The crisis arising from the sexual abuse of children and the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) Report have been accompanied by many public statements that the Church’s culture must change and deference end. The emphasis is on improving safeguarding procedures with mandatory training for clergy and lay people in leadership roles and responsible positions and financial compensation. Cultural change seems to be equated with a tightening of procedures and control from the centre.
Bishop James Jones in his 2017 report to the Home Secretary on lessons to be learned from the Hillsborough tragedy describes a ‘patronising disposition of unaccountable power’ at work in organisations. He describes a cultural mindset defining the unwritten and unspoken behaviour which connects people within an organisation. This cultural condition is a ‘mindset not automatically changed, still less dislodged, by changes in policies and processes’. From this point of view the far-reaching implications of the IICSA report have yet to be realised.
Firstly, a deeper, critical examination and understanding of the Church’s culture and its component parts is needed to reveal what needs to change, for example: governance structures, sources of deference, power relations, patriarchy, clericalist culture and theological paradigms especially relating to marriage and sexuality. This will be uncomfortable for many. It is worth deep reflection that the Church promotes a sin-centred theology which, for example, sees same sex relationships as falling short, but yet did not see the reality of the worst of which some bishops and clergy were capable. Religion can at times anaesthetise us to the stark reality which confronts us. The IICSA Report examines historical incidents of abuse. Many of those convicted abusers were inculturated in a Church with repressed approaches to sexuality, reflecting society’s attitudes at the time. While a search to understand such behaviour is appropriate, it cannot excuse serious criminal sexual violence.
Secondly, what is missing? A coherent theology of sexuality which takes account of modern advances in understanding human growth and sexual development, sexual identity, behaviour, and love expressed in justice. This theology would replace inherited rules, ostensibly derived from Scripture, which ignore context and are regarded as beyond constructive criticism.
Organisational cultures can be difficult to define but are felt and experienced. People are influenced, shaped, and formed by a relationship with their human environment and in organisations, socialised into particular structural and institutional conditions.
The context for child sexual abuse in the Church of England is an Established Church which legitimises power, privilege, and entitlement to those in authority requiring loyalty and deference. This form of Church is underpinned and sustained by the oaths of allegiance to the Monarch, adherence to the formularies, the Declaration of Assent and canonical obedience to a bishop. Their feudal origins reflect hierarchical relationships, allegiance to a superior, the location of power and the needs of the time. Accountability is to those in authority in a bottom up manner. An instinctive priority is given to the reputation of the Church.
This emphasis does not sit well in a world which privileges equality, human rights, individual choice, and decision making and the mutuality of relationships where all are under the rule of law.
This Church culture produces a way of life which becomes immune to the realities of life in the world around, preventing real accountability to those doubly abused by perpetrators: and the pastoral failures of bishops to whom, in their vulnerability, they revealed their abuse. Bishops, as chief pastors must be held accountable for serious pastoral failures. If real change is to occur this mindset needs to alter.
Thirdly, the loss of humanity, empathy, and a capacity for self-reflection and self-awareness, brings to the fore the need for a comprehensive, transparent priority to pastoral care, which justly includes all those affected, especially survivors of child sexual abuse.
An ethical and pastoral framework would set standards to which clergy and lay workers would be required to commit. Central to its consideration would be the character of the individual, with an interiority which can be described as ‘ethical-mindedness’, a state of being which needs to be nurtured and developed. Here within an internal dialogue can be held an awareness of the virtues needed for self in relation to others and the ability to ask ethical questions about relationships and practice. This framework could also support pastoral confidence for difficult conversations about a subject which has been taboo.
Such a framework could be the basis of a binding formulary, placed at the centre of worship, ordination, ministry and training, encouraging a loving community which values the interior experience of every human person and creates opportunities that embrace life in its fullness. One that shows understanding and respect for the reality of all persons and seeks to engage with it. This could give a clear lead to clergy and make a public declaration of intended standards and public accountability if breached. Such frameworks are standard in therapeutic professions. Breaches are investigated, prior to disciplinary action and, if proved, may lead to withdrawal of professional registration and right to practice or a requirement for some form of re-training.
Such an approach to pastoral care needs to address the effects of abuse and ensuing publicity, felt not only by the survivors but also by their families and friends. Equally damaging are the effects of false accusations: psychological and financial, loss of employment and reputation on individuals, their families, and friends. The effects on serving priests, who have not offended, whose confidence is shaken by feelings of shame, isolation, betrayal, and disillusionment, need to be recognised and addressed.
Differently affected are professionals including police and social workers, lawyers, and those in authority in the Church, bishops, and safeguarding staff, together with those responsible for investigating allegations, and those giving pastoral care, counselling, or psychotherapy.
Perhaps less recognised are the effects on perpetrators of abuse, their families, and friends. Many Christians too experience shame, often shown by unwillingness to talk. We should also consider those ordained and confirmed by abusing bishops. I draw here on my priestly and therapeutic experience with both survivors and perpetrators of abuse.
Investigation of allegations of abuse requires appropriate skills, temperament, and self-knowledge in those who have faced within themselves the reality of what human beings can do to each other; those alert to the risks of being traumatised themselves. It needs to be recognised that not everyone is comfortable working with these issues either pastorally or therapeutically. This is another reason for independent responsibility for abuse to be with those appropriately trained.
A crisis often reveals an underlying reality. Changes to Safeguarding policy and procedures whilst needed, will not by themselves address the reality of the culture within which abuse and pastoral failure occurred, and the culture of deference is also maintained. Engagement with reality is the Church’s vocation.
Reverend Dr. John Prysor-Jones is a Counsellor and Psychotherapist and a former lecturer in Counselling Psychology at the University of Bangor.
Photo by Scott McCulloch