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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Thursday 22 March 2018

Child Sexual Abuse - what does the church do about shame?

It's been very painful to follow the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) hearings which have scrutinised the Church of England, and in particular the Diocese of Chichester. The Archbishop of Canterbury said yesterday: "I have learnt to be ashamed again of the Church. You can't read the transcripts, you can't read the evidence statements without being moved, at least, you shouldn't be able to...You can apologise and apologise to survivors, and I would want to put on record again - I don't know how to express it adequately - how appalled I am and ashamed I am of the church for what it did."

He speaks for all of us who care about people, especially children, the young and all those who are vulnerable to the abuse of power by people who hold positions of leadership and responsibility. We have failed those who trusted us. We need to take on ourselves the shame of our institution, feel it as ours, carry it as our own burden. Justin Welby is right that our church must not only learn from the past but institutionally repent, change its mind, rigorously examine our practices, abandon the collusive, deferential patterns of behaviour that our church has perfected so well and that both disguise and perpetuate abuse.

Many who know far more than I do about sexual abuse in the church have provided first-rate commentary on the IICSA hearings. I've valued the contributions of Linda Woodhead (via her Facebook page) and Stephen Parsons (Surviving Church) in particular. They empathise with the survivors whose voices we have heard, and whose entire lives have been terribly damaged by their abusers. But they are also shrewd observers of the church as an institution and grasp the systemic brokenness that has vitiated, sometimes fatally, so much of its ministry. I can't add to what they are saying about the hearings and their likely consequences. But I can speak about my personal experience of handling abuse in the church as a leader.

I have had four experiences of being shamed in the way the Archbishop describes. Three were to do with actual incidents of abuse with which I had to deal at the time; the fourth concerned historical abuse that had taken place several decades before my time but which came to light during my incumbency. Although two of the four quickly got into the public domain, and in all four cases the statutory agencies and safeguarding teams were fully involved, I don't think it's appropriate to write about them here, even if I were to anonymise the places and people concerned. It's their legacy that concerns me as I look back on them: their effect on the cathedrals I served at the time, their effect on me personally as a Christian leader.

What I learned is what the Archbishop was describing at the hearing. It's that shame has both a collective and a personal aspect. When the church as an institution has to say sorry for awful wrongs committed by those who were its trusted officers, there's an unsaid implication that we are both sorry and ashamed. You can't admit to grave offence unless you're prepared to go on and say: we did this, or, we allowed it to happen or, it happened on our watch, and in each case, it is to our shame. We now hear the word sorry said by institutions in a way we didn't always in the past. We hear about guilt and wrongdoing. But I'm not sure we have heard enough of shame.

It took me by surprise to feel ashamed during these incidents. But it was particularly strong when my colleagues and I were dealing with historic abuse. I felt something like this. This cathedral is such a good, wholesome place where I see people caring for one another and flourishing in their own human lives and Christian discipleship. How could something so terrible, so damaging happen among us? How could our innocent, vulnerable children become victims to a perpetrator of abuse who was not only trusted but admired in his day? How could this happen and we did not know about it? How could we not have noticed that something was amiss? Those were the questions I kept asking myself in the night watches. It wasn't about them, those who were the cathedral's leaders four or five decades ago. It was about us now, today. The first-person pronouns testified to the power memory has to bind us into a community that transcends time. It was impossible to separate myself from the past, to distinguish then from now. We were all implicated. The tenses of historical shame were not past but present.

Theological and psychoanalytic studies make a clear distinction between guilt and shame. Guilt is a forensic reality with an objective character, even if it has to do with thoughts I've entertained as well as words I've uttered and deeds I've committed. Saying sorry for something I'm guilty about, what we call repentance, can often deal with the objective nature of guilt: it can be remitted, put away by appropriate words and acts. But shame is different. It has more to do with what I am or have become, and the effect this has on my sense of self. Because so much of shame is experienced subjectively, it is much harder to address than guilt (and that's hard enough by itself!). By saying sorry, I may be able to lighten the burden of my guilt. But it may not touch my shame. Looking back over my lifetime, I can vividly bring to mind things which I am no less ashamed of today than I was fifty or sixty years ago. I said sorry for them, and believed I was forgiven and reconciled at the time. Guilt doesn't come into it any more, except when I have a hunch that someone I once wronged may still be hurting. But shame has taken root in my psyche. That's its power. I may not be haunted by it to the extent I once was. But it never fully goes away.

