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Turning point on abuse?

09 October 2020

PERHAPS the most dispiriting thing about the publication of the latest report by the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) was to hear it articulated that the Church in England and Wales is “behind the curve” in the way in which it cares for its young people. We have reported in these pages the “many times”, to quote the Archbishop of Canterbury, that individual clergy and church leaders have betrayed the trust placed in them and inflicted life-changing horrors on their victims. We have reported the many times that individual bishops and church officials have failed those brave enough to report abuse that they have suffered, despite the retraumatising effect that rehearsing abuse is known to have — and we have been privileged to tell some of those stories. It is too easy, however, to blame the Church’s failings on either errant individuals or some disembodied structure. To its shame, the Church as a whole has much to learn from secular organisations that have grasped that the Christian duty to care for everyone needs to be manifested in a culture of professional behaviour which is understood and followed by all. And, although most of IICSA’s recommendations concern national and diocesan officers, the place where abuse happens and can be prevented is almost invariably the parish. It is here that safeguarding needs to be seen as part of the Church’s DNA, to use Dr Gibbs’s phrase.

The IICSA recommendations appear modest when set against the horrific lapses mentioned in the report. In part, this is a recognition of the rapid advances made in safeguarding provision in the past five years (and, we might add, in the past five weeks). It is, perhaps, also an acceptance that, while practical improvements are vital, the change of culture needed is too great a thing to be codified in a set of action points.

It might not be the “turning point” that the Archbishops had in mind (News, 2 October), but as our feature argues, the Church’s focus must turn 180 degrees. Its task is not to protect potential victims, as it is so often described, but to stop potential abusers. This is more than semantics. It requires a much tougher approach to the selection, formation, and supervision of people put in positions of authority, whether clergy or lay; a reassessment of the deference given to church leaders (and often demanded by them); and a theology-driven reappraisal of the distribution and appropriation of power. It is dispiriting, as we have said, to see how the Church has failed to learn from other institutions how to treat its people well, while, at the same time, heedlessly absorbing ways of treating them badly. It is encouraging, none the less, to detect a new-found determination to work with those who have been most badly treated. This is surely the way ahead.

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