By Symon Hill
Friday 29 May 2015 (Source: The Guardian)
|‘In terms of abuse in British churches, the 1,885 cases announced by the Methodists are undoubtedly the tip of the iceberg.’ Photograph: Alamy|
Last month, I moved out of a residential Christian community attached to a Methodist church in London. I moved for several reasons. One was the way that the church had handled an allegation of sexual abuse. The victim in that case was interviewed as part of the Methodist church’s Past Cases Review into abuse allegations. She had no advance notice of Thursday’s announcement by the Methodist church, which has formally apologised for 1,885 cases of abuse over the past 60 years. Despite media references to “historical abuse”, some of the cases are very recent.
This should be a wake-up call for all Christians in Britain. It is time for Protestants who have complacently dismissed church abuse as a “Catholic problem” to face the reality that abuse is endemic across denominations. As a Christian, and as someone who writes and teaches about religion and sexuality, I have heard far more stories of sexual abuse than I can count – along with stories of cover-ups, sexist responses, victim-blaming and repeated failures to take allegations seriously.
In terms of abuse in British churches, the 1,885 cases announced by the Methodists are undoubtedly the tip of the iceberg.
Only a few years after the Catholic child abuse scandals, we are on the brink of a new scandal. This time it will be about abuse across churches, probably mostly of adults. It can no longer be blamed simply on Catholic doctrine or clerical celibacy.
Sexual abuse is about power. If the victim has the courage to complain, the abuser often uses their higher status to discredit the victim – perhaps because they are a respected individual who will be believed, or perhaps because the victim is vulnerable and will not be. Abusers can, implicitly or explicitly, appeal to the self-interest of church leaders not to cause trouble or bad PR by taking action to deal with allegations.
The Methodist church deserves credit for being the first British church to have the courage to conduct this sort of review and publish the findings. As Jesus said, “By their fruits you shall know them.” But the real test for the Methodist church is what happens now.
The report includes welcome recommendations for new procedures and training. It is more vague when it comes to challenging or removing ministers who have ignored abuse in the past. Some of the cases they investigated had been previously reported to Methodist ministers who are still in a post. Some such ministers ignored or dismissed them. A Methodist spokesperson tells me that victims have been encouraged to make complaints about ministers who behaved in this way. It seems to me unfair to expect abuse survivors, who have already been interviewed in the Past Cases Review, to initiate another procedure. One victim interviewed for the review tells me that she was not in fact advised to make such a complaint. I suspect that neither new procedures nor the removal of guilty parties is likely to achieve much without a change in church culture.
When it comes to issues of sex and violence, most churches are, to put it bluntly, messed up. There are churches that ignore sexual violence while refusing to marry loving couples who happen to be of the same gender. I know clergy who preach of God’s love for the vulnerable, but dismiss the vulnerable when they make allegations of abuse. Biblical passages condemning men who abuse boys are routinely torn from their context and used to attack adult same-sex relationships.
No procedure in the world will change this if, as Christians, we do not change our attitudes. Jesus’s message was a challenge to the powerful. Loyalty to God’s kingdom, the kingdom of love, means we shouldn’t allow churches or governments to demand our loyalty and suppress our consciences.
Christian communities need to be more questioning, less hierarchical and composed of people determined to treat all others as equals, not to be impressed by status. Otherwise, we’ll be back here in another 10 years, with another church apology for thousands of new cases of abuse.