I've spoken about corporate shame in relation to sexual abuse. Where is that shame actually felt? I've come to the view that it is the duty of leadership to bear shame, its vocation if you like. When you lead an institution, you are its visible representative, the walking embodiment of its goals and values. When your institution fails, whether spectacularly in some public arena or in more hidden ways, you feel it deeply yourself. That's nothing to do with being personally responsible for what has gone wrong (if it's your fault, it's easy - you know what you have to do about it). I'm talking about when the institution fails around you, either because of the sins others have committed, or because secrets were kept and the truth was not told, or because vital knowledge wasn't acted upon by being disclosed and named, or because of the collusions and cover-ups that happen when an institution tries (as it always does) to protect itself. In all these ways, it is the human beings who were not only the victims of the original abuse but have now become the victims of the institution too. That also is a form of abuse and an occasion for corporate shame.

I think this is what we were seeing Justin Welby express at the IICSA hearing when, it was reported, he seemed "close to tears". He was, to quote the suffering servant song in Isaiah 53, "bearing the sins of many". And as I said earlier, this does seem to belong to the vocation of leadership. To me, the Archbishop's demeanour felt real in a way some others' had not. This is where the seeds of metanoia lie, that "change of mind" that is the seed of true penitence and healing. Perhaps this was a moment of real hope, amid the grimness of what we had heard. If the church could cultivate the gift of tears, not for the sake of public perception but because we feel for survivors, because we are ashamed of our past wrongs, because we want things to be different in the future, that can only be good. The desert fathers spoke of tears as a kind of baptism. That's what we need right now.

If we've learned anything in the past three weeks, it's that the Church of England must change. This belongs to its metanoia. It will be evidence that our tears are serious and life-changing. We must acknowledge that by not addressing abuse properly, we not only fail our victims, but we fail also to be accountable for living according to truth rather than falsehood. Our shame as an institution, and the way it is felt by our leaders, can drive us to recognise that we need to do things differently from now on, perhaps radically so.

One obvious way to demonstrate metanoia would be voluntarily to submit to independent, external oversight of the church's safeguarding procedures. I am surprised that the Archbishop didn't offer it at the hearing, because it's highly likely to be one of the Commission's clear recommendations. It would be so much better to volunteer it now than for it to be required later on. I don't say that it would deal with our institutional shame, so keenly felt by Justin Welby. Shame casts a very long shadow, and perhaps that's no bad thing. But I think it would help restore the church's credibility at a time when levels of trust have sunk so low. Can the General Synod not press for that to happen as soon as possible?

Here is a sonnet by Malcolm Guite that I shall be quoting in my Holy Week addresses next week. It speaks with uncanny insight into the predicament I've been reflecting on in this blog. I am making it my prayer for the church this week.

When so much shepherding has gone so wrong,
So many pastors hopelessly astray,
The weak so often preyed on by the strong,
So many bruised and broken on the way,
The very name of shepherd seems besmeared,
The fold and flock themselves are torn in half,
The lambs we left to face all we have feared
Are caught between the wasters and the wolf.

Good Shepherd now your flock has need of you,
One finds the fold and ninety-nine are lost
Out in the darkness and the icy dew,
And no one knows how long this night will last.
Restore us; call us back to you by name,
And by your life laid down, redeem our shame.

**Update: This Guardian leading article on the IICSA hearings was published on Friday 23 March 2018.


  1. It strikes me that we are not observant enough and that we trust people to act in accordance with the norms of their vocation and we are than surprised and shocked to find out that someone we thought that we knew well was responsible for terrible abuse, whether to vulnerable children or vulnerable adults.

