Open to abuse

by
16 August 2019

IF ANYONE wonders why so much effort is being poured into safeguarding in the Church, the troubling case of Benjamin Field gives an answer. Field was last week convicted of murdering Peter Farquhar, a 69-year-old retired lecturer, whom he befriended and drugged. At his trial, Field said of his apparent religious faith: “Going to church was about manipulating Peter. It’s where I might meet people who were potential targets.” Trust is a significant commodity in church, despite the odd biblical warning to be as wise as serpents. The typical churchgoer believes well of those who share his or her pew. It is one of the Church’s more attractive characteristics, and draws in many who value such open friendliness and hospitality. As Field revealed, however, it also draws in a few who see naïvety and innocence as invitations to exploit and abuse.

In the past, the Church has, in effect, played the numbers game: one murderous deputy warden to several hundred thousand benign congregants; one abusive priest to several hundred innocent ones. It has made assumptions about people’s trustworthiness and consequently cut corners as far as process is concerned. Such a degree of risk-taking was corrected some time ago as far as finances were concerned: it has long been standard practice to have a second person present when the collection is counted. Care of children has been catching up of late. Care of adults continues to cause concern. We have become used to references to vulnerable adults, but one of the points made in the Field trial was that people “only became vulnerable after meeting him”.

The “lessons-learned” review initiated by the diocese may well identify areas where the threat posed by Field could have been spotted earlier. But it may be necessary to acknowledge that no institution can make itself completely invulnerable to those with a pathological desire to deceive. It is unlikely that Field would have progressed much further towards selection for ministry: psychometric testing is designed to be immune to manipulation by even the cleverest subjects. But rejection would still have left him, as a lay officer, in a position to abuse new victims. He came from a religious background, and had no previous convictions; so no safeguarding process would have picked him up. Had he preyed on children, it is likely that any wrongdoing would have been identified earlier. But because his victims were elderly adults who appeared to be in full control of their senses, he was unhindered until a relative of one of his victims alerted the police.

One lesson to learn, therefore, is that the Church needs to be much more aware of the dangers of exploitation that older people face. It would be wrong to nanny nannies, but the parish stalwarts who keep an eye on their neighbours’ health might need to be a bit more serpentlike when it comes to overseeing their general well-being.

Read more on the story in Andrew Brown’s press column

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