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Sex, Power, Control, by Fiona Gardner, and Going Public, by Julie Macfarlane

26 February 2021

Robin Gill reviews two recent exposés of the safeguarding scandal

PREVIOUSLY, I reviewed (Books, 16 August 2019) three challenging books about safeguarding in the Church of England, and concluded that senior clergy continue to prioritise the reputation of the Church over those who have been abused. Too many senior clergy cover up and are then found out when abusers (including a few senior clergy) are successfully prosecuted or posthumously exposed.

Have things improved? Sadly, these two passionate books suggest not.

The severest castigation by Jesus in St Matthew’s Gospel is directed at child-abusers. Mark and Luke have similar, but less contextualised, condemnations, whereas, in Matthew, Jesus refers specifically to children immediately before warning: “If any of you put a stumbling-block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea” (Matthew 18.6).

Fiona Gardner has a long roll call of such egregious abusers — including Bishops Victor Whitsey and Peter Ball, Dean Robert Waddington, and the Chichester priests Colin Pritchard, Roy Cotton, Gordon Rideout, and Meirion Griffiths, as well as the Evangelical John Smyth QC. What behaviour by a church leader could be a more un-Christlike stumbling-block?

She concludes: “None of the abusers . . . took any responsibility for their abusive behaviour, seemingly believing that they had the right to satisfy their sexual interest in children and young people.” We have, of course, heard these stories before, but we do need to hear them again and again.

What is new and striking, however, is her account of being sidelined by senior clergy who considered that they knew best how to deal with abusive colleagues. She was safeguarding adviser in the diocese to which Peter Ball eventually returned after a police caution (requiring an admission of guilt) and enforced resignation, but where he was allowed to continue a ministry that included working with young people.

She initiated several attempts to have a risk assessment made, and questioned his PTO: “On one occasion I was ‘invited’ to walk round the bishop’s palace grounds by a senior diocesan cleric and asked (or was it told?) to stop harassing Ball. He spoke of Ball’s great spirituality and goodness, and my findings about his past were dismissed as of less importance.” Subsequently, an “approach came from an official in Lambeth Palace, who rang to tell me that I could be seen as persecuting an elderly man inappropriately”. Yet Ball was someone who masturbated while sexually assaulting and giving naked beatings to adolescent boys and young men seeking spiritual enlightenment. Sickeningly sanctimonious behaviour.

She identifies factors that may lead to such gross spiritual and physical abuse — including power imbalance, social status, institutional secrecy, self-protection, and boarding-school sadism. Yet, at base, she detects a disturbing “spiritual sickness”:

“The way that the church hierarchy has failed adequately to respond to allegations of clergy abuse is a form of sickness — a spiritual sickness. The sickness is caused by institutional narcissism. . . the Church has become stuck at the level of survival to the detriment of thriving . . . dominated by its own internal self-preoccupations, to the extent that it is increasingly out of touch with society, and reliant on self-generating authoritarian structures. . . At root is the question of who can join the elite hierarchy.”

Julie Macfarlane, a law professor and survivor (Features, 9 October 2020), is no more encouraging. As a survivor of Griffiths’s gross abuse, she is well aware of the “patterns of protections for those who persistently harass and assault women”, including threats that, “if you complain you will lose your job. . . no one will believe you. . . I shall tell everyone you are a slut. . . your parents will be deeply distressed.”

A schoolfriend of the daughter of Eric Kemp (Griffiths’s and Ball’s diocesan bishop), she now realises that he was “suppressing complaints about Peter Ball . . . [and] hired a private investigator to undermine the credibility of complainants” and withheld evidence from the police. She is particularly scathing of “powerful decision-makers” who “at best minimize sexual violence and its consequences and at worst (and not uncommonly) engage in the same behaviour themselves”.

As a lawyer, she is also scathing about the legal tactics of the Church of England. She recounts that in their unsuccessful 2014 efforts to defend against her civil case: “the church claimed that when the minister forced me to give him fellatio at sixteen — my first sight of a man’s penis, telling me that ‘God’ wanted me to do this — it was consensual.” As with all of the clerical abusers cited by Gardner, this is not consensual sex, but a deeply manipulative use of lust-driven power.

In addition — given the close relationship between ecclesiastical insurers and senior clergy — she is equally scathing about the response from Archbishop Justin Welby’s office to her lawyer, which stated that: “As a lawyer, you will be very aware of the constraints under which we in the profession have to work in dealing with these miserable matters. The scope for personal and sensitive engagement is very limited.” For her, it is “wilful hypocrisy . . . and insincerity . . . to pretend that they had no choice about their adversarial strategy” — and, she adds, “perhaps another person without my background might have swallowed it.”

Both public-shaming books are much needed. I doubt whether any amount of safeguarding training or protocols will deter some highly manipulative clergy from sex abuse or senior clergy from protecting them and covering up. The prospect of public shaming might. All power to Fiona Gardner and Julie Macfarlane for shaming both abusers and their protectors.

Canon Robin Gill is Emeritus Professor of Applied Theology at the University of Kent, and Editor of Theology.


Sex, Power, Control: Responding to abuse in the institutional Church
Fiona Gardner
Lutterworth Press £17.50

Going Public: A survivor’s journey from grief to action
Julie Macfarlane
Between the Lines £15.95
Church Times Bookshop £14.35

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