child abuse become the unforgivable sin?


The secret trial of Bishop George Bell still tolls. Having been convicted in absentia and post mortem of child abuse, we have since learned that the victim was a five-year-old girl and the compensation awarded to her by the Church of England’s Cadaver Synod was £15,000. ‘Carol’ has written at length about her abuse in the Brighton Argus. That was very brave. “He said it was our little secret, because God loved me,” she recalls, telling us of the four dark and lonely years of molestation she endured at the hands of one entrusted to be a shepherd of the sheep. It is harrowing and appalling, and the church is right to have listened and cared for ‘Carol’ with love and compassion.

But – and it’s a very important ‘but’ – the Bishop of Durham, the Rt Rev’d Paul Butler, who is also Church of England’s ‘Advocate for Children’ and chairman of the Churches National Safeguarding Committee, told the House of Lords that the Church of England was not convinced of Bishop George Bell’s guilt:

Secondly, I refer to what I said earlier: this is not to denigrate in any way the amazing work done by Bishop George Bell. He was an astounding man and leader of the church. But we also have to recognise that it is possible for great people to make mistakes. In fact, if noble Lords read very carefully the statements that have been put out, they will see that there has been no declaration that we are convinced that this took place. It is about the balance of probabilities and what might have happened if it had come to light at an earlier date (Hansard, 28 January 2016, Column 1516).

The Bishop has since provided “further clarity‘ on this comment: “The church therefore, having evaluated the evidence before them, accepted the veracity of the claims before them,” he now says. This “further clarity” appears to flatly contradict what the Bishop told Their Lordships a few weeks ago. Peter Hitchens judiciously fillets the schizophrenic inconsistencies:

If you are not convinced of claims that something took place, how can you simultaneously accept the veracity of those claims? This is incoherent and contradictory. Both cannot possibly be true. Where does that leave the Bishop of Durham who has now put his name to both statements, within a fortnight of each other? I have heard of being in two minds, but this is ridiculous.

Did the Bishop of Durham mislead the House of Lords? Inadvertent as it may have been, he admits: “my words were not as clear as they could have been”. Certainly, those who heard his words would have been led to believe – not unreasonably – that the Church of England was not convinced that this abuse took place. It might have done, but those who sat in the Cadaver Synod and listened to the victim’s testimony were not sufficiently convinced of the abuse to issue a statement of how certain and sure they were.

But let us for a moment accept that it all took place exactly as ‘Carol’ describes. Let us suspend audi alteram partem and entertain her testimony to the point of absolute veracity. It is one account by one victim. Why does that matter? It is no less of a sin than that of the serial predatory paedophile priest who preys on dozens of young girls and boys, raping and torturing his victims just to satisfy his perverted lust. But is it less of a vice? Is it less of a crime?

Christians convicted of any crime may, of course, be forgiven by God, but they must still bear the earthly retributive consequences of their actions. Yet Bishop George Bell has not been found guilty of any crime, as the Rt Rev’d Paul Butler explains:

There will be those who will be unsatisfied with the above process, desiring a decision to have been taken on a criminal test of beyond reasonable doubt. This was of course not possible due to George Bell having been long deceased. In any event it is entirely possible for someone who is found not to be guilty in a criminal trial to be found to have acted wrongfully in a civil claim.

The Church of England has found Bishop George Bell guilty of the vice and sin of child abuse “on the balance of probabilities”. His name has therefore been removed from the former archdeaconry which honoured his memory, and Bishop Bell School is also expunging all memory of the man.

What if a bishop’s widow comes forward decades after her husband’s death and tells the church that he used to punch her with his bare fists until her eyes were black and blue? Is wife-beating a lesser crime than child abuse? What if a bishop’s son comes forward decades after his father’s death and tells the church that his father used to beat him with the buckle end of a belt until he bled and grieved long nights in agony? Is the physical beating of children a lesser crime than fondling their genitalia? What if a bishop’s wife and son come forward decades after the man’s death and tell the church that this husband and father was no saint, but a serial drunkard and adulterer?

Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind,
Nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God.(1Cor 6:9f).

There is no specific mention of child abuse in this list, though we may not unreasonably extrapolate and extend meaning: some translations do render ‘fornicators’ more generically as ‘sexually immoral’. But note how the church now bends over backwards to understand and empathise with the struggles of drunkards, thieves, adulterers and homosexuals, and not only to the point of compassionate tolerance, but affirmation of choices made (or genetic predispositions endured) in this enlightened age of moral relativity. Why do we not care about the bishop who is infrequently drunk or living with his same-sex partner, but damn the bishop who abused a little girl at the age of five?

But whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea (Mt 18:6).

Is that it? Is it the matter of lawful consent? Is it such a graver sin to harm a child than it is an adult? What, then, do we make of ‘which believe in me‘? Is it a lesser sin to harm an atheist child than it is a Christian one? Of course not: the point is the huge burden of responsibility upon believers not to cause others to stumble. The children here are all who are weak, lowly and vulnerable. Not everyone may resist the snares and traps of alcohol and beautiful women or men. And idols? Do they not confront us with the perpetual threat of apostasy in a fallen world?

By judging the grievous sins of Bishop George Bell 70 years on, are we not in danger of distorting his sin in the half-light of contemporary societal magnification? If his known sin and contemporary public shame had been to have had consensual sex with a 18-year-old young man (in an age where no such consent was lawful), would that sin now now be expunged, his criminal record wiped clean and his reputation restored? What if his vice had been hebephilia instead of paedophilia? What if 70 years hence society inclines to the view that both are simply alternative sexual orientations, from which there is no genetic escape and no lawful or moral disapprobation?

And such were some of you: but ye are washed, but ye are sanctified, but ye are justified in the name of the Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit of our God (1Cor 6:11).

Bishop George Bell was a secret sinner. Who’d have thought it? How do we know he didn’t confess his covert crimes to his brothers and crawl to his Lord weeping for forgiveness? Is the Church not called to forgive with a pardon that knows no bounds? Is it not called to give all the benefit of doubt to the sinner? In a fallen world in which Christians – even bishops – may influence one another to evil, should we not be mindful that even all the good we do and all our righteousness is nothing but filthy rags before the Lord (Isa 64:6). The salvific cycle is sin, repentance and forgiveness – to be repeated seven times a day, if necessary. The cycle is not sin, conjectured hard-heartedness and ruthless reputation-trashing.

If George Bell abused ‘Carol’, he can and must be forgiven by the Church of England because he has been forgiven by God. There needs no increased allocation of faith, but simply the active exercise of faith which will prove adequate to the demands confronting us. If the name of Bishop George Bell is to be expunged from the Church’s calendar (Paul Butler says “no decisions have been made”), then all those saints whose feast days stand as memorials to their righteousness must beware: if, on the balance of probabilities, they are deemed posthumously to have committed a grave sin, they must be summoned to the Cadaver Synod of the Church of England, where expert, independent reports and contemporary testimonies will be weighed. And if the saints are found wanting, no school will thereafter bear their name.

Child abuse is a grave sin, but it is not unforgivable: it is not blasphemy against the Holy Spirit (Mk 3:28f). If child abuse is to become the sin that blots out all apprehension of goodness, generosity, kindness and moral virtue, then let us examine the lives of the sainted monks, bishops, abbots, hermits and martyrs of the past 2,000 years. We’re sure to find a secret sinner or two – on the balance of probabilities.