Abusers of Faith

by the Very Revd Dr David Ison, Dean of St Paul’s, Member of General Synod and Vice-Chair of the Ozanne Foundation

David ison 2

In June 2017 the Church of England published the Gibb Report An Abuse of Faith, an independent enquiry into the Church’s handling of the Bishop Peter Ball case, a damning exposure of how the Church had responded poorly to Ball’s abuse victims and had colluded to cover up the seriousness of his manipulative conduct.

Two and a half years later, on 13th and 14th January 2020, came the screening of two hour-long programmes on BBC2 called Exposed: The Church’s dark secret, which used survivor and witness testimony and dramatic reconstructions to bring home the emotional impact of Ball’s betrayal of trust set out in the Gibb Report. The bravery of the survivors of abuse was remarkable; and so was the incompetence and lack of care shown by some senior Church and establishment figures in the 1990s and 2000s.

The Exposed programme made links between Peter Ball and other paedophile priests, and hinted at a wider public school culture where physical punishment, humiliation, emotional and sexual abuse in the name of ‘manliness’ or even ‘godliness’ facilitated abusive behaviour. Peter Ball’s abuse was on the basis of anglo-catholic monasticism. But it has strong resonances with similar behaviour uncovered in the last few years in relation to John Smyth and Jonathan Fletcher, two evangelical Christian leaders who were involved in manipulating young men into stripping and being beaten. In Smyth’s case his abuse was known but dealt with covertly, allowing him to go on abusing in another country.

Why do men act in such ways? Why does the church establishment not respond with compassion towards their victims and survivors? Two starters for ten.

The perversion of sexuality.

Healthy personal identity includes coming to terms with our sexuality, whatever it is, and living it appropriately (whether in relationship or in abstinence). Being gay, lesbian or bisexual is not a perversion if it’s who you are. Denying your sexuality, without integrating it into your life and putting appropriate boundaries around it, is what leads to perversion. Whether it’s a poor public school boarding system or a dysfunctional family which takes away from children the opportunity to learn healthy intimacy and relationships, the repression of emotional warmth and the dis-integration of the self makes people vulnerable to finding their missing intimacy in perverse ways. Sexuality becomes covert, shameful, hidden, and leaks out in ways that can damage other people as well as the person themselves.

Jesus said, ‘If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free’ (John 8.31-2). We need to be truthful and open, rather than dogmatic and hidden. Ball, Smyth and Fletcher were orthodox and exemplary Christians on the surface, but were not truthful about their impulses and who they were, and used others for their gratification rather than admit their problems and find help. They preferred to exercise power and control over other people than be vulnerable themselves. The healthy response is for people to acknowledge their sexuality and seek to integrate it into their lives; and the Living in Love and Faith process in the Church of England offers a further opportunity for all of us Christians from across the spectrum of sexuality and church tradition to face up to our own insecurities and temptations, and build healthy, compassionate and equal relationships with others.

Beliefs that reinforce separation and authority.

Common to Ball, Smyth and Fletcher was the use of selective Christian teaching combined with overt and covert appeals to the spiritual authority of the person doing the controlling. They groomed their victims in a spiritual context which validated what they were doing. They also groomed the organisations they worked for into believing that they were great leaders and that what they were doing was normal and right. Ball in particular was spectacularly successful in getting both Church and Establishment to see things from his perspective, treating his victims as being to blame for the problems that he had created, and perpetuating a culture where people with power could not be held to account.

Any ‘charismatic leader’ runs the risk of allowing pride and control over others to overcome compassion and Christ-like service to them. But that risk is greatly magnified in faith settings where there is a view or expectation that the leader is a saint, or closer to God than others; and also where there are rigid beliefs that keep people from thinking ‘outside the box’ and questioning their leaders, views which stop them hearing the beliefs and experiences of others. The recent book Escaping the Maze of Spiritual Abuse by Lisa Oakley and Justin Humphreys (SPCK, 2019) gives many examples of how ‘groupthink’ can happen in a church closed off from Christians and others who are different and could challenge the leadership. Such churches can be fertile breeding grounds for abusive behaviour. Whether it’s evangelical or catholic or liberal, any church or group which doesn’t accept difference is more vulnerable to hosting abuse. One reason why Peter Ball didn’t come to justice for so long was that few people wanted to believe that a bishop could be like that, and bishops who knew otherwise weren’t prepared to acknowledge it: protection of their position was more important than caring for others and telling the truth.

There are catholic cultures and institutions which shelter perverse sexuality, the divide between the aspiration to celibacy and the reality. There are evangelical churches which deny the reality of gay, bisexual, intersex and transgender Christians, in the context of a Church which denies acceptance to gay people wanting Christian and faithful relationships on the pattern of marriage. That’s part of what needs to change in order to be healthy, so that ‘if we walk in the light as [God] himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.’ Until we tell the truth and live in the light – together – we will continue to make it easier for there to be victims of abuse.

After watching the second programme on Peter Ball, I changed channel to see the news. The second item was the report on child sexual abuse in Rochdale, where Manchester police and social services had written off vulnerable young girls in care and allowed wholesale abuse by men to take place against them. It’s not only the Church that has refused to listen to victims of abuse –  it’s a massive social problem of how men can turn to abusing others instead of taking responsibility for managing their own sexual desires and conflicts in a healthy way. The Church should not collude with it, but be leading the way out of hypocrisy and dis-integration into the light and truth of Jesus Christ.


This entry was posted in Dean of St Pauls, Human Sexuality, IICSA, Safeguarding, Sexual abuse, Social Justice, Spiritual Abuse. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Abusers of Faith

  1. It is a clear presentation of what is true about the scandal of sexual abuse. Repentance by the whole Church has to be part of the way forward and I have pressed National Safeguarding Bishop and our Diocesan Bishop to give a call to all parishes to use particular such prayers on a dedicated Sorry Sunday. I have been asking for over a year now. It seems cover up and fear are the main reactions, which simply undermines the witness of the Gospel, to which repentance is the threshold, and denies the lasting pain of the abused


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