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Three books on abuse and safeguarding in the Church

16 August 2019

Robin Gill reviews new titles that address the C of E’s abuse scandal

THE book To Heal and Not to Hurt is robustly written by Bishop Alan Wilson and his chaplain Canon Rosie Harper. It begins with 15 anonymised stories “drawn from real experience”, warning that they “may make for distressing reading”.

They depict a wide range of abuse: clerical abuse of young boys or teenage girls, congregations that are homophobic towards gay members, clerical wife-battering premised on wifely subordination, and psychological or “spiritual” abuse. They also examine two of the most shocking instances of abuse within the Church of England which are now in the public domain — by the Anglo-Catholic Bishop Peter Ball and by the conservative Evangelical John Smyth QC.

This makes for deeply distasteful, but essential, reading. Frankly, the radical pro-active decisions made at the crucial 2014 and 2018 General Synod meeting to curb such abuse within the Church should have been taken two decades earlier.

When I was appointed in 1992 to the Michael Ramsey Chair at the University of Kent, the two Archbishops encouraged me to lecture around the Anglican Communion. In the lead-up to the 1998 Lambeth Conference, I soon discovered that, in Canada and Australia particularly, bishops were already facing damaging and costly scandals about historical abuses that they, or their predecessors, had attempted to hide from legal inspection. Bishops had hidden clerical abuse to protect the Church, and had failed to make a moral shift now recognised to be essential — namely, to give priority to those abused, not to the institution.

As To Heal and Not to Hurt points out, other institutions — doctors’ unions, schools, universities, the BBC — were equally slow to make this moral shift. Yet bishops at the 1998 Lambeth Conference must have talked to each other (obsessed as this conference was with sexuality) and should have changed. The anger in this strident book is, I believe, fully justified.

Many reading this review will have completed advanced safeguarding training, as I have done four times. Its principles and procedures (which To Heal and Not to Hurt sets out very clearly) are blindingly obvious. It is tedious and repetitious, but, like long security checks at airports, it is still essential. Never again must people like the egregiously manipulative Peter Ball and John Smyth abuse adolescents over many years for their own sexual gratification. If the BBC is now ashamed of its soft treatment of Jimmy Savile, the Church of England should be doubly ashamed of its equally soft treatment of these two leading Anglicans.

Alan Wilson and Rosie Harper also contribute to Letters to a Broken Church. Wilson is even more forthright here: “One thing thousands of pages of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse evidence has revealed about the Church of England . . . is the large amount of fudge, muddle, mendacity and bodge in the work of its most senior echelons. . . something in the system has turned senior bishops into good people who do bad things without realising how awful they are” (pp. 162-3).

His words are considerably stronger than those used in the same collection by the lawyer Richard Scorer, who is also Vice-President of the National Secular Society: “Anyone who sat through the hearings would certainly recognise that picture. Burnt files. Former Bishop Wallace Benn refusing to acknowledge safeguarding because ‘his primary concern was for the honour of God’. . . Church lawyers interfering with the wording of apologies. . . And revelations that in the Robert Coles case ‘a diocesan bishop, an area bishop, an archdeacon and two safeguarding advisers knew that he had admitted to some of the matters about which he had been questioned by the police, and none of them told the police’” (p.141).

Linda Woodhead, Professor in Religious Studies at Lancaster University, writes, tellingly, that Ball and Smyth: “presented themselves as spiritual mentors for specially chosen young men. . . What’s concerning is the extent they were found credible, even admirable, by many Christians around them, even after their activities were exposed” (pp. 168-69). Incredibly, some argued that safeguarding had gone too far and was bent on persecuting the innocent.

What is even more depressing is that there is near unanimity within Letters to a Broken Church that the present safeguarding measures within the Church of England will not be effective without mandatory reporting and wholly independent and continuous scrutiny in every diocese. Several contributors are sharply critical of the Past Cases Reviews’ conclusion in 2010 that there were only 13 cases still outstanding: “a national whitewash”. declares one critic (p.33).

Ian Elliott, who worked for six years as the Chief Executive for the National Board of Safeguarding Children in the Irish Catholic Church, warns that what “happened in Ireland to the established Church . . . has every chance of happening to the Church of England if they continue as they are doing”: “When questioned, the [Irish Catholic] Church misled and misrepresented the situation as a way of trying to keep the lid on. Eventually, the dangerous practice of cover up collapsed, and the house of cards started to fall” (p.17).

There is a vicious circle facing the Church of England. These books suggest that senior clergy continue to prioritise the reputation of the Church over those who have been abused. They cover up, but are found out when some of the abusers (including a few senior clergy) are successfully prosecuted or posthumously exposed. The Church is accused of hypocrisy and moral failure; so the Church (voluntarily or involuntarily) attempts to become more transparent. Yet this very transparency reveals more clerical abusers. Charges of hypocrisy and moral failure increase. Finally — as has happened so dramatically and swiftly in Ireland — society at large, and even churchgoers, become seriously disaffected. The Church is no longer regarded as virtuous. What a mess.

Recent archbishops would, or should, have known that it was a mess. But their lawyers and insurers, doubtless, told them: admit guilt, and the Church would be bankrupted by claims for compensation from the abused and fraudsters alike. The Decade of Evangelism seems now, tragically, the Decade of Disgrace.

Can Escaping the Maze of Spiritual Abuse: Creating healthy Christian cultures rescue the Church of England (note the subtitle)? Dr Lisa Oakley is Senior Lecturer in Psychology at the University of Chester, and Justin Humphreys, with degrees in child protection and social work, is chief executive of a Christian safeguarding charity. Together, they bring considerable experience of discussing “spiritual abuse” with church groups. Their style is less aggressive than some of the contributors to the other books — didactic rather than polemical, albeit somewhat diffuse.

They have two main aims: “First, that we recognize and respond well to those who have experienced spiritual abuse and learn how to address the harm and damage that has been caused. Second, to focus on the future where Christian communities can be safe and healthy; where individuals can flourish and live out their faith positively” (p.165).

Spiritual abuse, for them, consists of sustained patterns of coercive and controlling behaviour deploying scripture, God’s call, or threats of spiritual consequences. Ball and Smyth were experts in this area. This book would be ideal to give to those who have been abused by such experts. It demonstrates how spiritual abusers operate and how they can be detected reliably.

Clerical abusers, they argue, seldom begin on this path deliberately: “It was a slippery slope that they didn’t necessarily realize they were on — not at least perhaps until it was too late” (p. 114). Perhaps so, but they typically lie when challenged – as Ball and Smyth both did.

Understanding abusers is important, but it does not address these key questions: how do we persuade those in positions of responsibility to make the moral shift of giving priority to the abused and not to protecting the Church? how do we make quite sure that there is never another cover up of clerical abuse? and how do we cope with the disastrous fall-out?

Canon Robin Gill is Emeritus Professor of Applied Theology at the University of Kent and Editor of Theology.


To Heal and Not to Hurt: A fresh approach to safeguarding in Church
Rosie Harper and Alan Wilson
DLT £12.99
Church Times Bookshop £11.70


Letters to a Broken Church
Janet Fife and Gilo, editors
Ekklesia £12.99
Church Times Bookshop £11.69


Escaping the Maze of Spiritual Abuse: Creating healthy Christian cultures
Lisa Oakley and Justin Humphreys
SPCK £10.99
Church Times Bookshop £9.90 

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