Leader: Admitting to the threat of abuse

02 May 2007

THE BLUNDERING public-relations response to the conviction of Peter Halliday, a predatory choirmaster, was, in one sense, helpful. Had a smooth corporate spokeswoman oiled her way through the media challenges on Thursday of last week, the Church of England would have missed an opportunity to squirm about its past.

As it was, churchgoers felt humiliation and embarrassment by the articulation of a view that is still held by too many: that child abuse is a thing of the past, and that having the correct procedures in place is enough to reassure everyone.

It is an easy thing to be wise after the event. The persistence of paedophile behaviour was known about only patchily in 1985, the time of Peter Halliday’s first known offences. The construction of an adequate child-protection system in the years since then has been a significant undertaking. Grumbles about CRB checks have, fortunately, not deterred the Churches from tightening procedures for the protection of children. It was realised none the less, even at that time, that further assaults were possible — hence the attempt to ban Mr Halliday from working with children.

The fault lay in believing that the Church could order its own affairs in its own way, tempering the rigours of employment and criminal law with pastoral care, and, most probably, prayer that the damage done might be healed and future harm be prevented. Compared with this, the present policy of reporting everything to the police seems unforgiving. But any other course of action would assume the Church is able to police itself, which it obviously cannot do. Whether or not a victim wants the offender punished, he or she would like at least to be assured that no one else will suffer in the same way.

Churches are places of generosity and sacrifice; change, even miraculous change, often occurs in people who attend them. Christianity is a transforming faith. But no Christian is yet fully transformed. It is not enough to assume that the experience of a church as a place of safety is universal. Damaged people are still able to assume positions of power; well-meaning observers too often overlook their misbehaviour, not appreciating the harm that they do to vulnerable members of the congregation.

Of those who commented on the Halliday affair, the present Bishop of Guildford came out best. He said that the affair illustrated “how the Church can exploit and abuse people. . . A mere procedural defence is wholly inadequate. Penitence for the unacceptable face of the Church, sorrow for human sin, must be our response.” It is almost certain that other cases of abuse will emerge from the woodwork — indeed, one campaigner has challenged the C of E to seek past cases actively. It would be good if, in any future case, the Church had its story right.

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