IICSA – Holding the Past to Account?

by the Revd Dr Jeremy Morris, Master of Trinity Hall, Cambridge

Jeremy Morris

Now that the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) has held its preliminary hearing into the next cycle of material coming forward from Church of England institutions, we can look forward – if that is the right term – to further painful examination and analysis in July, when the full hearing takes place.

Looking through the published transcript of the preliminary hearing, available in full on the IICSA website, it’s clear that the implicit methodology of the hearing will include attention to questions that are essentially historical ones.  In using that word ‘historical’ I don’t mean that they’re far in the past and therefore have a limited bearing on the present – far from it.  You’ve only got to look at the continuing distress of those affected to grasp that, in terms of their impact and the damage they cause, these are present and ongoing matters.  What I mean is that the attention of the inquiry will have to include considering what were the processes and standards of safeguarding in place officially at the time when the various allegations of abuse and institutional failure at issue happened, how they compared with those of other professions or with best practice at the time, and whether – probably the key question – responsible individuals failed to observe the processes and standards in place, or whether the Church and its institutions corporately were at fault for failing to follow contemporary best practice.

In looking at these matters, the inquiry will have to concern itself to some degree with comparisons between the present and the past, albeit a very recent past.  This is just a specific example of a general issue affecting all such inquiries into the iniquities of the past, of course.  And it leads to a predictably sensitive and acute question – can you judge the behaviour and attitudes of the past (even the recent past) by the standards of the present?  Can you hold the past to account?

A lot of nonsense is written about this, probably to try to defend the indefensible.  It seems to me that, for a start, there’s an obvious distinction between things that were accepted as wrong at the time they happened just as they are today, but which may have been ignored or covered up, and things (this holds particularly for attitudes I suppose) which we’d now regard as unacceptable but which were widely thought to be harmless or just eccentric or humorous at the time.   The recent death of Windsor Davies, star of the 1970s sitcom ‘It ain’t half hot, Mum’, has evoked memories of a time when mainstream family comedy was shot through with attitudes that today would be regarded as abhorrent.

How this distinction applies in practice might seem a straightforward matter, and on the whole I think it probably is.  Child sexual abuse falls into the first category, obviously.  A great deal of what passed for popular humour a generation ago might fall into the latter – jokes that we’d now see as obviously sexist or racist, for example, were commonly accepted as harmless in the 1970s and 1980s.

But there are some grey areas, even so, which can make the matter of holding the past to account a tricky one.

The distinction certainly isn’t, for example, a simple fault line between actions and words.  Just as some forms of humour were beyond the pale and widely condemned even at the time, some actions in the past were unacceptable to many, but only partially so, and it’s unclear how widely they were criticized.

Back in the eighties, I was slapped on the bottom on several different occasions by a clergyman at the church I attended.  I was taken aback, a bit shocked even, but I was unsure what to think.  It was in the presence of his partner.  Was it simply playful?  Was it a kind of advance?  It was certainly unwelcome.  But I didn’t say anything at the time, and now realize I probably should have done.  I think I rather minimized the matter, assuming most people would go for the ‘he’s just being light-hearted’ line and it wasn’t worth making a fuss.  Also, I rather liked him, and didn’t want to make things difficult.  A common enough reaction, as I realize!  But looking back, it’s significant I remember distinctly each occasion, and the very fact that I didn’t want it to happen and that it was a repeated pattern puts it in a different light today.

And this gets more complicated still when we try to take into account the processes by which things in the first category, things which were clearly wrong and widely accepted as such, were handled at the time.  Sometimes – these occasions seem depressingly rare – they were publicly exposed or condemned, or taken to the police perhaps, with definite consequences for the perpetrator.

But quite often we seem to be dealing with situations in which the processes used were thoroughly inadequate to the nature of the abuse.  And here the distinction between individual culpability and systemic or institutional failure is not at all clear, partly because standards of safeguarding have changed.  What if someone in a position of authority thought they were taking firm action to stop something happening again, by perhaps warning others and moving the perpetrator on from a particular job, or making sure they never worked in that capacity again?  What if – at the time – it was widely thought that this was the way to deal with bad situations?  What if, by their lights, they were taking appropriate action according to the advice they received?

I don’t have an answer to these questions, and I’m not looking for a way of exonerating anyone.  But I do have two comments, which to some extent cut across each other.  One is that, by my reckoning, it’s an awful long time we’ve been talking about child abuse and other forms of sexual and domestic abuse – well over thirty years.  The Orkney case of alleged ritual abuse, for example, may have been effectively disproved (or at least called into question), but it came at a time of growing public awareness of abuse, and that was nearly thirty years ago.  Churches were already aware of the potential scale of these problems back in the 1980s – indeed the Catholic Church in Ireland was taking out insurance against claims over thirty years ago.  So the argument that people weren’t aware of these things, or didn’t take them so seriously, can certainly be pushed too far.

