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Hearing the cries of the abused

14 July 2017

The Peter Ball case shows that a culture change is urgently needed, says Peter Selby

John Stillwell/PA Archive/PA Images

Guilty: Peter Ball arrives at the Old Bailey in 2015 to be sentenced

Guilty: Peter Ball arrives at the Old Bailey in 2015 to be sentenced

THOSE of us who once bore the responsibilities that now rest on the shoulders of our successors will be praying for them as they struggle with the issues raised by the in­­dependent review of the Peter Ball case, chaired by Dame Moira Gibb (News, 30 June).

They have not only to respond to the individuals who rightly expect that there will be an outpouring of compassion, repentance, and care. Their responsibilities are made the graver because this report illumin­ates a culture: one in which we, their predecessors, were in our time com­plicit, and for which, therefore, we remain accountable. Our prayers for all who bear these responsib­ilities now need to be characterised by self-examination, and, in particu­lar, examination of the part that we played in forming the communal life of the Church.

Survivors do not really trust that the Church of England is capable of the depth of change that is needed, and they ask that we entrust safe­guarding issues to some external body — a request as understandable as it is shocking. Has the Church really come to a point where it has to rely on the wisdom of others to make it a safe place for its vulner­able and its children? It seems so.

It seems that we — not just the individuals who are named, but all who have ever played a part in the formation of this Church’s culture — have to ask ourselves how this culture of abuse and cover-up ever came to be. Those who are the victims and survivors of it imagine, plausibly enough, that we must have sensed the culture within which we were operating, and which we chal­lenged too little, if at all. What they are rightly asking is how we failed to name that culture and give to the remedying of it our fullest energy of heart and mind.

For sure, it was not that we lacked energy to reflect on sex and rela­tionships, and what people — mostly other people — should do about them. We spent decades, after all, on marriage after divorce, and we have probably a few more decades yet — not to men­tion the ones that we have already spent — deciding the sexual ethics of the same-sex at­­tracted. Those argu­ments show that we have stores of in­­tellect and passion to devote to sex­u­ality and the issues that it raises.

But, all the while, the Gibb report declares, things went on under our noses which we did not dare confront. Even now, we find it hard to face the fact that it was in the Church that such abusive behaviour was allowed to happen. Because it happened in the Church, it was often hidden behind a veil of religious excuse; so that those suffering abuse had the additional burden of having their faith in God undermined also.


HOW shall we set about remedying such a culture, and not simply de­­ploring it? We desperately need to access the wisdom that is offered in the scriptures and has informed the Church’s history. That wisdom is not simply about individuals and the holiness of life that they need on the road to salvation, and what causes them to lapse from it. Rather, it is supremely about the develop­ment of a holy people; and so it gives us some clear pointers to exactly the institutional psychology, and particularly the frequently distorted psy­chology of religious institutions, that has brought us to this point.

We know, after all, that deviation from the ways enjoined on a holy people is not an abstract matter, but, rather, happens because it serves the interests of the most powerful indi­viduals and groups within the society. We know from the stories of the prophets — and most of all from our Lord himself — what happens to those who challenge unholy cultures, and at whose hand they are likely to experience the revenge that the powerful exact from those who threaten them.

We also know that, in that pro­cess, the holy purposes for which reli­gious practice exists are subverted: instead of chal­len­ging deviation, it is per­verted, so as to obscure it and even justify it. It is that institutional deviation that allows those with more power than the rest to occupy their positions undis­turbed by the turbu­lence that would be un­­leashed by chal­lenges to abusive cultures.


SO, OUR conversations about sexual matters have been character­ised by a large element of self-serving. We have been able to speak — and even passionately disagree — about selected sexuality topics; and we know that institutional change has happened only when the num­ber of those personally affected reaches a critical mass in the places where power resides: among bishops, or in the General Synod. At that point, things change; until then, those who seek change are seen as the cause of the turbulence that challenges to the culture invariably occasion.

So maybe now the courage of survivors will be rewarded with serious change. That is to be hoped. But along the way we need to learn about cultures that serve those whose interest lies in no change, and even no discussion. Hypocrisy, one of the marks of deviant culture which our Lord most consistently un­­earthed, is precisely acting as though all is well, and leaving it to those who know differently to suffer the abuses that are festering be­­neath.

In drawing attention to that feature of institutional life which allows camels to be swallowed while gnats are assiduously and ener­getically strained, our Lord is, of course, using irony to contrast what we swallow with what we strain out. But, besides contrasting, he is also stating a most troubling connection: had we not been so selective in the issues we discussed, we might have responded appropriately — cultur­ally — to the cries of the abused.


The Rt Revd Dr Peter Selby is a former Bishop of Worcester.

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