The mark of Christian leadership is self-giving service. One of the indicators of a call to any ministry in the Church is that the person who believes they are called demonstrates the truth of this call by consistent loving service to others. In the book The Lord of the Rings what makes it clear that Aragorn is king, and is meant to be king, is not that he is entitled to that position by birth, but that he loves his people to the point where he is willing to sacrifice himself for them. He puts himself in the path of danger to protect and save, he rallies the people by his courage and integrity. He is their servant, therefore he is their king. This echoes Jesus’ instruction to his disciples that whoever would be first among them must be the servant of all.
The ‘higher’ the office to which a person is called, the more stringent the requirement that the person behave with integrity and humility. For a Church leader to use another person sexually, to promote his own interests, or simply to affirm his ego at their expense, is abusive. This kind of behaviour is a betrayal of the trust the Church has placed in that leader. It is a betrayal of the Church community and of the Christian faith.
Over recent years the Anglican, Catholic and other churches in Australia have been forced to recognise and confront the harm done by sexual abuse perpetrated by Church workers. The damage caused to victims by this abuse was made all the worse by the fact that the Church as a whole failed to take responsibility to ensure that victims were acknowledged, welcomed and valued, and to ensure that abuse was decisively confronted as the evil it is. These twin failures have resulted in a deep loss of faith in the Church as a truthful and caring organisation.
Following revelations of the failure of Church leaders to care adequately for victims of sexual abuse, various professional standards bodies have been set up to investigate complaints. Documents such as the Anglican church’s “Faithfulness in Service,” setting out standards and guidelines for behaviour for Church workers, have been widely adopted.
There appears to be an increased willingness to hear and act on accusations of sexual abuse. Other forms of abuse, including bullying, verbal and emotional abuse, are not taken so seriously, even though the long-term effects may be just as damaging, both to individual victims and to the wider Church. This focus on sexual abuse may be natural, considering recent negative publicity. But if publicly expressed concern and action is driven by the media, rather than a concern for victims of abuse, this is evidence of a continuing failure by Church leaders to recognise and confront the reality of the abuse of power and its effects.
When a complaint is made about abuse of any form, perpetrators tend to respond in predictable ways. People who are abusive will use their power to silence or intimidate their victims. Victims will be told to keep quiet. This can range from ‘no one will believe you’ to ‘tell anyone about this and I’ll have your children removed.’ to threats of legal action. Victims may be isolated from peer groups or not invited to Church or other functions. Other people may be advised not to talk to them, or even forbidden to do so.
If this fails, and the victim does reveal the abusive behaviour, steps will be taken to destroy the victim’s credibility. ‘She’s just a troublemaker.’ ‘He’s a liar.’ ‘She has a history of mental problems.’ ‘He’s just trying to get back at me for…’
The perpetrator may fall back upon his position to bolster his claims to truthfulness: ‘I’m the bishop, I’m the bishop, I’m the bishop.’ He may claim that he is the real victim: ‘I’ve been hurt by all this.’ or ‘This only happened because I was trying to help.’
If it finally becomes clear that despite the denials there is some truth in the victim’s claims, then the response may be that her claims are exaggerated, or that there was a misunderstanding, or that he or she somehow deserved it. ‘Yes, I lost my temper and swore at him, but he shouldn’t have questioned me.’ ‘She was in bed when I arrived and didn’t get up, it was obvious she wanted it.’ Rape and domestic violence counsellors are familiar with these tactics.
If all else fails, the victim will be told that he or she should forgive and stop making a fuss. Victims may be told that they are spiritually immature, or that they are being selfish. ‘OK, I made a mistake. I’m human. Now let’s move on.’ ‘What about my family? How do you think they’ll feel if you keep on about this?’
Church communities, where, after all, everything is supposed to be ‘nice’, may find it very difficult to cope with the pain of acknowledging and confronting abuse. The Church community, which should be a safe and healing place for the victim, may begin to identify her as a troublemaker. The victim becomes the problem. She may be told that by speaking about what has happened, she is dividing the Church. In this way a community’s unwillingness to face unpleasant realities, and subsequent isolation of victims of abuse, can be justified by reference to a distorted understanding of the nature of forgiveness.
