emotional abuse church
Church of England

Emotional abuse in the Church: Bishops need psychological help

There is a Jewish proverb that a good name is worth more than precious stones. In this reflective and penitential season of Lent, members of the Church of England House of Bishops probably have the grace to acknowledge that their reputation is less than high amongst the survivors of church abuse. They may spend part of the season pondering what can be done about it.

We could start by acknowledging the wisdom of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s address to the February General Synod where he urged us to give up cynicism for Lent, and it was with this in mind that I spent much of my time during that Synod in dialogue away from the debating floor.

Others kept the issue alive. I was pleased that the Rev’d Dr Simon Taylor of Derby Cathedral pointed out the incongruity of General Synod legislating for parochial church councils to place the subject of safeguarding on each and every meeting agenda, while not following the example itself. Similarly, David Lamming unsuccessfully sought to extend Question Time so that we could address the safeguarding questions which had been forced out of the allotted time by 30 questions – a quarter of those tabled – on transgender liturgy. It did not seem the happiest of prioritisations.

I might easily have relapsed into cynicism, yet conversations with survivors beforehand had led me to consider approaching our church’s problems from a different angle. I found my discussions with senior bishops, and others, surprisingly encouraging, so let me share it more widely.

From a variety of sources, it is clear that very few victims trust the institutional Church. This is despite expressions of regret, the purposeful reform of policy and training, promises of further structural change, and the best efforts of our lead Safeguarding Bishop, Peter Hancock, who has met with many victims and listened attentively to their harrowing stories, all the while knowing that the weight of expectation upon him could probably not be fulfilled. So what can be done to restore trust? What is going wrong? Why is it that every effort made to accommodate those we have wronged seems to fall short. We are probably sufficiently sophisticated not to engage directly in ‘victim blaming’, but that notwithstanding, everyone involved must be wondering what more we can do.

The answer sounds initially bleak. The Bishops can probably do very little to make most victims trust them. That is not cynicism, but a proper understanding of the depth of the problem. This does not mean we should give up – on the contrary – but it may well require a certain amount of outside help, which is where the psychologists come in. It certainly requires a lot of humility.

I am slightly embarrassed not to have identified this earlier, but we are all learning and feeling our way forward. About 10 days before Synod met I had been talking to a victim who was feeling unnecessarily guilty for publicly criticising someone in the church whom he acknowledged had tried to help him. I wanted to be encouraging, and in the course of our talk I remarked that he had no reason to feel guilty about emotional vacillation; this was entirely to be expected in a person who had been dreadfully abused and re-abused. To anyone familiar with the responses of victims to their dreadful predicament, a degree of anger is entirely normal and predictable: there was no need for guilt about it. I then realised the significance of what I was saying. Afterwards I kicked myself that the penny had not dropped sooner – I ought to have known better.

It is simple to understand that sexual abuse is bad, but such abuse is almost inevitably accompanied by emotional abuse which is less understood and much more difficult to put right. Essentially, emotional abuse is not an act or an event, but rather a relationship; a description of a serious impairment of the capacity to build relationship arising out of the personal interactions and the significant power imbalance which always exists in such cases. The power may be physical, emotional, intellectual spiritual or organisational. A child who does not know from day to day whether ‘nice mummy’, ‘nasty mummy’, ‘distant mummy’ or ‘wholly absent mummy’ will turn up is always going to find it hard to build secure enduring relationships.

Emotional abuse is notoriously difficult to fix. The earlier it occurs in life the more likely it is to yield entrenched harm. Some victims have greater resilience or susceptibility than others, but one can usefully discuss generalities here to explain the problems it presents.

Statistically, an emotionally abused person will disproportionately have consequential difficulties with mental health, issues such as substance abuse, and be prone to difficulty building and sustaining enduring relationships. Some will not, but the correlations are well known, serious, and often intractable. When your interior world has been infected with justifiable chronic distrust of those you should be able to rely upon, all within a category of mistrust fall under suspicion – parents, adults, even bishops. If you have ever encountered the life-long suspicion of a dog, abused when a puppy, the point is easily grasped.

Clergy victims will be similarly distrustful. Why wouldn’t they be? It is the emotional impact of their blighted experience of life within the Faith that delivers such toxicity, not least because the cleric will have abused his/her office at multiple levels. Some might be primary abusers, but others will be similarly tainted by an institutionally inadequate response for which they may or may not bear personal responsibility. It is a complex problem.

