IICSA church of england child abuse
Church of England

Is a diocesan bishop about to break ranks over historic child abuse in the Church of England?

The past few weeks have seen a huge escalation in the accumulation of evidence and opinion on the tragic story of the Church’s safeguarding failures. I write in the context of the Church of England, but the Roman Catholic Church is equally blemished and IICSA (Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse) has announced that it will be looking at similar failures within the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Jewish and Muslim communities. Add these to the well publicised tragedies and wilful blindness within the BBC, and the entire thrust of the IICSA project comes into focus. Institutions have failed vulnerable people across the board.

We seem to have evolved a new aphorism: ‘To err is human, to forgive divine, to minimise and cover up is institutional.’ IICSA represents a search for common themes from which to develop safe practice in both religious and secular contexts.

The latest institutional ecclesiastical failures were recently presented by the Panorama team who began with revelations of historic abuse in the Lincoln Diocese but then concluded, with a timely reminder from Fr Matt Ineson, that these problems are not only historic but ongoing. Even when the fact of error and hardheartedness are plainly established and officially recognised, he feels re-abused by decisions to take ‘no action’ in consequence. To him, it looks like the ‘same old, same old’, and objectively it may be hard to disagree.

Some serious reflection on the issues raised by the programme were presented on the ‘Surviving Church’ blog by retired priest Stephen Parsons, and I would commend his work on ‘Institutional Narcissism‘ and the strategic management of a bad news-flow to all in the Church struggling to make sense of the moral chaos of our institutional handling of this monstrous legacy of abuse. Stephen is emerging as an important voice in the debate – calm, knowledgeable, and in touch with survivors and their struggles.

Justin Humhreys, Chief Executive of the child protection charity Thirtyone:eight, added his considerable weight to the discussion when he expressed the thoughts of many survivor victims in an open letter to our collective leadership:

What is needed within the Church of England (and frankly elsewhere across the wider Church and beyond) is authentic leadership. Leadership that is prepared to lead by example in a proactive exercise of self-reflection that leads to open and honest dialogue (particularly with survivors). Leadership that is not governed, coerced or muzzled by either insurers, lawyers or any other stakeholder that may stand to lose from just exposure and open remorse and repentance. This would be the right thing to do!

In fairness, his strictures are not being ignored:

Such sentiments are entirely congruent with the exploration of safeguarding in the recently published book by Canon Rosie Harper and Bishop Alan Wilson, To Heal and Not to Hurt: a fresh approach to safeguarding in the Church. “A Church that does not pay close attention to the way power is exercised among its own people undermines its own mission”, they conclude. A summary of the books essential thesis can be read at ViaMedia News.

The virtually simultaneous publication of the 250-page IICSA interim report has inevitably caught attention within Church circles, with prompt and somewhat predictable official press releases from the Chichester Diocese and the media centre of Church House. I say ‘somewhat predictable’ with some hesitation, but no lack of sympathy, because faced with the same litany of institutional neglect, cover-up and missed opportunity, one can hardly blame those institutionally responsible for issuing the same kind of response yet again: if they struggle to find new ways of expressing familiar worthy sentiments, who will cast the first stone? Words fail them, inevitably. What is there new to say?

Of course the Church of England regrets; of course its conscientious servants will assiduously study the recommendations (and I say that without irony), and of course hope will be expressed that it will not happen again, even though we all know that, tragically, this is just pious optimism.

Why do manipulative abusers gravitate towards institutions like the Church? Because that’s where the vulnerable are, and no system is perfect. It sounds a counsel of despair, but we live in a fallen world. Yet preparing for failure is not a bad strategy either. We are currently so intent on not failing that when it routinely happens we seem to behold it with a degree of surprise if not incredulity. What would it look like if we viewed it differently?

This ought not to be a hard question for a church that prays confession on a daily basis. In abstract terms we know we are destined to sin again, and perhaps we need to accept that no amount of care and good intention will render us impervious to the wiles of cunning predatory behaviour. We can devise policies, training plans and structures, but when failure strikes how are we to respond to the broken?

In their book, Rosie Harper and Alan Wilson offer fictionalised but useful accounts based on real cases which illustrate the many ways in which our attitudes, structures and policies play out in practice. They are subtly described; even those contributing to sins of omission and commission are humanised. The book is worth reading for these observations alone, because until one hears such stories it is hard for ordinary people to get a measure of the problems the abused face, both as primary victims or as recipients of official responses that are, by varying degrees, clumsy or downright cruel. The former are more common but no less hurtful in effect.

What we have yet to devise effectively is a system of reliable and compassionate response; one which is fair to all parties but focused on those we have harmed. We are still some way off that.

Another book entitled Letters to a Broken Church (due to be published soon) collates a variety of responses to our difficulties, but lest one thinks the Church uniquely inadequate in this regard, I ought to flag up in passing that MP Sarah Champion has been undertaking similar work on how the Government fails adult survivors of child sexual abuse.

I suspect few readers will be clicking and reading all the links I have provided: material is coming thick and fast, and I haven’t even touched on the issues of the Seal of Confession or the decision by the House of Bishops to oppose the suggestion that responsibility for safeguarding oversight should be placed outside the Church. That alone is a huge question which could usefully engage time at the upcoming York Synod.

If our responses are well-intentioned but still unconvincing to many victims (which, frankly, they are), we might usefully ponder the following communication I have just received from on of the victims of John Smyth. He is struggling to get answers about who accepts responsibility for the failed oversight of ‘The Church of England’s Jimmy Savile’, not least with the denial by the church that the Iwerne camps were essentially an Anglican project – a claim refuted with some force by Private Eye.

The victim, known as Graham, observes:

..it is impossible to see who is in charge (and separately who is in power). With Dioceses, Lambeth Palace, Church House , the National Safeguarding Team, the National Safeguarding Steering Group, Bishop Peter Hancock, Sir Roger Singleton, Meg Munn, Melissa Caslake, General Synod, the House of Bishops, Archbishops’ Council (blimey, I am out of breath)…… not one has the power, personality, commitment (or brief ?) to grab the bull by the horns and force change. That is my outsider perspective.

As if this cat’s cradle of overlapping roles were not enough to stymie purposeful reform, a tweet from the newly-appointed Bishop of Bristol, Vivienne Faull, added another important dimension:

Is there sufficient focus and the will to cut through this institutional complexity and urgently deliver healing to the brokenness? From her concluding sentence, the answer to that question may not be as self-evident as we might hope.