by the Bishop of Buckingham, Rt Revd Dr Alan Wilson
On 13 August 2012 ministry took a new path for me. A journalist had alerted me to untoward goings on in Sussex. Young peoples’ lives had been damaged. The Church shied away from taking proper responsibility. Survivors felt they were being treated as an embarrassment, sidelined then blocked.
As a result, my colleague Revd Rosie Harper and I were invited to meet some of the people concerned and listen to their stories. When all is said and done the Church is a pastoral organisation. It exists to bring the grace and truth of Christ to a generation within its care. This calling had been massively betrayed, and I felt ashamed of the Church I represent. Things had to change.
More and more people were getting in touch. Very often what they craved was someone to listen to their story and take it seriously. I realised that very often the most healing thing was truth about what had actually happened and, above all, honesty.
One emerging common theme shocked us. Male or female, high or low, recent or not, every person we listened to told us things had got worse for them after they reported.
In 2013 Pope Francis saw the Church as a field hospital. Imagine a field hospital in which all the wounded soldiers leave more shot up than they were when brought in. That couldn’t be entirely their fault.
I was comforted in July 2013, though, by our new archbishop’s recognition of the problem. He apologised and seemed to understand the systemic dimension of our failings as he articulated for General Synod “a profound theological point. We are not doing all this – we are not seeking to say how devastatingly, appallingly, atrociously sorry we are for the great failures there have been, for our own sakes, for our own flourishing, for the protection of the Church. We are doing this because we are called to live in the justice of God and we will each answer to him for our failures in this area”.
Time passed by. Budgets for training and advisers began to grow. I was encouraged.
In 2015 our archbishop told us “We failed big time, we can do nothing other than confess our sin, repent and commit ourselves to being different in the years ahead.”
Time passed by. A new project was in the air, collaboratively developed with survivors — “Safe Spaces”
2017 seemed less hopeful. News broke of John Smyth’s sadistic abuse of teenage boys whose trust he had betrayed as he blighted their lives. But at any rate the Archbishop was still sorry. We were told he “apologises unequivocally and unreservedly to all survivors.”
January 2018 saw preliminary hearings of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sex Abuse. Rightly, our Archbishop had lined up the Church for early examination, a brave and honourable act.
And when the atrocious Chichester tale was revealed, giving substance to what we had heard on 13 August 2012, we were as sorry as he:
“You can apologise and apologise to survivors, and I would want to put on record again — I don’t know how to express it adequately — how appalled I am and ashamed I am of the Church for what it did.”
Time Passed by.
More money was spent, training improved and Safe Spaces underwent a reboot and would soon start for real. That was the good story. We continued to hear not so good stories from survivors, all of whom wished they never had reported to Church authorities.
We wrote a book, taking survivor experience seriously across a very broad spectrum of church abuse. We tried to understand the roots and cultural context of our failures, and proposed a fresh approach. It was mentioned by enough survivors for IICSA to call for material from it as evidence in 2019.
When our archbishop read the latest IICSA report last week, he was still sorry not only for what had happened but for the Church’s failure to respond pastorally. “We cannot and will not make excuses, and I must again offer my sincere apologies to those who have been abused.”
After 8 years of sorry, then, from our Archbishop at least if not others, how do I feel about the post-IICSA future?
I am encouraged to see that our new Archbishop of York whom I like and respect very much as a former close colleague, is sorry too. He said on national radio how shocked he was by the report. Rosie pointed out he’d known about what was in it for years.
He replied personally “Shocked to read it again, Rosie. I suppose what I’m saying is I hope I’ll never stop being shocked and distressed until we have changed. I am in a position to really help make that change. I am determined to do so. And quickly.”
I am sure he will be supported, as will survivors, by Rt Revd Jonathan Gibbs, the Church’s new safeguarding bishop. Not only in General synod, but in a really helpful Religion Media Centre IICSA report briefing with survivors and advocates, Jonathan clearly demonstrates fresh commitment to drive change at every level.
Oh, and Safe Spaces actually started, albeit with a few learner driver’s kangaroo jumps, on 29 September 2020.
I return to Archbishop Justin’s words in 2012. But… How long O Lord?
Jesus said “If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.”
Martin Luther King said “It is always the right time to do the right thing.”
Rosie and I have met many survivors, courageous and wise people, who have often tolerated years of being ignored, patronised, lied to and blamed. They feel they have been going round and round in circles for ever.
After multiple forced apologies from a surprisingly small selection of bishops, a few training and cosmetic changes have happened at vast cost. Dr Josephine Stein reminds us this all dwarfs provision for survivors. Then somehow all the regret ends up back the too-difficult box… until the next shameful revelation.
As it was in 2012, is now…. and ever shall be? world without end? Really?