A birth parent will often have implicitly commended the abuser to the young victim as a person of trust. The abuser will have abused a reputation of trust. Often they will be attractive, charismatic (often overly narcissisticly so), and they will carry the approval of a trusted institution. Worse, the force of Holy Scripture can be and frequently is employed as a tool to enable the abuse. The more the Church environment extols the prestige and authority of the cleric, the easier it is for the abuser to operate. One only has to consider the descriptions of Bishop Peter Ball and John Smyth to see these features at work.

The victim’s natural defences and perspectives are deformed within the process of grooming, and inevitably thereafter distrust of others outlasts the detection of the crime.

Yet this is where the Church of England (and, indeed, the wider Church) inadvertently replicates the problem. Very few in the responding church hierarchy deliberately set out to re-abuse a victim, though a high self-regard or inflexibility will inevitably take one very close to the edge. Yet how often do ordinary people doing their best actually contribute to re-abuse? It is probably more common than we think.

What part of Church will the victim encounter today? The disbelieving ‘surely not’ Church? The ‘saying the right thing’ Church, which seems reassuring but then takes three weeks to respond? The officious ‘we have our procedures’ Church? Or perhaps the ‘I know exactly what you need before listening’ Church? One could go on. Whenever the Church takes charge of the victim’s story, however benignly motivated, it is mirroring the abusive experience: so often the dis-empowering of ‘leave it to us’ heaps disrespect onto powerlessness; hot coals upon wounded heads.

Then there is the ‘yes but’ Church, anxious to offer prematurely what one victim has described as the “exculpatory narrative”, or as the great football manager Bill Shankly once described it: “getting your retaliation in first”. When the institution is perceived to be seizing control of the situation, that amounts to ‘re-abuse’. It is in the very nature of institutional abuse that the behaviour is clumsy rather than aimed, but it is no less damaging for that.

Most of this is of course unintended. It is, however, negative and infuriating, not least because many of the victims are highly intelligent and articulate. Even when they are able to tell their stories to a sympathetic listening ear, it will be no panacea. It takes time, patience and humility to allow fragile trust to rebuild. Most bishops may not have that time to listen, and offering a narrow time-slot in a busy schedule also has its down side. How many abusers will have told their victims of their insignificance as part of the ‘resistance is futile’ story line? Insufficient time afforded during the listening process reaffirms that. Fractured relationship can only be restored through healing relationship, and if those charged with making progress genuinely and reasonably do not have the time to build an ongoing productive dialogue, accepting the likelihood of slippage and regression, misunderstanding, the need for pause and reflection, it is far better not even to attempt an inadequate process, however much a desire for conciliation may exist.

In this regard I have been pleased to hear two bishops telling me that mediation sounds good, but it is quite inappropriate in most cases. Mediation works between those who misunderstand one another. There can be no misunderstanding between abused and abuser, so no mediation is feasible; indeed, it can muddy the water. In many cases the only way forward is a peace and reconciliation process.

From the conversations I have had, I believe we are gradually feeling our way forward. I do not pretend to have fully grasped what needs to be done, but I have discerned from many conversations within church and the victim community that this is the road we need to travel. All the institutional reforms are still needed and we must support those working on them, but these necessary steps are not going to heal those we have persistently let down, initially and still even now. I have suggested in all seriousness that perhaps the Bishops need psychological help – not in a confrontational sense, but in terms of approaching a neutral professional body to help us locate those skilled in this area to enable us to better define and refine the way in which our institution engages with those who are quite right to view us with distrust: what can be said; what is the ‘unhelpful response’; how might we stop making things worse by simple lack of understanding of the complex issues.

The more one explores this idea, the more obvious it becomes.

One victim told me a touching story of having taken into his home a terribly ill-treated and permanently damaged dog. The broken victim and the broken creature sat at opposite ends of the sofa for weeks, the little dog utterly distrustful of all humankind. The dog was absolutely right to be suspicious. The key to progress was not expecting anything, but rather understanding that we do not deserve to be trusted by those whom our kind have injured. We need total contrition, daily expressed: we cannot ‘do’ much, but simply wait, offering reliability and total commitment with love. A premature move might result in a snarling response, and the clock then has to be reset. We are responsible for this, so it is for us to accept the consequences, however difficult we may find it.

The timing of healing and restoration of trust is not within our gift, but the determination not to give up certainly is. I think this is a useful image for the Church during Lent as we contemplate how to restore our victims and bring reconcilaition. We do not deserve forgiveness; we cannot insist on engagement or make it happen; we can only engage in daily repentance and be grateful if and when any form of progress or forgiveness is offered. Sometimes that will be in small degrees.

During Lent we remind ourselves that we do not deserve Christ’s forgiveness and can do nothing of our own motion to make it happen. The same applies to our victims. We can only repent, pray, and live in the hope of grace.