Wednesday 4 April 2018

Sheep's clothing

I have lived in the diocese of Chichester for nearly 35 years. For far too much of that time I have watched with increasing distress the gradual revelation of the cycle of crime and cover up in the abuse scandal that has persistently bedevilled the diocese. This diocese believes in the warmth and comfort of the gospels. This diocese painted itself as a place of refuge for religious souls cast adrift by the sea of change in the modern world. And for more than a generation this diocese has responded to the needs of the souls in its care with brutal corruption.

The abuse and the cover up have been well documented for some years now, but often in a haphazard way. During March the Independent Inquiry on Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) focussed on Chichester as one of its case studies, and pulled all the evidence together in one place. The transcripts of the fifteen days of hearings, and the dozens of documents which back them up, make for harrowing reading.

The events of both the abuses and the cover up were quite effectively summarised by Andreas Whittam Smith in the Independent on March 25th. He portrays the various abusers, and outlines the failure of attempts to improve safeguarding, the actions of various protectors of the perpetrators and the culture within which they were allowed not just to survive but to flourish. He calls it “normalising”. In the latter part of the article he focuses on Peter Ball, and he ends with the words of the current bishop, Martin Warner.

The evidence given to the IICSA makes clear that, despite the charging and sentencing of (some of?) the perpetrators, the diocese is still in immense difficulties. There will no doubt be continuing attempts to assert that the slate has been wiped clean. There will still be some who belittle or disbelieve the brutality that has been practised. There are still some who allow themselves to be duped by the obvious niceness of Bishop Peter among others. There are many who will know that they should have taken action. And there will be many who do not know how to conduct themselves to ensure that safeguarding is done properly in the future. The slate is not clean because there is still so much to do.

Responsibility falls at two levels, the perpetrators and those around them. The perpetrators that we know of are rightly being punished and must make their own amends. For some of those around them, who actively ignored guilt and encouraged the continuing commission of brutal crimes, perhaps punishment is appropriate too. I make no apology for using the word “brutal” despite litte evidence of violence in the crimes committed. Brutality can be practised in a caress. The fact that it is done with a velvet glove makes it no less violent, no less domineering, no less brutal. The diocese has to face up to that reality, that it was covering up not just a minor sin but a series of deplorable crimes.

And there is a particular problem for Chichester diocese that requires a particular depth of soul searching. This evidence to the IICSA (near the end of page 2) makes an uncomfortable connection between the perpetration of these offences and opposition to the ordination of women. It does not have to be that way, but there must be a different construction, a different way of thinking and a different way of being if the diocese is to get back to fulfilling its Christian mission.

I paused, as Andreas Whittam Smith obviously did, at Martin Warner’s final words to the inquiry. (Here, pages 93-94)

While apologies can begin to sound formulaic, I do want to register my sorrow and apology for the sexual abuse of children that has taken place in the diocese of Chichester, and for the ways in which it has been mishandled in the past.

This comes from the bottom of my heart as a human being, but also more formally from me as the bishop of this diocese. I also grieve for the loss of access to faith that this has often resulted in: a terrible realisation, and it is that which has sustained my efforts in ensuring that the diocese of Chichester reforms.”

The words that made me pause were the last sentence. The bishop says he is primarily motivated by the loss of access to faith suffered by the victims. In my view this is far too narrow a focus. Faith has an inestimable position in the minds of Christians. But a misguided emphasis on the primacy of faith is part of what led to Chichester falling into this pit in the first place. Abuse damages the bodies and minds as well as the souls of the victims. Souls may be mended in the afterlife, but bodies and minds can only be cared for on this earth. If the victims of these abuses get to the end of their lives, and we have not healed their souls, then healing awaits them in the life beyond. If they get to the end of their lives and we have not at least attempted to heal their bodies and minds, then we have failed. Reparation must apply to the scars carried by body and mind, or it is meaningless. And efforts at reform must focus on producing a church that heals and nurtures bodies and minds as well as souls. Without an emphasis on the current physical reality of the victims and their lives, any repentance and reform will be meaningless. Until there is widespread recognition of the brutality done to bodies and minds as well as souls, that was permitted and protected by the diocese, there will be no moving forward and no peace, however much people think there is.