Facing uncomfortable truths
It feels like everywhere you look at the moment there is coverage of sexual abuse. I write this just days after movie producer Harvey Weinstein’s conviction for abusing numerous women. Recently the church was rocked by the revelation that the founder of the L’Arche community, Jean Vanier, abused several women. This is made all the more shocking by the fact that L’Arche was set up to serve vulnerable disabled people and is renowned for its pioneering work on identity and disability. A few weeks ago BBC2 aired a two-part documentary, Exposed: The Church’s Darkest Secret, telling the story of Bishop Peter Ball and his abuse of boys in his care in the 1980s and 1990s.
One common strand in all these stories is the terrible cost which has been paid by the victims. In many cases they were not believed when they first told their stories. In Peter Ball’s case, the Church of England’s first instinct was to rubbish the accusers and protect their bishop. Victims already traumatised by these monstrous acts say they felt re-abused by the way they were treated by those who ought to have listened to them and taken them seriously, and by the whole process of seeking justice. Tragically Neil Todd, one of Ball’s victims, committed suicide as a direct result of this.
In the cases of Ball and Vanier, there are more uncomfortable truths for the church. Both men were revered for their holy lifestyles and were at the centre of monastic communities. Some evangelicals had a particular regard for this slightly alien way of life. Former Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey admitted he simply could not believe that a bishop would be capable of behaving the way Ball did. More than one Christian commentator referred to Vanier as a ‘living saint’. Appearances proved to be very deceptive.
It can be tremendously dangerous to put any Christian leader on a pedestal like this. Romans 3:23 says, ‘All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God’. If we believe our leaders are immune from sin, we will fail to understand when they do fall. The most solid-looking leader could be the most vulnerable: Paul warns in 1 Corinthians 10:12, ‘So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!’ We see Christian leaders torpedoed by sin time after time, whether their failings are money, sex or power. In cases of abuse, power is always an issue, perhaps even more than sex: both Vanier and Ball used their power to groom, abuse and then silence their victims. Ball’s powerful friends weighed in on his behalf, from Prince Charles to members of the House of Lords. Weinstein used his movie industry power to silence his victims, costing many their careers and reputations.
We have to hope that these stories will encourage other victims to come forward, and we continue to work hard to ensure that our churches are safe places for victims to tell their stories. In contrast to the 1990s, when the first allegations against Peter Ball surfaced, churches today have a highly developed safeguarding framework, where everyone working with children or vulnerable adults is required to be trained, and where we have strict guidelines shaping our response to any allegations. In Ball’s case it was the tenacity of safeguarding officials, often newly appointed, which ensured his crimes came to light. In every case the courage of the victims, and their capacity to shed a light on what has been done to them, and overcome it, has been truly inspiring. This Lent, pray for them and for church leaders, that we will understand our vulnerabilities and respond to our callings with humility and grace.