Self-examination and self-knowledge – missing essentials from the IICSA hearings

Last Friday the Church Times published a number of articles reflecting on the three weeks of hearings of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) which focused on the Church of England in general and the diocese of Chichester in particular. In a previous leader, the Church Times said that “past blunders, defensive policies, and deliberate obstruction have cast such a pall that they overshadow the better practices now being introduced.” A huge investment of time, energy and money is being poured into the common desire to make safeguarding comprehensive and effective, but, as the CT noted, there is also the vital matter of prevention. I believe prevention is far more important than cure. The Church of England has yet to heed this lesson.

Theology is a fundamental part of the problem

Linda Woodhead, Professor of Sociology of Religion at Lancaster University, does recognise one of the systemic, problems, thank goodness. She named inadequate theologies as being part of the problem. The dangers of bad theology have been obvious to me for a long time. It has been raised in conversations with colleagues and friends and it’s astonishing that none of those who spoke at the hearings recognised that bad theology creates the climate in which abuse is almost inevitable.

Linda noted that everyone who spoke at the hearings agreed that procedural and structural change was insufficient without a change of culture, but none of them drew the obvious conclusion that this must include theology. The operative theologies in the Church of England are part of the problem, she wrote, and a ruthlessly honest theological audit is going to have to be part of the solution. At the Calvinist end of the spectrum, a theology of total depravity and total justification could feed this doctrine of cheap forgiveness; at the Catholic end, the practice of confession and absolution.

Linda raises a question that is absolutely fundamental to the health and corporate theological intelligence of the church, but no one dares ask: what kind of God does the Church of England now believe in? Does the church believe in a God who stands outside his creation knowing exactly how it will all end or a God who is present in, with, and through creation, and affected by it? The idea of God is bound up with a state of mind in which it is impossible to pursue living questions wherever they lead. If we admit that the problems are theological, we see that procedural tinkering is not going to be nearly good enough, she concludes. The state of mind of the church in the twenty first century does not allow living questions to be pursued wherever they lead. This is but one element of life in the church that deeply frustrates and depresses me.

Self-examination and self-knowledge is also a fundamental part of the problem

There is a second critical element that is part of the problem, which again, no one seems to have identified at the hearings.

In my teens I was abused by a priest. He died several decades ago. I too am a survivor and having explored the effect of the abuse on me in counselling and psychotherapy, I have a developed understanding both of the mind of a perpetrator and the effect of abuse on the survivor.

I argue, actively, that the lack of interior awareness, a failure by the abuser to be conscious that what they are doing is abusive, is a fundamental reason for abusive activity.

I want to ask a question that I’ve not heard being asked in the course of the hearings. What goes on in the minds, the consciousness of bishops and priests and others who abuse people emotionally and sexually? What goes on in the minds, the consciousness of bishops and archbishops who fail to take seriously abuse when it is reported to them and don’t take appropriate action?

Mentally and emotionally, all of them lacked and may still lack the ability to be sufficiently aware of what they were doing, both the abusers and those to whom abuse was reported. They are intelligent people who have been recognised as good pastors and leaders. Archbishop Welby, remarking about Bishop Bell, noted that saintly acts can be carried out by those responsible for evil acts. They would not have been appointed bishops unless they had sufficient intelligence and pastoral skill to been added to the senior appointments list.

Those who abuse people emotionally and sexually betray a serious lack of awareness that what they do is abusive, and illegal, and, many would say, repugnant to Christian teaching and values. So what goes on in the minds and hearts of people who abuse?

In response to what the hearings have revealed about the Church of England’s failings, the church is taking action to improve the quality of safeguarding in the church. More members of every congregation will undergo some level of vetting. Safeguarding procedures will be tightened. Clergy and parish safeguarding officers will spend more time concerned about how to implement these extended requirements and emotional energy worrying about the apparently widespread potential for abuse in parish life implied by the extension of vetting to more people. Their stress and anxiety levels are likely to increase.

Vetting more people might improve the church’s safeguarding performance. But it does nothing to address abuse at its source – in the damaged awareness in the hearts and minds of individual bishops and priests who are unable to contain their addiction (as it might be for some) or their inability to be conscious that what they desire to do is abusive and deeply damaging to the person for whom they have a pastoral responsibility of Christ-like care and love.

Where does the Church of England invest time and money and skill in training clergy and leaders in what to me is an essential ingredient of pastoral care and ministry – to know yourself well-enough that you are alert when tempted to do something that is abusive? Josephine Anne Stein, a policy researcher and analyst, says in her Church Times article. “There seems to be no organised safeguarding training covering self-examination and self-knowledge that could guide and support those who are perpetrators of abuse or have personality traits that make them predisposed to committing abuse. Nor is pastoral supervision at this level routinely provided for the clergy. Instead, safeguarding in the Church of England has burgeoned into a procedural, bureaucratic, and bloated industry that does not appear to be effective either in responding to abuse or in preventing further abuse.”

I fear the church assumes that this knowledge arrives naturally as a gift of the Holy Spirit when God calls a person to ministry. It does not. It is not essential that every priest and bishop should train, as I did later in life, as a psychotherapist, but every priest should receive substantial training in the art of self-examination and self-knowledge and of personal relationships. Priests and bishops need to know enough about things like projection and transference to pick up when this is going on. They need to be sufficiently self-aware to be able to monitor their feelings and reactions to people and know when the feelings are healthy and when they are unhealthy. I would like to know whether such training is an integral part of the curriculum at every theological college and ministerial training scheme today.

In his article, Dr Martin Warner, the Bishop of Chichester, proposed that the largely unused provision for a visitation could be included in the recommendations, its scope widened to include immediate action when a diocesan safeguarding adviser, a diocesan safeguarding advisory panel, or a diocesan bishop have become dysfunctional in the handling of any safeguarding issue. Bishop Martin, action aimed at prevention is more important than remedial action.

A convicted sex offender wrote anonymously about his experience in the twenty years that have passed since he offended, in which time he has not reoffended. He may never be a danger, he says, but there is no way he can prove this. He was told that for the rest of his life, he would need to be monitored for his own protection, though this is not required in law. His church decided to tell leaders of other adult groups that he was part of about his offending. He was told that he might need to stop many of the things that he did at church, not because of any inherent risk, but because of how it might look. This echoes the many reports from LGBTI people who have been banned from roles at their church because of their identity. Why does the Church take such drastic action against sex offenders and LGBTI people? The Church Times comment opined that the Church must listen not only to survivors, but also to perpetrators and, in doing so, begin to see them as fellow pilgrims, not pariahs.

Abuse happens when people’s emotional matrix is inadequately formed. It would be far more effective were the church to invest time and resources at the ministerial formation and review stages, teaching spiritual depth and the skill to monitor personal feelings. Such investment is far more likely, combined with Linda’s recommendation about theology, to improve the ability of the Church of England to be a genuinely safe environment in which God’s unconditional love can be experienced than the extension of safe guarding procedures to cover more and more people.