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Comment: how the Church can end its abuse culture  

14 October 2020

Policies and procedures are not enough to stop abuse, says Ian Black. Much deeper changes are needed


The IICSA report on the Anglican Church, published last week

The IICSA report on the Anglican Church, published last week

THE publication of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) report last week brought no surprises (News, 9 October). Much of it had been reported last year by Hattie Williams in the Church Times and released in the interim report, but, in the words of the Archbishop of York in a response to Rosie Harper on Twitter, on Sunday: “I hope I’ll never stop being shocked and distressed until we have changed.”

And there lies the rub: how to change?

We have policies — reams of them. We have procedures which are clear and have been clear for nearly two decades. All of the failures to act over the past 20 years went against these clear and agreed policies and procedures. I was clear as a vicar — why weren’t those in more senior positions? What went wrong?

I think that part of the answer lies in what psychologists call “wilful blindness”; not so much the Black Swan of the unexpected, but the Black Elephant of the unpalatable.


IN A piece of research into companies in which things went wrong — Thinking the Unthinkable by Nik Gowing and Chris Langdon (John Catt Educational, 2018) — more than 200 CEOs interviewed admitted that the signs of the problem were there in the room, they just either didn’t see what was in front of them or chose to ignore it.

The authors list several important areas which kept cropping up in the interviews, the reasons given for not seeing or ignoring the warning signs:

  • Short-termism (not looking long enough ahead or wide enough around).
  • Confusion (the pace of change being fast, volatile, complex, impeding seeing what is really going on).
  • Fear of career-limiting moves (being frightened to confront what otherwise should be confronted; someone is going to get angry).
  • Risk eversion (ironically given the outcome — a highly litigious context makes opening up a can of worms risky).
  • Purpose (a sense of existential dislocation).
  • Lack of inclusivity and diversity (and the blind spots this brings).
  • Groupthink and institutional conformity (the cultural pressure to fit in and not challenge accepted thinking).
  • Being overwhelmed (too much to think about – the brain doesn’t have capacity for this challenge).

These echo some of Margaret Heffernan’s work on “wilful blindness”. She was interested in why people don’t do what they were expected to do and see what they should have seen. Her book by the same name (Simon & Schuster, 2019) explores how our brains naturally edit the world in order to process it and therefore function within it. It is just too complex if we don’t, and we form emotional attachments which mean that the consequences of seeing can be too great to confront; so we “don’t see”. New information is assimilated into what we expect to see or are concentrating on.

What is more, we are biased towards that which makes us feel good about ourselves, preferring not to see that which disturbs. It is a preference for agreement, amplification, and endorsement over fights and challenge. If we add in misogyny, sexism, homophobia, snobbery, and prejudices of many kinds, and sprinkle on top the pedestals which key perpetrators can occupy — indeed, are very good at grooming everyone into ascribing to them — we have a dangerous mix.

When the attachments that we form are so strong that our identity rests on them, the ability to challenge may be fatally flawed. Heffernan highlights the case of a mother who doesn’t protect her daughter from the abusive partner because it will bring the world crashing down around her. Too much is at stake for her emotionally and she cannot confront. It is easier to swallow the cognitive dissonance and either blame the daughter or pretend that it is not real. George Carey is quoted in the IICSA report as wanting it to go away, the ostrich affect.

Similar things happen with confronting religious institutions, except here what you might bring crashing down is God. That adds layers, more so when the Church is identified with the Kingdom of God — then, the whole purpose of existence and reality is at stake. The desire to protect the flag becomes very strong.


UNPICKING these powerful drivers takes some very clear and determined thinking. Cultural change has to go much deeper than a few processes and procedures. It has to touch the very operating system that makes acceptable codes of conduct function or fail.

In her book Culture Shift, (Bloomsbury, 2019), Kirsty Bashforth identifies six different elements that are necessary to embed a culture:

  • Clear messaging, where values define the culture.
  • Leadership effort and commitment, making it explicit and being called out if they slip up (accountability for bishops!).
  • Policies and processes linked in, setting out what is expected, including a clear code of conduct.
  • Symbols, signals, and practices, making it visible and reinforcing it.
  • Everyone onboard, however long that takes, with “no one left behind”.
  • Guiding compass in decision making where culture is seen in action (or not!).

This is rather cheekily expressed in a scene in the 2015 film Brooklyn. Set in 1950s Brooklyn, a shop assistant is told to smile at customers to make them feel special. When she says that she will try, her supervisor asks her if she had to think about putting her underwear on that morning (not quite how it is said). She replies that she didn’t, it was something that she did automatically. Similarly, she is told, the culture of smiling at customers should be so natural that she no longer needs to think about it.

This is where the symbols, signs, and practices are crucial in how they reinforce and renew the desired culture each day. So, not so much without thinking, but it becomes “how we are” in this place. In churches, this will include worship, but not be limited to it, where values of the Kingdom are reinforced and prayed. Other badges and communication vehicles will be needed and everyone will need to be, and be willing to be, mutually accountable for it.


CULTURAL change requires clear values to direct it. If the values of a Christian church do not have protecting the vulnerable from harm carved at the top, then it has lost the plot, big time.

We have to recognise that good people can be overloaded, can fail to see or hear when the voices advising are not sufficiently diverse and when there is a lack of accountability. If what is at stake is our identity, then the pressures against confronting can be immense.

Bishops and Archbishops may be irritated when synods bite back, but they should thank God for it — there lies the health of a structure to protect the vulnerable, prevent harm, and promote the wellbeing of all God’s children.


Canon Ian Black is the Vicar of St John’s, Peterborough, Canon Residentiary of Peterborough Cathedral, and author of several books of prayers and reflections. His most recent book is Follow me: Living the Sayings of Jesus (Sacristy Press, 2017) (Books, 27 October 2017). This article is based on a Sabbatical last year, in which he looked at what makes a healthy church and the cultural inhibitors.


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