Angela Tilby: Let’s not scapegoat individuals

07 June 2019

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THE recent report of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sex Abuse (IICSA) has, not surprisingly, caused the Church deep shame and heart-searching (News, 17 May). Even now, there seems to be an ongoing suspicion in the media that the Church of England has not yet admitted the scale of the problem.

In defence of the Church, I still think that not enough attention has been given to the context in which many of the historic abuse claims took place. It is forgotten now that the 1970s and ’80s were a time in which paedophilia was openly discussed as a legitimate sexual preference.

I remember, as a BBC producer, watching a film crew in a girls’ school. The banter about 12-year-olds in their gym kit seemed unhealthy even at the time. In the ’70s, a Jungian analyst, twice married, and with a wide circle of clients from the media and fashion worlds, told me, quite casually, that boys were his real interest.

While today it is institutions, and Churches in particular, that have come under attack, the authorities should not be distracted from monitoring families, where most sexual abuse takes place. The good thing about the changes in attitude to under-age sex is that abusers can no longer assume that their preferences are as acceptable as anyone else’s.

Of course the Church should have been more alert in the past; but the Church exists in society, and, half a century ago, society was barely aware of the problem. Now, the guilt that comes from our former communal ignorance is being passed round — the one holding the guilt parcel when the music stops gets all the blame. High-profile figures, such as the Prince of Wales and Lord Carey, were ignorant, naïve, and foolish, but no more than most of the rest of society. Of course they could and should have been less gullible: a touch of cynicism, especially in pastoral ministry, is a necessary part of wisdom.

But naming a few individuals should not be a way of avoiding collective responsibility. The recent suspension of the Bishop of Lincoln, for reasons which have not been stated, rings an alarm bell (News, 24 May).

Obviously, the best route for the Church to take in dealing with this mess is to be frank about its failures, and zealous in its care both for victims and those erroneously or maliciously accused. Particularly on the issue of failing to report suspected abuse, getting the balance right between understanding and excusing is not easy, and the Church’s treatment of the accused has not always been fair.

Having volunteered to be the first to wash its linen in front of IICSA, the Church may, in part, be being scapegoated for the wider sins of society. It will not improve things by engaging in scapegoating of its own.

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