OF ALL those who are now blamed for the Church’s cover-up of the crimes of Peter Ball, none has been more high-profile than the former Archbishop George Carey. He has become the face of the cold-hearted establishment which so badly let down the victims of Ball’s abuse. His failure to pass on to the police significant letters of complaint about Ball’s crimes led to his resigning his position as an honorary assistant bishop in Oxford diocese (News, 30 June 2017). In the recent BBC docu-drama (News, 17 January), an actor played the archbishop as a querulous incompetent.
Lord Carey, as he now is, undoubtedly made critical mistakes. But this should not be the last word on his archiepiscopal ministry, the most unlikely aspect of which was that it happened at all. When his appointment was announced in July 1990, most people’s reaction was “George who?” The favourite had been John Habgood, the Archbishop of York. There was speculation that Mrs Thatcher did not want a sharp-minded intellectual at Canterbury.
And he proved himself — delighting Evangelicals with his determination to reverse decline. He helped to push through the ordination of women; he salvaged the 1998 Lambeth Conference by taking a harder line on gay priests than many wished for, but keeping the African bishops on board.
But the sex-abuse scandal was beyond him. One reason is that Carey was naïve about sex. Marriage and family were the obvious Christian norms to him; he had little experience of male celibacy. He was not a public-school Evangelical: he had never been part of the sinister Bash-camp world of John Smyth QC and the Revd Jonathan Fletcher. He was also insecure in the face of the Establishment and over-impressed by the all too plausible Ball and his friends in the judiciary and royalty.
The unanswerable question is whether things would have been any different had Habgood been appointed to the post. According to David Wilbourne’s forthcoming biography, Habgood had no sympathy for adulterous priests, and was equally merciless to any found with compromising material on their computers. They were simply out — made to resign.
Whether he would have grasped the seriousness of Ball’s abuse and found a way through the issues that so defeated Lord Carey is another question.
While many have suggested that the Church’s failure was a lack of sympathy for the victims, my guess is that the victims would have been better served had there been a more forensic mind at the top.
Someone needed to cut through the lies and special pleading that protected Ball from justice. A sliver of ice in the heart is sometimes even more important than empathy.