THE sentencing of Bishop Peter Ball last week marked a staging post on the road to clearing up the Church of England’s record on clerical sexual abuse. That the Church is not further along that road is due to a combination of ineptitude, financial anxiety, the speed of judicial processes, and the depths of human sinfulness. Mr Justice Wilkie, explaining his sentencing of Bishop Ball, blamed him for deceiving his peers: "The Established Church, by its inability, for a long time, to recognise the truth of much of what was being said against you, itself has suffered damage to its reputation and its collective sense of itself as a just and compassionate body. This, too, is a consequence of your misconduct." It is not to let the Church off the hook to acknowledge that it has had to deal with supremely manipulative people, of whom Bishop Ball was only the most prominent.
One of the hardest lessons for the Church to learn is that it cannot be relied upon to sort out its own affairs. It is only now rebuilding trust by adopting secular standards of safeguarding, including referring suspected cases to the police. This does not necessarily mean that the element of mercy has been lost: Mr Justice Wilkie acknowledged his desire to give Bishop Ball "credit for the good in your life". But courts of law are better than the church hierarchy at balancing out mercy for the perpetrator and justice for his victims. One of the most painful aspects for the victims in clerical abuse cases that come to light is the apparent readiness of the institution to extend forgiveness to the abuser without reference to the wishes or condition of those who have been harmed.
There are two aspects that should be considered — only one of which is likely be looked at by the Archbishop’s investigation, announced last week. The first is the nature of institutional collusion in the covering up of these crimes. Whatever is concluded about Lord Carey’s involvement in the Ball case, many in the Church’s hierarchy undoubtedly favoured the intelligent, urbane, good-doing fellow priest over his victims, who, if they were allowed to express themselves at all where they might be heard, could too often be dismissed as vulnerable, disturbed, and implausible. This respect of persons, the reverse of Christ’s teaching and example, is hard-wired into human institutions, and resisted only with the utmost rigour.
The other aspect brought out by the case — and one perhaps too nebulous for a formal investigation — is the apparent failure of religion. Bishop Ball lived by a religious rule, led an apparently austere life under a strong Franciscan influence, preached and celebrated the eucharist often. And yet all this Christianity was unable to prevent his manipulation of young men for his own sexual pleasure. Those who pursue the religious life know only too well the persistence of sin — and this shared experience is certainly one element in the readiness to tolerate sinfulness in others. But people outside the faith can hardly be expected not to ask about its efficacy when it fails so spectacularly at both the individual and the institutional level.