The claim that it is necessary to forgive can be a powerful weapon in silencing victims of abuse. Forgiveness is a central part of Christian doctrine. Jesus taught his disciples to pray that they would be forgiven, since they had already forgiven those who sinned against them. However, two important truths get lost in demands that victims forgive and move on. The first of these is that forgiveness must be given freely, that people must be given time to heal, that the journey towards forgiveness must be in the victim’s time, not according to the demands of the perpetrator. For a perpetrator of abuse to attempt to use his power to demand forgiveness from a victim is a continuation of the abuse. Church communities which are unwilling to do the hard work of confronting evil and demand that victims be silent are sharers in this abuse.
A lie about the nature of forgiveness is that forgiveness means agreeing that the offending actions were not really wrong, or didn’t matter. Abuse of any sort is wrong, and it does matter.
The second truth about forgiveness is that the need for forgiveness only exists when something wrong has been done. There’s a story about the mother of a deserter who had been sentenced to death. The soldier’s mother went to see Napoleon to ask for mercy. ‘But he doesn’t deserve mercy,’ said Napoleon. ‘If he deserved it,’ said the mother, ‘It wouldn’t be mercy.’ In the same way, there can only be forgiveness when there is sin to forgive.
Abuse of power in the Church, whether expressed as sexual abuse, verbal, emotional or other forms of abuse, is sin. Attempts to deal with abuse that fail to recognise this reality, that abuse is evil, will inevitably be inadequate, will not lead to healing for victims, will not prevent future abuse, will not restore the credibility of the Church.
Consequently, any method which adopts a morally neutral standpoint is inadequate. That the ultimate aim is healing must not be allowed to overshadow this key principle. For example, any ‘therapeutic’ approach which concentrates on the perpetrator’s and victim’s feelings or perceptions about the event, and ignores as irrelevant the objective reality of abuse, is inadequate. Similarly, attempts to resolve abuse through mediation are grossly misguided. An obvious practical problem is that Church leaders accused of abusive behaviour may well be in a position to dictate the place, time, and terms of reference of any mediation, to decide who the mediator will be, and direct who the mediator will report to. More fundamentally, abuse is abuse. It is not a conflict of interest to be mediated. Demanding that the victim put her or himself in a neutral setting with an abuser as equals with an equal right to be heard, misrepresents the objective reality of the situation. It also adds to the often intolerable burdens which the Church, through the perpetrator, has already placed on the victim.
Church leaders who are called upon to deal with abuse must keep firmly in mind that there are not always ‘two sides to every story.’ There are some situations in which one party has acted maliciously, selfishly, abusively, and the other party is a victim. That the Church is called to be a community of reconcilers does not mean that there can be any reconciliation with evil. We are not called to come to terms with sin. Quite the opposite. Real reconciliation demands that we oppose the Devil and all his works, that we confront evil and overcome injustice. Abusive behaviour must not just be discussed and ‘forgiven’, which often in practical terms means tolerated. It must be condemned, and those who perpetrate it must be held accountable for their actions.
This does not mean that the perpetrator is to be condemned. Jesus identified, named and condemned sinful behaviour. He made it clear that certain behaviours, unrepented, would lead to eternal separation from God and His Kingdom. He never condemned any person. This is a critical distinction. It is sometimes suggested that it is unfair or unreasonable to expect perpetrators to be held to account for their actions. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is only when perpetrators recognise their behaviour as sinful that they are able to be free of it, and to begin to be healed themselves.
But that is just the beginning. Justice, and healing for both victim and abuser, means that the perpetrator, and the Church which placed him in a position of trust and power, will publicly acknowledge both abusive behaviour and the harm that behaviour has caused. It also means making every attempt to repair damage to the victim’s life. This may mean compensation for costs incurred as a result of the abuse, including therapy, transport, moving to a new community if that is necessary, and reimbursement for lost salary if a career has been disrupted or destroyed.
When the Church, and particularly Church leaders, fail to make those who abuse accountable for their actions, they confirm that the Church is untrustworthy. By their failure to act, they proclaim that whatever they may say, their own comfort is more important to them than the Gospel.
When the Church acts with courage and integrity, when evil is named and opposed, when victims are encouraged and empowered to speak, when injustice and continuing abuse are stopped, then, and only then, will healing begin, and the Church regain lost trust.
Peter Wales is a former Anglican clergyman who now runs an IT consultancy business on Kangaroo Island in South Australia