THE diocese of Chichester should not be too hasty in its attempts to consign sexual abuse to history, a new report suggests.
The diocese was marked out by the Independent Inquiry into Child Sex Abuse (IICSA) for special interest, based on the number of high-profile cases of abuse. An earlier report by Dame Moira Gibb also examined aspects of abuse in Sussex.
This week, the diocese quietly published a third report, Sexual Abuse by Clergymen in the Diocese of Chichester: ‘You Can’t Say No to God’, which was written by Professor David Shemmings from the University of Kent, and his wife Yvonne Shemmings, who works with him in training and research.
The authors warn the diocese “not to be tempted to approach the future by adopting the mantra ‘That was then; this is now’.
“Inevitably there is now an understandable need to move on from what many believe has been a terrible stain on the diocese, but this can, in our view, only be safely and respectfully done by regularly training everyone’s collective eyes and ears on what happened in the past.”
Children were “sexually abused and humiliated” throughout the diocese, at all levels of seniority among the clergy, the authors write. “[Children] were sometimes plied with drink or drugs (and sometimes both). . . They were sometimes made to feel that the abuse they suffered was their fault or, even worse, ordained and sanctioned by God. As one of the individuals interviewed put it ‘You can’t say “No” to God.’”
The Shemmings were commissioned by the diocese to conduct a “small qualitative research study and review of key documents” to understand why the abuse happened. They interviewed 17 people, among them survivors of abuse, investigating police officers, and safeguarding professionals, to discover patterns of offending behaviour and victimisation, as well as possible links between offenders, institutions, and organisational responses.
In their analysis, the authors pick out patterns of secrecy and fear. “The apparent ‘openness’ of a diocese where, theoretically at any rate, people can come and go as they please, requires additional and more subtle levels of coercion. . . The level of fear some of the abusers instilled in the children and young people was pernicious and sometimes extreme.”
The use of alcohol and expensive gifts to groom children was common, and the power wielded by abusers who “mixed with the rich” was clear, they write.
There was a “difference of opinion” among interviewees, however, about whether this abuse was “unique” to Chichester, whether abusers were “predatory” and chose the Church or diocese because it presented an opportunity to abuse, or “whether there was something endemic about the ‘closed’ (some said ‘secretive’) community within the Church, which, coupled with the requirement for homosexual priests to remain celibate, produces in some men an unquenchable and unrequited need for intimate close relationships that can sometimes cross a line and become abusive and even coercive.”
The report also explores the “grey area” surrounding the idea of a wider “cover-up” of abuse by the Church, concluding that there were “degrees” of cover-up at different levels, and “a culture of unheeded or ignored warnings”. Not all survivors agreed that the diocese had “allowed” the abuse to take place.
While there might not be concrete evidence of a “paedophile ring” in the diocese, it states, “it would perhaps be unwise to assume that what happened was simply a series of separate events involving sexual offenders who had no idea of the existence of the activities of other offenders in the same organisation.”
It deplores the idea that the diocese might spend money to “rehabilitate” current offenders, which, it says, would be “disrespectful and insensitive” to survivors of the original abuse; but it suggests that “sexual offenders should be offered the opportunity to change.” The question of whether to destroy the “memorabilia” of offenders was also contested.
The report concludes with three recommendations: first, that the diocese hold a series of filmed conferences and seminars for “different audiences” on subjects tht include supporting survivors, screening applicants, and celibacy and intimate relationships. It also has suggestions about re-evaluating recruitment practices, restricting unsupervised access to children, prosecuting offenders, and supporting survivors.
It also suggests that more research is needed to understand sexual offending and why it takes place, particularly in a church context.
A survivor of abuse in the diocese, Phil Johnson, said on Wednesday said that the report “gives voice” to survivors of abuse in the diocese. “The fragmented and tribal structure and lack of supervision and accountability clearly contributed to a culture where abuse was allowed to thrive and go unchallenged and then to be minimised or dismissed once it was known about.
“The diocese still tries to recoil from the notion that abuse was organised in Sussex, but this report clearly shows that there was cooperation between some of the abusers and between those who failed to deal with it properly. . . There has always been an inclination to deal with embarrassing scandal internally and minimise repetitional damage, and this report goes some way to exploring the reasons why and how that was allowed to happen.
“It is not an easy read but it is well worth it and I believe that it will contribute to the understanding of how abuse happens, how it is not addressed adequately and why it is only the tenacity of the victims that eventually brings it into the light.”
A spokesperson for the diocese said on Wednesday that the report was “not a survey of the current state of the diocese with regard to safeguarding. . . Our aim is to continue to work relentlessly to ensure that everyone in the diocese of Chichester can worship and work together in a safe environment.”
An introductory statement from the diocese agrees that the report “makes for difficult reading, particularly as it shines light on elements of the culture of the diocese and its churches that contributed to abuse of the vulnerable. . .
“No matter how difficult it is to hear the voices in this report, particularly those of victims whose experience challenges the diocese to its core, it is vital that we approach these perspectives with an open mind and a humble attitude, recognising the depth of hurt that has been caused and the moral imperative that is placed on us as a result, to do all we can now to ensure that children and adults are safe in our churches.”