A New Year Resolution for the Church

child-abuse-silence

Today stands between the day on which we commemorated the Holy Innocents, and the secular festival at which we attempt to make life improving resolutions which we shall almost certainly fail to live up to within hours.

Many, appreciating their own personal character weakness where weight loss is concerned, will simply choose not to make any resolutions for the New Year at all, and that will deliver its own slew of remorse.

This is therefore a good time for Brother Ivo to offer a New Year Resolution to everyone in the Church which is practical, necessary, and which the vast majority who adopt it will feel totally unthreatening. It will never be regretted.

That resolution is for the Church to “Make Child Abuse History”

Over the past few years, the Church, along with many other institutions, such as the police, schools and BBC have grappled with the horrors of child abuse. A cultural change towards the acceptance of disclosure has resulted in a vast legacy of historic abuse being uncovered as more and more people step forward to say that “this happened to me”.

The Church has yet to receive the credit it deserves for a subsequent committed, thorough and conscientious response to its past failures. Advice has been sought, experts consulted, policies developed guidelines published and courses have been run with healthy attendances. The files of retired and deceased clergy, some painfully thin, have been examined and victims offered counselling and overdue apologises. Insurers have paid out.

Despite a genuinely creditable response, the old adage “Thou shalt not win” can scarcely be better illustrated than by the way the news has been greeted that the Church has  been seeking record numbers of police checks upon its employees and volunteers. How odd, given the history, that the latest criticism has been couched in terms of the Church being over-scrupulous in this regard.

There is more to come as long planned programmes are rolled out in the months ahead within a widespread climate of renewed responsibility accepted by the higher echelons  of the Churches, and yet there is still genuine cause for concern that all will not be well.

Churches are places of special vulnerability where abuse is concerned. We deliberately set out to attract children and to welcome the vulnerable. Nobody wants to think it can happen on their watch, in their corner of respectability. Our mission statement is to be undiscriminating about those to whom we minister. Our very desire to think well of all,  is our principle weakness where the predatory paedophile is concerned.

They do not arrive with a forked tail and cloven hooves. They look and behave much like the rest of us – only more so. They are kind, helpful, industrious, outwardly faithful , and perhaps most difficult of all, frequently indispensable. Some may lack self awareness and not appreciate where their corner cutting of procedures and protocols will lead. They may be female as well as male, married, straight, gay or ostensibly celibate: they may be under age, clerical or lay. They can also be very plausible, persuasive and possessed of easily injured feelings.

It is only in comparatively recent years that we have come to appreciate the complexity of identifying and addressing this problem on both an institutional and personal level.

Those charged with improving the Church’s response to the problem, which includes Brother Ivo in a minor way, will have long term term work to do, because both the nature of the problem, and our understanding of it mutates on a regular basis. Five years ago Jimmy Savile was an eccentric hero a “cheeky chap” beloved of all for all the good he did. Let that be your warning.

Like the thief in the night we do not know the hour or the identity of the next malefactor to threaten our churches. Faith confers no immunity.

There have been over 30 Public Inquiries into child deaths in recent decades. The one constant theme to emerge from these most extreme and distressing examples of child abuse is that “Everybody knew a little but nobody joined up the dots”. It applied in the Jimmy Savile case; it applied in the case of the Bradford Muslim taxi driver child abuse ring; it will apply in the next scandal of the church organist and the choir member. Often the victim will have been manipulated not to see their own victimhood and may protect his/her abuser.

The price of freedom from child abuse is eternal vigilance and that is both routine and frequently dull.
There is no point in devising thorough Child and Vulnarable adult policies unless there is scrupulous, painstaking, and persistent application of them on a daily basis. It is the responsibility of every Priest, Minister, Church Warden. Youth Worker. PCC member, and worshipper.

Whilst discussing this with colleagues, Brother Ivo was alarmed to hear than one of the continuing problems in the rolling out of protective measures is the misguided resistance of a significant proportion of incumbents who suffer either from  over confidence in their own insights, or excessive suspicion of encroachment upon their own autonomy from the Church hierarchy.

In the Church of England the independence of the incumbent is frequently overlooked by outsiders who over estimate the coercive power of the Bishop.  A Bishop can lead persuade and cajole, but the legal pressures he can exercise are less than many appreciate Such local independence and autonomy  is valued theologically by many. It is also is the single weakest spot in the Church’s protection of the vulnerable.

No incumbent where abuse occurred, wanted it to happen , but it very rarely arrives out of a clear blue sky. After the event, it is always possible to look back and see where simple adherence to basic protective principles would have averted or mitigated the harm. If the recent scandals in the major institutions teach the lowly parish officer anything, it is that even the most sophisticated of organisations become complacent, and fail to see the obvious.

Plainly procedures do not of themselves protect, yet well considered structures help us in every aspect of our lives, and stopping child abuse is no different.

So if you are short of a New Year resolution, Brother Ivo invites you to resolve to make it your business to take child protection seriously and to help “Make Child Abuse history”.

In practice this means asking your church about its acceptance of its Diocesan policies and guidelines, and how it plans to audit compliance on a regular basis.

It is not an easy thing to do and may not make you popular, yet Jesus plainly had strong views on the welfare of His little ones, and little will gladden His heart more than each of us taking a personal interest in keeping them safe and happy as we speak of his love.