    I can remember my childhood in a Catholic institution, where abuse, mental and physical happened to children, with often brutal punishments for minor indiscretions by the child. at that time, in the 1950's, it seemed that Corporal Punishment was both legal and acceptable conduct in the punishment of children, some of them quite young (under five) and those carrying out that punishment did it to correct our conduct. With several hundred children in that institution, it happened regularly, and years later, some of those who had been punished in that way, were able to disclose their abuse and see those responsible being brought to justice.

    But how difficult it was to prove that the abuse occurred, in several cases, over 40 years had passed, and it took that length of time for them to have the courage to come forward. I received punishment, but have never felt that it was bad enough to raise, and perhaps I was conditioned to it, and expected it? I had worse in our home situation when we were returned to our family home, from a war damaged father, whose temper terrorised us, until we all left home. He died early, without his actions ever being brought to the attention of those who should have protected us. Our care records were brief and redacted, but high lighted that the Care system knew of our fathers problems, but basically abandoned us, without any long term monitoring.

    All of this is more than 50 years ago, and I feel able to speak of it openly, but it has taken me years to face what happened to I and my siblings. My elder sibling is still affected today, and lives a solitary life in social care, after some years of receiving mental health support.

    I have no solutions, but in the church context, we need to be vigilant and report any suspicions that we have immediately, without prevarication or delay. Some might be spurious, but one case avoided is a saving grace.

  2. Wonderful, caring post, Michael. I wish I had encountered that sort of attitude myself. I was bullied by the church for 20 years. When I moved I encountered mostly indifference, not shame or guilt. One person said that the institutional church had done it, and should put it right. The Bishop does not believe in institutional sin and flew into a rage when I repeated that comment. It is the same institutional sin that ignores bullying and permits sex abuse. Other organisations show it too. The tendency to protect the high caste people and ignore the needs of the victims. So I think we can assume that the church will not change any time soon. There is still a tendency not to do DBS checks, not to believe the lower caste person, to protect the valuable high status person. I wish I believed the Archbishop's protestations, but I do not. If he changes things, I will apologise for being wrong.
    UKviewer, all the best in the future. But I'm afraid nothing has changed. When people report things, they are not believed, and there it ends.

  3. As a new curate, I reported my vicar for taking a teenage boy to a sauna and photographing him in the nude (the tip of an iceberg of grooming offences). The archdeacon involved (as there was no bishop at the time) covered the incident up. The whole episode (probably due to events in my own past) caused me to suffer a mental breakdown and the new bishop sacked me and evicted me from my home for suffering from depression. I have been excluded from the Church of England and all my requests to bishops (including Justin Welby when he was bishop of Durham) and others for help have been refused or ignored. No matter what they privately think a bishop will not contradict the actions of another bishop. The priest I reported is still the vicar of the same parish he committed his offences in. Worse than all this is the fact that my wife lost her faith because of the way the Church authorities treated me.

    During the two years I was very poorly, in and out of hospital, not one of my colleagues came to visit me. Not a single priest.

    My colleagues are cowards, which is forgivable, and hypocrites which is less so. They cry "shame" on posts like this one but they will not risk their careers to help a brother or sister in Christ who needs their help. Then they profess to serve the God who gave his life to save his brothers and sisters.

    There will be no new life for the Church until the victims of its past receive restitution.

    1. I'm deeply sorry to hear this Jonathan. Of course I would normally encourage you to go straight to Bishop Paul and/or to the Durham DSA. It may be that you have done this already. Many of my friends have been on the wrong side of abuse in the church, and the degree of support from church authorities ranges from average to truly terrible. If it would help to have a phone or email conversation with a supportive stranger, let me know and I will send contact details.

    2. The bishops speak to you and promise to help. Then they go home and make phone calls to find out about you and they are told the lie that lets the bishop who originally hurt you sleep at night. So, the next time they speak to you they are very negative. In fact, both of my most recent bishops have been downright aggresive.

      I once drove over two hundred miles to see a bishop. I was completely honest with him. I told him my story and said that I was looking for a bishop who would support me as I was expected to support those in my care. Two months later he wrote to me to tell me that he was going to offer me a job until I mentioned the "care" thing, which made him decide that he would not invite me to his diocese because I "would bring too much baggage with me."

