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Ethics & Morality

Clergy sexual abuse: why can’t the Church cleanse its own temple?

“The gross evil of child sexual abuse by Catholic clergy would have gone unexposed had it not been for three principal agencies, all secular.” That’s the damning opening sentence of an article in The Tablet which raises so many complex issues of episcopal authority, ethical transparency and ecclesial accountability and that it’s worth reproducing in full:

tablet child abuse catholic clergy


As with the Roman Catholic Church, so it is with the Church of England.

There are a number of serving bishops who stand accused of turning a blind eye to chronic sexual abuse by other members of the clergy. There are allegations of collusion, manipulation and complicity in cover-up for reputational preservation, and even of cover-up of the cover-up. And the evidence is persuasive and damning. Why is a long-dead bishop like George Bell so readily thrown under a bus over one single, uncorroborated allegation, while living and serving bishops are shielded by a ‘one-year rule’ for a complaint to be made against them? What possible incentive do they have for consenting to dispense with that arbitrary rule when it would mean a discomfiting investigation into their failures and shortcomings? How may one hold diocesan bishops to account during their term of office when the relevant metropolitan bishop refuses to act?

The answer, of course, is that one cannot: they are kings in their dioceses, masters of their parishes, overseers of all boards and councils responsible for ministry and mission. They are immune from external investigation, shielded from the arrows of oversight, and guarded by the episcopal sword of sanctity. And this is apparently immutable, as a recent to the General Synod by the National Safeguarding Steering Group makes clear:

Whatever changes may be made in safeguarding operational structures now and in the future, the accountabilities and responsibilities of bishops, priests and Church officers will remain unchanged. No safeguarding structure, whether internal or external, can take over the core role in mission and ministry of bishops and priests. They need to continue to carry out these duties safely and ensure that others do so too (GS 2092, June 2018, para.71).

The Bishop of Chichester, Martin Warner, was asked by the BBC in October 2017: “If a bishop urged a member of the clergy who was in contact with a victim of abuse to stay quiet and not go to the police or the media, would you consider that to be cover-up?” The Bishop responded: “Yes I would – by today’s standards, in terms of our practice today, that would immediately be the trigger for disciplinary action.”

Which raises the question of why yesterday’s standards – just 15 or 20 years ago – were so deficient. We are talking about the rape and abuse of children and the systematic cover-up of that abuse. When in two millennia of Church history was that ever acceptable? What manner of bishop is more concerned with institutional reputation than with justice for the vulnerable and oppressed? Do they feel more for the sadistic abuser than the raped child? Do they have more respect for clergy who gratify themselves with children than they have for their wounded victims?

One of the qualifications for being a bishop is having a good reputation in the world: ‘Moreover he must have a good report of them which are without; lest he fall into reproach and the snare of the devil‘ (1Tim 3:7). It is one thing to learn privately from past safeguarding failures; quite another to be trusted by outsiders with the care of their children. People within and without want to see a safeguarding structure to help guard bishops from disgrace and the possibility they might fall into the devil’s trap. If the Church can’t do that for itself, for its own living temples, then it should be humble enough to seek and accept the assistance, guidance and mandatory regulation of the State.