The other comment is that the suggestion that ‘standards and processes were different then’ can be put to the test historically.  It ought to be possible to review just what was expected of people in positions of authority by way of safeguarding anything up to thirty or forty years ago, with examples of good practice then, and some attention to the norms and values which guided the processes (even if utterly inadequate) in place, and also to the changing language of safeguarding.  This is the stuff of good historical work, looking at relevant documents, interviewing people who were alive then (including survivors as well as figures of authority, and even perpetrators), rooting particular directions and ideas in the broader assumptions of the time about harm, family life, intimacy, and so on.

I know this is in part what IICSA hopes to do.  Good luck to them!





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2 Responses to IICSA – Holding the Past to Account?

  1. Gilo says:

    One of the difficulties we are up against is that it’s impossible to ascertain what bishops and others might have done in the past, or could have done – when the current response is a series of predictable “no recollections”. Senior figures have driven far up cul-de-sacs of denial, distancing themselves as fully as possible from past attempts by survivors to get help. They have been enabled in this by reputation managers and strategists.

    This is the crisis of the senior layer it doesn’t want to own. And the Church is continually dashed on the rocks of this collective existential crisis in the bishops. They are caught in the headlamps of their own lack of integrity. Instead of speaking with authenticity to this, we see bishops respond with a fearful omertà which protects the denial and dishonesty of others around them. We see this again and again. And so we have the bonkers situation of two bishops in denial on the National Safeguarding Steering Group (NSSG) running the response to survivors. They wouldn’t get away with this in a County Council!

    You are right – it’s an awful long time we’ve been talking about child abuse. Awareness took root in the 1980’s or earlier, at least in the Roman Catholic church. In the Church of England there was a giant missed opportunity with the Past Case Review which was very recent – 2010. Instead of looking seriously at what that review revealed (way more than the 13 cases which the Church was prepared to make public at the time), a mountain was squeezed into an eggcup and those presiding over the chaotic fiasco hoped no-one would question the bizarre result. The Church is paying not just for the cover-ups of the past further back which have become all too clear – such as the Lambeth Palace shielding of Peter Ball – but also for the astonishing dishonesty of the industrial-scale whitewash which took place. The Church has still not come to terms with this or been honest about it. There is so much that needs to come into daylight. The Church will only change through acute daylight – it is unable to change without it. It has a remarkable ability to absorb embarrassment. The inbuilt need to hide behind culture and structure is too strong. The culture is broken. And the leadership too weak to do anything much except stare into the middle distance and hope the crisis will not entirely engulf it. I’m not the only survivor who feels that the current leadership across the Church is very low grade in terms of facing this crisis properly and dealing with us honestly and justly.

    The reality is that your Church at senior level has known about abuse, lots of it, for a long time. But has remained silent.


  2. Thank you for your article, Jeremy and your comment, Gilo. Abuse is abuse, and however much someone (or an institution) thinks they are taking firm action to deal with it, if abuse or misuse of power continues to happen, then people’s lives are terribly affected. Standards of behaviour were different in the past. That might possibly suggest perpetrators should be treated with some regard for the understanding of their time. But any behaviour involving the sexual, physical, emotional or spiritual exploitation of young or vulnerable people is something that, within Anglican history, at least from the late Tudor period, been understood as damaging and culpable. (Think of Elizabeth the First and Thomas Seymour). Like the subjugation of other human beings through slavery or the starving of people in concentration camps (British as well as German) we, today, instinctively feel that abuse is profoundly wrong. It blights and ruins lives. It causes pain, death and trauma through several generations. I long to hear the Church of England say, first and foremost, this is something we will eradicate. It is an outrage, it is as wrong as the treatment of slaves. It must be dealt with as a priority. But I fear that, like slavery, abuse is so much part of the social, ecclesial and economic structure we, in the church, rely on, that we cannot be human, be Christlike, admit there has been abuse, and reach out to those who have suffered. Justice demands that all who have suffered abuse be heard, be allowed to influence the future and be supported in their recovery. When we look at the extent to which slavery supported the economic structure of the industrial revolution, we are ashamed. Today we are hiding behind the extent to which the exploitation of young people of both sexes has supported the lifestyle of a significant minority of clergy and others in the employ of the church. When I read these stories and meet survivors, I am horrified. As someone who was ordained and ministered in the church for more than 25 years, I want to hear my colleagues respond like human beings to the plight of other human beings – it was wrong. First and foremost, what can we do to help? If the response has implications. we will bear that gladly.


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