      The Church of England is a business nowadays run with a ruthlessness that would embarrass Lord Sugar.

    3. Jonathan- thank you for having the courage and the dignity to share your story with us. Your last sentence sums up the objective the church must set its face towards if the Holy Spirit is to flow and be seen to be flowing by those outside the church looking in. Healing can be slow, painful and transformative. We hear at this time of the church calendar that to journey through Holy Week can be life changing, and it can be. Similarly, the Church of England must embark on an uncomfortable journey to bring about restitution. However, the IICSA has demonstrated to me that the church cannot police itself; the only way to step forward on the long road to healing and change is to have an external and independent body deal with all safeguarding issues. Under the status quo, no amount of internal reporting will give either pastoral support or relief in knowing that evil will be uprooted. I have in the past witnessed awful behaviour in the institutional church. Your situation and the evidence from the IICSA have reminded me that the institutional church is not the only expression of the kingdom of God here on earth. Thank you again for sharing.

  4. This applies also to the Catholic Church. Men in positions of power frequently bully and abuse those they perceive as inferior. We need to be not only observant but also willing to speak out, and those with the power to investigate should have the humility to accept what they are told and do their utmost to get to the truth. We all need to feel that collective shame for our blindness and cowardice and own it publically. We can start by assuming that the vulnerable are not liars.

  5. I suspect that the only real shame felt by those who covered up these offences is that of breaking the 11th Commandment. "Thou shalt not be found out". Corporate manslaughter is a crime for which people can be punished, corporate shame is not. As I have before, we need a law as in France where "failing to give aid to a person in danger" is an offence. At least one French Bishop has been hauled before a court to explain why he moved a paedophile priest on and did nothing else.

  6. Michael and Jonathan, can you draw attention to this to Bishop of Bath&Wells and also to diocesan bishop and also to the DSA asap. This needs quick action to prevent possible harm. Jonathan, given your experience of inertia, cover-up and blanking by senior figures, you may feel understandably nervous and fearful about raising this. But you are doing the right thing. Young people will be at risk and if that priest has observed that he has got away with it - he may be continuing this very serious grooming activity. I'll leave comments about the need for exploration into why there was such failure despite your clear efforts to raise the alarm - you can imagine what I think. Priority is to make sure diocesan safeguarding act fast and report this to the police.

    1. I have contacted the Bishop of B&W. I hope Jonathan will read this and contact the bishop of the diocese concerned.

    2. This goes back to the late 1990s and it has been investigated by the appropriate diocesan officer. They decided that it was just "grooming" and I am told that grooming was not illegal at that time.

      My point is that my life was ruined by the incident and rather than be there for me the bishops couldn't get rid of me fast enough. I cannot forgive and forget because I am constantly reminded of the institutional evil of the church I once loved by the phoney breast-beating in public by people I know from experience do not actually give a damn.

    3. We forgive and remember. That's not an accusation. It's irrational to forget hurt, as foolish as forgetting that fire burns. If Michael has contacted someone, it is possible that you will now be heard. I have experienced punishment for showing the wounds the church inflicted, too. I am so sorry.

  7. Thank you for saying this, Michael Sadgrove.

    1. The Church is crammed to the rafters with people saying things.

  8. I have been chewing over what I just read, and what I posted and I feel I need to expand on forgiving and remembering. Forgiveness is not something that can or should be demanded by a third party on behalf of the abuser from the victim. It should be/is something offered by the abused to the abuser, perhaps through gritted teeth, and needs to be either asked for, or received. Within the church it is usually used as a brush off, and always used too soon. It is not a licence to the abuser to continue, which has been said in the hearings. And from the point of view of the victim, it is not a condition of their being a "real Christian", that you have to accept continued abuse. You do not have to stay in relationship with your abuser. Of course, if your abuser is "the church", that presents a problem. I hope that's clear enough. I'm a little full at the moment.

  9. Go directly to the police. They will take you seriously and treat you well.