Many of the survivors of the holocaust believed it to be their duty to ‘bear witness’, to tell the world of the horror that had been done. Primo Levi and Eli Wiesel are probably the most famous of these, bearing witness in their writing and speaking. In the end Levi could not bear it and killed himself.
Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse have shown similar courage in coming forward to bear witness to what they endured at the hands of those who should have kept them safe, and enabled them to flourish. Many have shown extraordinary heroism in doing so. Some, like Neil Todd who had been abused by Peter Ball, could, eventually, bear it no longer. He took his own life.
I have made a point of reading the transcripts of the IICSA hearings this week, that have been examining the Church of England’s response to Peter Ball’s actions. It is harrowing reading to see how prayer, sacraments and sacred places were turned into means for abuse and self-gratification. The gospel turned to evil. It is equally sickening to see how the institutional church responded, particularly in today’s hearings, in rehabilitating Peter Ball as a bishop in the church.
It is important that those of us who exercise Christian leadership, and particularly those of us with direct responsibilities for safeguarding, (recognising that safeguarding is everyone’s responsibility), read these accounts so that we may learn from the past and apply what is learnt to how we operate today.
The Church has made progress. The most recent safeguarding training I attended was very well done indeed and enormously clear and helpful. I think a more management oriented culture (although criticised by some) is developing, which will come to see that good process and impartiality protects everyone. I would want to see independent verification of our processes, further development of an effective management culture and a far greater degree of transparency. There are also further cultural shifts needed if we are to make greater progress. Shifts towards a more professional view of ministry. The ‘holy amateur’ helps no one. Being professional is not the opposite of being holy. If God calls doctors, teachers and others to be holy in their professionalism he certainly calls priests and bishops to be holy professional.
However, what I want to reflect briefly on is how I have tried to integrate reading these transcripts into my prayer this week.
First of all, intercession for those who have been abused. Some individuals have been named publicly, a few I know personally. All these I have named in my prayer, just as I have held before God those unknown to me and those who have not yet disclosed abuse. To be honest I have not prayed for the abusers this week, I will, in time. But this week is a time to listen, to hear, to bear witness. I cannot bear to pray for the guilty in the midst of this.
The psalms form the bedrock of my prayer and I turn to them for almost everything that I experience in life. At the beginning of the week I thought I would pray one of the psalms of lament each evening having read the reports. In fact the psalms of lament proved to be entirely unhelpful. For the most part they are the laments of Israel after or in danger of a major destruction, or defeat, in which the righteousness of the nation is called into play. Clearly the church can claim no righteousness in the sordid history of child sexual abuse. The church has colluded in creating a culture which protects abusers, and we have sought to protect ourselves rather than care for victims. We can claim no right to God’s protection. The failure to understand, or even listen to victim-survivors is almost the worst thing. Comments about non-penetrative abuse as if it was less bad, less evil, saying so much about the sexual naivety of those who made them, and the ridiculousness of our failure as Christians to talk about sex.
So, I turned next to the penitential psalms. However, they too were not helpful. They are individualised prayers of personal penitence.
Just two psalms have been helpful for me. Psalm 94 is a psalm I have long used when faced with injustice and which I have often recommended to others when they are faced with injustice. It is a psalm of anger. The opening words in the Grail version are enormously helpful:
“O Lord, avenging God,
avenging God, appear!”
It is not an easy psalm, read it and apply it to the collusion with abusers that has taken place in the church.
The second psalm I have been able to pray is Psalm 130, De profundis. We are, as a church in the depths, in a dark place. We long for daybreak, for a dawn.
These words have helped me. But my prayer really began when I began reading the transcripts. To listen, to pay attention to what was done, to the witness that survivors bear is the first stage of what in South Africa was called Truth and Reconciliation. Fundamentally, that is why I believe all in leadership in the church should read the accounts. Read them and reflect on what we need to change further to be a safe place for all.
The bishop of Liverpool frequently says that facts are our friends. Dear friends, truth is always better than lies, light better than darkness.