IN THE wake of the scathing report by Dame Moira Gibb on the Peter Ball affair, Lord Carey has acknowledged his fault. Being an honorary bishop in the Oxford diocese may be a small sword, but he fell on it promptly, without attempting to excuse his behaviour. There is no suspicion that Lord Carey’s defence of Bishop Ball was because he sympathised with his crime, or was attracted to his form of spirituality. Thus the culture of the Church at that time is laid bare: the prime concern was how to manage those accused of abuse so that: a) in the words of the Gloucester registrar, the Church was spared “enormous embarrassment, to say the least”; and b) the Church’s pastoral responsibility to one of its ministers was fulfilled. Not only were accusers ignored: they were treated as a nuisance, especially if the priest in the affair denied the accusation. Dame Moira makes the valid point that Peter Ball was particularly plausible; but the Church made little effort to test his story against that of his victims.
That last paragraph is written in the past tense. The problem for survivors is that the effects of the abuse can still be very present. They are not naïve: they know that those who prey on vulnerable children and adults are adept at covering their tracks. Survivors, in the main, are inclined not to blame the institution for the damage caused to them by one individual. What they do blame the Church for is ignoring warnings and allowing perpetrators to continue in ministry unchallenged and, in the worst instances, free to abuse others. And survivors are acutely sensitive to any attempts to defend or protect the institution. This is not because they themselves are particularly difficult or demanding: it is a legacy of the abuse. A standard technique of abusers is to persuade their victims that they are colluding with the abuse. Peter Ball, like John Smyth at the opposite end of the ecclesiological spectrum, persuaded his victims that what was done to them was part of their Christian formation. This is not easily shaken off, as attested by those who go on to take their own lives, as in the case of Neil Todd, one of Peter Ball’s victims. Thus, every time the Church apologises, it chips away at the victim’s guilt and self-doubt, breaking one link of the chain forged by the abuser. Every time the Church seeks to shift the blame, a little of it is assumed by the victim, even years after the original abuse. Above all else, such abuse perverts, perhaps for ever, the victim’s relationship with Christ. Christ had something to say about such abusers: “It were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and be cast into the sea.” These are not people that the Church wants to be defending.
Besides an open acknowledgement of their innocence, survivors most want to see evidence that others will not suffer the same fate. Dame Moira’s verdict is that “faster improvement is still required.” For all its safeguarding protocols, the Church must acknowledge that it is still not the safe place that it aspires to be.