Abuse in the Church of England

If you haven’t yet watched Exposed – The Church’s Darkest Secret, I urge you to do so, right now. Broadcast on BBC2 earlier this week, it will be available on BBC iPlayer for another 28 days. It is harrowing and horrifying viewing, but I would say it’s essential viewing for anyone who cares, and believes that any and all forms of abuse – sexual, physical, emotional, or spiritual – should have no place in the Church of God. They need to be identified, rooted out, offenders removed from office and brought to justice, and above all, victims believed and supported.

The programme examines the scandal of Peter Ball, formally Bishop of Lewes and then Gloucester. In 1993 a young man told the police that, when he was a novice monk, Ball had taken advantage of his own position as mentor and director, to abuse this young man on numerous occasions, forcing him to strip naked together with the then bishop, and submit to physical embraces, beatings, and mutual masturbation.

Ball was arrested and questioned, strenuously denying the allegations, and exercising his right to remain silent. (Why is it that courts of law don’t reckon “No comment” as an admission of guilt, and find the accused Guilty immediately?) One of the most chilling moments is when Ball is asked about the naked beatings, sadly shakes his head and murmurs, “You wouldn’t understand.” Sometimes you wonder whether he ever even knew he had done something evil…

The Crown Prosecution Service told Gloucestershire Police not to prosecute, and Ball accepted a caution and resigned as Bishop. Within two years he had been granted Permission to Officiate again, and was able to minister in churches and as a school chaplain: a clear sign, then, that in spite of his own admission of guilt – that’s what accepting a caution means, for God’s sake – the church hierarchy believed he was the innocent victim of false accusations.

It becomes clear, however, that the pattern of abuse was persistent and long-lasting, going back to the 1970s, and continuing after his short-term suspension and reinstatement. He emerges as a man who loved his position of power and influence. Vain and arrogant, he deliberately courted the friendship of the powerful, wealthy and important. Margaret Thatcher was a frequent host, often inviting him to dinner. Prince Charles was a supporter and admirer, who went on believing long afterwards that Ball was innocent, that “monstrous wrongs” had been done to him by “that dreadful man” who was making accusations. As Bishop of Lewes Ball was a friend and supporter of several of the other notorious paedophile priests in Chichester Diocese, not only colluding with them, but on at least one occasion taking advantage of one of the teenagers who had been groomed, and was being systematically abused, by one of those priests.

Lots of people knew about what had been happening, but they were not important or influential enough to be believed. When a small number of heroic people – the newly appointed Safeguarding Officer for Bath & Wells, and a former detective turned professional safeguarding consultant, and a former victim of clergy abuse – began to investigate, they were hampered again and again by powerful men taking them to task. Sir This and Lord That and Chief Constable or Right Reverend The Other would phone them up and give them a rollicking, telling them that Ball was a wonderful saintly chap, and his accusers were liars, losers, only out to make money out of the situation. The ‘smoking gun’ in the end was the Tyler Report, compiled by the Revd Brian Tyler, a former CID officer and now private investigator. Eric Kemp, the Bishop of Chichester, had instructed Tyler to carry out the investigation in order to defend Ball and discredit his accusers. Instead of this Tyler became convinced that the accusers were telling the truth, and Ball was in fact guilty. His Report seems to have been quietly filed away within Chichester Church House, until this ‘second generation’ of investigators brought it to light.

It wasn’t until 20 years after Neil Todd first came forward, that Ball was finally tried, pleading Guilty to a token number of charges, in order to avoid a longer charge sheet, and was sentenced to 32 months in prison, of which he served only 16. The greatest tragedy was that when the investigations were finally being reopened, Todd could not face the ordeal of being questioned all over again, and forced to relive what he had suffered. He took his own life. Ball was never charged with having indirectly been the cause of his death.

High-up figures in the Church, including former Archbishop George Carey who had spent years telling the police he was ‘unhappy’ about the suffering the investigations were causing to Ball (!), finally admitted they had been wrong, and gave a sort of apology.

Has the Church learned anything from this sorry, terrible story? There are signs it has learned something and is trying harder, but Phil Johnson, a former victim and now a member of the Church’s Safeguarding Commission, says there are still times when he thinks ‘they’ wish he wasn’t there.

And what about me? I found these two programmes disturbing and challenging. I never knew Ball except by reputation. When I heard about the first allegations back in 1993 I didn’t want to believe them, so I didn’t believe them. I suspect that was how many people reacted. But those who were in a position to find out the truth, and to know, should have known better. And I know now that I was wrong, and the present emphasis on caring for the victims of abuse, helping them, trusting them and above all believing them, is the right one. Never again will I grumble about the mandatory safeguarding training we’re required to undergo periodically. Instead, I mean to welcome it and suck every bit of learning from it that I can.

There are other questions I’m sure we should be asking, too. Should a monk really be so ambitious for fame, position, and influential friends and contacts? What about humility, obedience to the abbot, conversion of life, contentment, lack of ambition? Ball and his brother, not content with joining an existing monastic order, founded one of their own: that ought to ring alarm bells. It’s like in the United States where it’s common for men (usually men) who feel called to the ministry to start their own churches, rather than join established denominations, and that has led to numerous instances of abuse, immorality, fraud and loss of faith. Spiritual leaders need to be under authority, under the oversight of superiors, and where that oversight is absent or lacking, it’s all too easy for them to go astray. Where was the oversight over George Carey? Who oversees the Archbishop of Canterbury anyway, and was the lack of any such oversight partially the reason for his terrible misjudgement in the Ball affair? And, how do we disempower the Establishment, which allows the powerful men (usually men) like Sir This and Lord That and Chief Constable or Right Reverend The Other to continue to close ranks, defend their own kind, prevent justice from being done, and victimise the vulnerable and powerless?

Please, do watch these programmes. And weep, and think, and pray, and let your default position ever hereafter be to believe anyone who has the courage to speak about the abuse they have suffered, no matter how powerful or godly their abuser may seem to be.

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