Sex abuse and godly power

Fiona Scolding QC, IICSA

Fiona Scolding QC, IICSA

The Independent Inquiry into Child Sex Abuse (IICSA) is currently investigating the Diocese of Chichester as part of its study of whether Church of England leaders have failed to protect children against sexual abuse.

Abuse survivors sometimes say that in their experience the motivation was power rather than sex. This post reflects on power relations within religious communities. Of course other factors are involved as well, but here I focus on power.

Hattie Williams writes in the Church Times about one witness’s experience of a community scheme for young people in Littlington, East Sussex. People were ‘as infantilised as possible, so that they can be controlled’.

There was a strain that ran through Littlington which was explicitly designed to appeal to people whose outlook on life was morbid and self-loathing, and very receptive to ideas of Original Sin: that we are all dreadful sinners, and that while we didn’t nail Christ to the cross personally, we might as well have done. . . There is a kind of masochistic thrill about that train of thought.

Last week Professor Julie Macfarlane described the response when, at the age of 16, she asked to discuss her spiritual doubts with her local rector.

He told me that God wanted me to kneel and perform oral sex on him. This was the start of more than 12 months of constant sexual abuse by the priest. He continued to make me perform fellatio on him, and masturbated on me, in multiple locations.

The current bishop of Chichester, Martin Warner, said in his witness statement that the diocese had fostered

a culture of deferring unduly to those in power, and a culture, in effect, of deference and defensiveness.

Some of the information is horrifying. However it won’t do to just throw up our arms in horror, as though all we want to do is indulge our enjoyment of a story combining disgust with sex. Instead let’s ask: why has this been happening, what causes it to happen, and how can we reduce the chances of it happening again?

Sexual abuse happens in many places, but in this post I focus on the recent revelations about my church, the Church of England.

Power

My father was an Anglo-Catholic priest trained in the 1930s. To him, being a priest was a distinct calling, demanding a distinct way of life. The priest represented God to the parish. This imposed huge demands. His lifestyle was to be beyond reproach.

When I was ordained, in 1976, many of my fellow-ordinands were also Anglo-Catholics, with a similar sense of distinct calling. The first time they put on a clerical collar seemed enormously significant. But commensurate duties were not big topics of conversation. The talk was about the change of status. The laity would have to do what Father says. Sins didn’t matter because they could be absolved in Confession.

This is just personal anecdote. I haven’t studied the change any further. I mention it because it’s easy to see how one concept gradually slides into the other.

I am a special person, different from others, so I have extra responsibilities

easily becomes

I am a special person, different from others, so I expect to be treated differently.

Or to put it another way,

I am a man of God, so I must attend to God well enough to behave in a godly way

becomes

I am a man of God, attending to God, so what I feel moved to do must be what God wants me to do.

The issue is not confined to Anglo-Catholic dioceses like Chichester. One also hears similar stories from some Evangelical circles. I lived in Sheffield when the Nine O’Clock Service was at its most popular, and great was its fall – because of sexual abuse. In churches where the supreme authority of the Bible is emphasised, we sometimes hear of ministers claiming authority to interpret it, and brooking no dissent. I have heard laments by lay people of a minister’s claim along the lines that

When I speak to you as your minister, I am speaking the voice of God to you.

Catholic or Evangelical, this is about power.

It seems to me that conservative theologies easily fuel the temptation. Of course they sometimes warn against it, but it is still there.

For some a priest is a different kind of person, with a special grace bestowed by the Holy Spirit. For others the supreme authority of the Bible is mediated to the local community by the acknowledged biblical expert. In both cases the person with local religious authority is invited to adopt a role as different from other people, with the right to tell their congregations what to do.

Given these theologies, it is hardly surprising that ordained ministry in an authoritarian culture attracts people who long for the power that comes with being an official spokesperson for God.

If the authority comes from God, it ought to transcend the ordinary social norms of secular culture. This becomes especially important in churches which pride themselves on being counter-cultural.

So the publicly acknowledged religious authority easily develops a self-image of having enhanced communication with God. Normal, everyday desires and temptations can then be interpreted as the voice of God. The desire for money, or for a sex act, comes to seem like God’s will.

Odd though it seems, when the most authoritarian preachers against sexual misdemeanours are caught with their trousers down, there is a logic to it.

Other adults ought not to oblige adolescents to perform sex acts on them. It’s a great sin. I, on the other hand, am a godly person. When I tell them to do it to me, I’m doing the will of God.

Having said all this, I don’t want to deny the role altogether. I think some people are naturally drawn to be a focus for the local community’s sense of relating to the divine, and it is good for communities to have them.

The fault lies with exaggerating the distinctiveness of the religious character. Priests and ministers, however good they are at administering the sacraments and explaining biblical texts, still have normal human temptations. Those who think of themselves as specially godly have the added temptation to consider themselves exempt from the usual rules.

The more power we have, the greater the temptation to abuse it – and the greater the need for self-discipline.

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1 Response to Sex abuse and godly power

  1. Priests are servants of the people .. somewhere along the line ‘ many think they are the best thing since sliced bread ‘ consequently trust in their calling and it’s duty has been
    lost on many counts but sexual abuse of children and people is causing many to stop or not attend church. A Theological Sadness.
    Trust is hard to find the one place people think it should be found is now questionable, families need to find this Trust in a sacred space .
    I would put forward a new mode of Safe Guarding ie Teams visiting every church checking procedures on site when problems occur .. opening up lines of communication
    directly with and to congregations so nothing is hidden. This will stop curtains being drawn to hide and manipulate abuse.

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