MANNER rather than matter. The subject-matter of the two-part documentary chronicling Bishop Peter Ball’s history of wholescale abuse and how the Church of England dealt with it — or rather didn’t (Exposed: The Church’s darkest secret, BBC2, Monday and Tuesday of last week) — was thoroughly reported in last week’s Church Times (News, 17 January).
Because of the arcane practicalities of production deadlines, it is only now that I can comment on how it measured up as television. Was this a reasoned and sensitive account, or an extended exercise in that favourite media occupation: giving the C of E a good kicking? A few corners were cut: the actor playing Lord Carey relished his lines and facial expressions in far more self-inculpating a way than, surely, can have been the reality (an interesting example, given that he was quoting ipsissima verba of memos and letters, of how much more we convey meaning by how we say something rather than by the words we utter).
The programme played slightly fast and loose with times and seasons, making it unclear to the general viewer, for example, which statements related to the Archbishop’s time in office and which to his retirement. But the central thrust was not over-sensationalised — indeed, it is hard to imagine how it could be. Vulnerable young men were subject to sexual abuse for many years, and the consequent damage, guilt, and shame continue to wreck their lives. When they, or their parents, dared to speak out, they were treated as the guilty parties: how dare they accuse one of the holiest bishops in the Church, and a monk to boot. Peter Ball was treated as the victim.
The absolute wrongness of all this — an appalling indictment of failure and corruption in our Church — is now plain to see, but righteous indignation coupled with hindsight is a fatally intoxicating brew that is good only for enhancing our sense of moral superiority. The reality was far more complex, and so far more disturbing, because Ball was not only a predatory sexual abuser: he also had (although all the good he achieved was decisively undermined when the truth was revealed) exceptional gifts as pastor and priest.
We should thank the BBC for giving us a sobering exercise in self-examination. How easily do we make the judgements that enhance our pre-existing prejudice rather than be prepared to entertain unthinkable ideas, the ones that will shatter our comfort, perhaps destroy close friendships? How aware are we of the power we wield — especially over the young and vulnerable — as God’s representatives and of guardians of his mystery and holiness, able to override other people’s sense of right and wrong? And are our processes for recognising and stopping abuse and offering healing to its victims even now of the necessary standard?