If we need any evidence of humankind’s fallen sinfulness then we only have to look at our propensity to do things for our own gain that we know to be wrong and immoral and then doing everything we can to cover our tracks in the hope of getting away with it. Ever since Adam and Eve tried to hide from God in the Garden of Eden, duplicity, deception and leading a double life have been part of human nature. The recent Volkswagen revelations have not only demonstrated this point on a grand scale, but also the calculated and creative lengths we are capable of going to cheat the system. I could discuss the dubious payments at FIFA, Tesco’s imaginary profits or Libor fixing, but there really is no need to labour the point. If anyone thinks the majority of us are going to stay on the straight and narrow without any moral framework to keep us in check, the evidence suggests they need to think again.
Plenty of Christians like to think that the moral high ground is theirs for the taking. And they have good reason to believe this. Humanists rely on the thought that if we were all more reasonable and empathetic then the world would be a lovely place. The problem is that to many of us find making the effort to be constantly reasonable and empathetic is just too much of an effort. It’s so much easier to be self-centred and put our own interests ahead of others. The majority of religions have a habit of preaching salvation by works, but it is not always apparent that the legalism that drives those works is actually capable of increasing the good in us.
Christianity however has the unusual position of acknowledging our weaknesses and inability to constantly do the right thing. It claims that God is the highest moral authority, but rather than expecting us all to strive to meet His ideals, it offers redemption through God’s Spirit dwelling in us. In doing so He refines and changes us, heightening our consciences and turning us away from evil, not by our own strength, but through His.
Even with all the religious illiteracy that is so widespread in our society now, if you make it known that you’re a Christian and then start dropping the odd F-bomb, you’re bound to get at least a few raised eyebrows. The expectation is still there that Christians are likely to behave and act with more self-control and kindness than the average person.
This is as it should be, which is why the news of the former Bishop of Gloucester, Peter Ball being jailed for criminal acts of sexual abuse is so galling. Following Jesus doesn’t make Christians perfect, but to wilfully and repeatedly do what is so obviously wrong is a deliberate rejection of the faith. When this is by someone who has been put in a position of authority to uphold and promote it, the crime is many times worse.
Of course we’ve been there before. This may be the most high profile conviction of a Church of England priest in recent times, but over a hundred more allegations have been made in the last year alone relating to historical abuse in the Church of England. For the Catholic Church it has been far worse globally; in 2010 around 4 per cent of American priests and deacons in active ministry were accused of abusing children in cases dating between 1950 and 2002. Every single one of these cases which is proved to be true represents an utter failure of the Church to be a place of safety where God’s love is demonstrated.
One of the hardest conversations I have ever had involved someone fuming with anger accusing church leaders of being evil hypocrites based on the actions of these priests who have been found guilty. It was not enough to say that not every minister, priest or vicar is like that. For this person these terrible actions had driven them away from a vile God and there was no going back. I came away feeling dirty and ashamed by association and desperately praying that God would somehow rectify this situation, knowing that it would take a miracle for this to happen. What made it even harder for me to defend the Church was knowing that people have known or have discovered what has happened but allowed these people who had no right at all to carry on in their positions to do exactly that.
The situation at Volkswagen has become so incredibly damaging for the company because no one decided to intervene and provide some internal censorship at the early stages. Likewise, Peter Ball’s case is so much worse because he was let off with a caution in 1992 and allowed to carry on. He was guilty of the abuse, but his diocese – which was severely criticised in 2012 for decades of malpractice – and those above him completely failed in their duties too. That sinful desire for self-preservation takes hold far too rapidly when the shit hits the fan. But as we know, the more that we attempt to cover up and ignore such epic failures of duty, the greater the devastation on the day when the darkness is finally exposed in all of its fullness.
If only the church had listened to its own teaching, the accusations of hypocrisy would carry far less weight. Too many people in Peter Ball’s case in 1992 were swayed because of his position and stature, whilst failing to acknowledge the impact of his actions on his victims. The Bible repeatedly tells us not to favour the powerful over the weak, nor to pervert justice by doing so, but that is exactly what happened.
Jesus was brutal in his assessment of these actions: ‘If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.’ (Mt 18:6) Those young men who came to Ball desired to sacrificially serve God and yet he took that honest faith and humiliated it. The subsequent shame has only grown with the lack of action from those who should have intervened. That millstone has their names on it too.
There can be no more excuses – this has gone too far already. The church’s only hope of restoring itself is to repent of everything that comes to light. On his trip to the US, Pope Francis met with victims of child sexual saying “God weeps” for their suffering, but then we hear that he has offended other victims by calling critics of his church’s handling of a sexual abuse case in Chile as ‘dumb’.
There has been so much horrendous damage that has come to light over recent years to allow any space for mixed messages or misinterpretations. What’s done is done. We cannot change the past but we can put the house in order right here, right now. We know there is no reason for the past to be repeated; churches have tightened their safeguarding policies significantly, but they need to be implemented with enthusiasm rather than reluctance, even if they are an inconvenience at times. Churches in their attitude and moral standpoint should be at the forefront of safeguarding and child protection, not running to catch up. We cannot afford to give potential abusers the opportunity to have their way. Victims need to be given the attention and support they deserve, but also those accused falsely should not have to fight against the odds to clear their names.
On Wednesday the Church of England described the actions of Peter Ball as a ‘matter of deep shame and regret’ and apologising unreservedly to his victims. This language is long overdue and needed, as is the freshly announced independent review and the acknowledgement of the need to work more closely with the police. It is the right way forward and must not be compromised or delayed.
The actions of Adam and Eve left a sinful stain on us all and in a similar way the abuse carried out by Peter Ball and those like him have stained the reputation of God’s church and the Christian faith. In God’s power it can be redeemed, but unless the whole Church plays its part, the sight and smell of its festering wounds will continue to turn people away in disgust.