The bells may fall silent for the Church of England

Cover up and abuse: Winchester, Canterbury, York, Hull, Gloucester, Jersey 

WATCHING a previous Archbishop of Canterbury being grilled by a QC last week was like watching a slow-motion car crash. Having your internal self-contradictions exposed by a skilful interrogator in the public gaze is the stuff nightmares are made of.

Deeper nightmares were being suffered by young men who were tricked into being sexually exploited by a charismatic gifted bishop, Peter Ball. A reputation for charisma and sanctity covered a mass of self-deception and manipulation.

Yet of all the cries of lament that came out of this sorry, sinful, broken mess, one of the young men, his victims, made a terrible claim this week: ‘Let me make this clear. The sexual abuse I suffered at the hands of Peter Ball pales into insignificance when compared to the cruel, sadistic nature (of the treatment) meted out to me by the Church of England.’

Graham Sawyer, one of Ball’s abused, described the bullying he has experienced by some of Balls’ colleague bishops. He claims they were determined to shut him up. He called them ‘the purple circle’. ‘They support one another in a club-like way. If anyone attacks one of them, they will, as a group … seek to destroy the person who is making complaints about one individual.’

If I had had any doubts about this kind of threat, I discovered something of it first hand when Jersey had its own Anglican safeguarding scandal. The abuser, a churchwarden, was accused of the improper hugging of a vulnerable young adult. Unpleasant if less dramatic than the more full-on sado-masochistic manipulation of Bishop Ball, the cover-up that followed constituted a further form of abuse.

The Dean of Jersey (who later received an apology from the Archbishiop of Canterbury for the way he was treated) was suspended by the Bishop of Winchester, who had commissioned a lamentable piece of work called the Korris Report. It seemed designed, at first sight, to undermine the Dean. It claimed he had not dealt with the complainant properly. The Bishop of Winchester, claiming all the time he was actually defending the victim, broke a series of promises he had made to consult, and suddenly then placed the Korris Report in the public domain. It was full of personal details about the victim that should never have been made public.

The publication of this report was itself a terrible breach of safeguarding and constituted a further abuse of the victim herself.

You might be forgiven for wondering if an apparent desire to suspend the Dean seemed to have been more of a priority than any care or concern for the abused.

When the Dean decided to return to work, once he had discovered he had himself been the victim of episcopal bullying, the bishop launched another inquiry. Using melodramatic advertisements in the newspapers, he publicly invited anyone who knew anything to spill the beans.

But by this time, people were beginning to suspect that all this drama was not really about the original abuse. There was some kind of power play taking place behind the scenes. The original complaint had become a platform for something else.

Dame Heather Steel, a notable High Court judge, was drafted in to do an inquiry. To the surprise of the bishop, it appeared that her discoveries were going to completely exonerate the Dean.

Its publication was keenly anticipated. After all, the bishop had faithfully promised the government, Church and public to release it when completed. And?

The promises were broken. The report was suppressed. Whatever it exposed was buried. I went to Lambeth to talk to the new Archbishop’s staff myself and was rebuffed (and even threatened) by the same representatives of the ‘purple circle’.

If a calculation had been made that, tired and weary of institutional corruption and the abuse of power in the Church of England, the people would just sigh and give up trying to hold the guardians of Christian morality accountable for their own apparent immorality, it seems they were right. But it constitutes a pattern, a piece of institutional sickness.

Archbishop Carey has been accused of keeping letters private he should have made public and rebuffing the complaining victims of Ball’s abuse.

This week the former Bishop of Hull has been accused of bullying a victim who had been indecently assaulted by a priest with ‘legal action and prison’ if he did not withdraw the charges.

The Archbishop of York has just told an inquiry who accused him of inaction over sexual abuse claims that the papers he held on the case got damaged in recent flooding and are now lost. That will strike many as being a little too convenient.

The new Bishop of Bristol, when Dean of York, has been accused of bullying the Minster bell ringers into extinction. The bells fell silent for the first time in 600 years.

Graham Sawyer was right. Institutional bullying, cover-up and the abuse of power are unspeakably corrupt and damaging. If the Church can’t hold its own bullying bishops to account to tell the truth, it should not be surprised if the state and the public try.

But the Church of England is already in deep trouble. Many of its members are abandoning it in protest about its own abandonment of Jesus’s teaching about gender and marriage. Dependent on its members to remain solvent, it may find that they decline to subsidise what amounts to an exercise in institutional sado-masochsim. They may decline to pay to be bullied and lied to, by many, some, or even any its bishops.

The church bells across the country may tragically, increasingly, fall silent.

Image: Dead Souls by Marc Chagall (1927)

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