by the Revd Canon Rosie Harper, Chaplain to the Bishop of Buckingham
There has been an apparent shift. People have begun to talk about their experiences of being harassed, abused or criminally attacked, with an openness that wasn’t acceptable even a few months ago. The primary focus has been Government and Media, but doubtless other areas of life will come under scrutiny. Nothing remotely surprising has emerged. What is surprising is that it is being spoken about. In a rather random way some people are being held to account and others not. Trump and Boris have both said and done things that are off the scale but different rules seem to apply to them.
The reason that the current phase of talking about abusive behavior is such a change is that we live in a blame and shame culture in which the victim is often seen as just as culpable as the perpetrator. Whistle blowers still lose their jobs, women are mercilessly interrogated in court to search out a way of framing their assault as: ‘they were asking for it.’
A little seven year old who is sent into very expensive care gets his head shoved down the toilet. He would be committing a far greater crime were he to complain than the older boys who assaulted him.
Today, in public, men are learning to say the right things, but the undercurrent in today’s society is far worse than we want to admit. Our teenagers are growing up with an online culture that is sexually exploitative and often violent, and young women often find themselves with considerably less freedom and self-respect than their parents had.
Wandering hands in Parliament have made the news this week, but as Jayne Ozanne’s extraordinary and powerful interview on C4 made clear, the problems are just as bad within the Church.
However, the Church’s problems have a whole further dynamic. It is utterly wrong to dominate and control a woman sexually, emotionally, financially in any circumstance, but to create a religious environment where this is normalized and supported by theology is especially cruel. I think this is because ‘God’ is where we put the really deep stuff in our lives. Stuff that language, art, even music, can’t easily articulate. If controlling, abusive and violent things are done in the name of God, because the bible tells these men that is how you treat women, then the very place that should be the safest becomes the most dangerous.
When a child finds the world scary and other people hostile they run into the arms of their parents. The trauma of being abused by one of those parents is massive. When a child of God is in need they run to the arms of God. If God himself turns out to be abusive there is nowhere else to hide. This is why I find the revelations this year of John Smyth’s abuse of boys when he was chair of Iwerne Camps a particular and life-destroying crime.
The Church’s response has to change. Survivors who have the courage to disclose their abuse routinely experience lack of compassion and culture of silence. We must never love the institution more than we love God or the children of God. It is possible that the way this is handled in Parliament, where women are now prepared to talk openly about their experiences and then action is taken, might just show the church the way forward. There are some simple and necessary steps we could take tomorrow. Set up an external safeguarding agency, make it mandatory to report disclosures, and put together a proper whistleblowers policy to protect those who speak out. There are plenty of very good ideas out there, but what is missing is the will. You might imagine that the Church would be the place where there would be a desire to do the right thing. The truth is that the desire seems to be to do the least embarrassing and least expensive thing. We even have the resources. Money tucked away for a rainy day. This is a rainy day.
Here is how it could go: We are sorry, we will listen, we will help and support you. Publically this is indeed what the Church says. Alas, it is not yet what the church does. We all need to be calling for this change to happen and happen soon.