The Church of England and its senior leaders colluded with Peter Ball, the ex-Bishop of Lewes and Gloucester, rather than seeking to help those he had harmed or assuring itself of the safety of others.
That is the damning conclusion of Dame Moira Gibb’s review of the church’s handling of the sexual abuse committed by the bishop between 1977 and 1992. The former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey, is singled out for particular criticism through his failure to pass on letters that he received about Ball to the police.
The most tragic aspect for me, as a Church of England Vicar, is my total lack of surprise at these findings. I’m a fervent believer in the Church of England and its mission to share God’s love with as many people within this country as possible. But none of this will count for anything until the Church of England reaches a proper clarity over safeguarding.
The review acknowledges that safeguarding procedure has improved within the Church of England over the last few years. But this is not enough. The only thing that will prevent such cases and institutional collusion with them reoccurring, will be a change of culture within the Church of England.
Keeping the institution safe
At the heart of this is the need to make a crystal clear distinction between keeping people safe and keeping the institution of the church safe.
Far too often on the safeguarding courses that clergy attend, no distinction is made between these goals. In fact I have experienced a level of annoyance when I have attempted to get the leaders on such courses to make this distinction.
Within my own diocese of Southwark, the safeguarding policy is called ‘A Safe Church’ perfectly illustrating this ambiguity. The problem here is that far and away the biggest motivation for hushing up sexual abuse is the misguided attempt to keep the institution safe. Whether it is the BBC turning a blind eye to Jimmy Savile or the Church of England colluding with Peter Ball, the fatal flaw is thinking, even for a moment, that the reputation or standing of the organisation should be factored in to the decision making.
As soon as this happens, dealing with the issue is fatally compromised because people will always find excuses for hushing things up. At these points the Church, or any other responsible organisation needs to thinking purely about the safety of the victims and completely ignore any concerns about its own safety as an organisation. The dirty linen must be washed in public and with total openness if the linen is going to be washed at all.
The Church of England is right to apologise for the appalling actions of Peter Ball.
It is right to apologise for its collusion in its cover up.
It is right in the strenuous efforts that it is making to improve its safeguarding provision and training.
But the most crucial response is still needed.
The most urgent priority
Every single person with responsibility within the Church of England needs to become crystal clear upon the fundamental difference and frequent conflict between the aims of keeping individuals safe and keeping the institution safe.
The latter mustn’t matter a jot when it is dealing with horrendous abuses of trust – or indeed any other faults within the Church’s activities that it needs to address. Complete clarity over this is urgently needed and priority placed upon bringing this about. Policies with titles like ‘A Safe Church’ should be consigned to the bin as we become wiser to the factors that have caused the most awful crimes to be tolerated by an organisation that people should be able to trust completely.
Stephen Kuhrt is Vicar of Christ Church, New Malden