The C of E has been caught with its pants down in yet another monumental cock-up with the embarrassing revelation of how bishops were instructed only to give partial apologies—if at all—to victims of sexual abuse to avoid being sued. A survivor of child sexual abuse has issued a damning indictment of the C of E’s hierarchy, naming and shaming it for washing its hands ‘like Pontius Pilate’.
The old-fashioned practice of a heartfelt apology, deeply rooted in the Christian theology of repentance and reconciliation, has now been turned into an episcopal Punch and Judy show with lawyers, bureaucrats and managers on fat cat salaries pulling the strings while their purple-clad puppets dance to their dirges, desperately clutching at mitre and crosier.
Deep in the spin-doctoring factory of episcopaldom, the ecclesiastical equivalents of Sir Humphrey Appleby are teaching their bishops to play the game of Catch Me If You Can while Sir Jeffrey Archer’s techniques on the 11th Commandment Thou Shalt Not Get Caught are being honed to perfection. It is part of the managerial double-speak dominating all forms of damage control discourse in the C of E.
The puppeteers advise their bishops to use ‘careful drafting’ to ‘effectively apologise’ and to ‘express regret’ only using wording approved by lawyers, PR advisers and insurers. ‘Because of the possibility that statements of regret might have the unintended effect of accepting legal liability for the abuse, it is important that they are approved in advance by lawyers, as well as by diocesan communications officers (and, if relevant, insurers),’ warns the Orwellian document from the Ministry of Truth.
When is an apology a genuine apology? When it is neither as slippery as a banana skin or as shallow as the paddling pool of a typical Anglican sermon. In his ground-breaking book, On Apology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.) Aaron Lazare, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, offers profound insights into the anatomy of an apology. Lazare traces the history of the world’s most humbling act, from Lincoln’s apology for slavery to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s mea culpa after allegations of breast-groping. ‘Why do certain apologies succeed or fail to elicit forgiveness and bring about reconciliation?’ he asks.
‘There’s a right way and a wrong way to apologise. There are several integral elements of any apology and unless they are accounted for, an apology is likely to fail.’ The four components for an effective apology are ‘acknowledgment of the offence; explanation; expressions of remorse, shame, and humility; and reparation. Of these four parts, the one most commonly defective in apologies is the acknowledgment,’ he writes.
‘The offender (or the one speaking on behalf of the offender) must clearly and completely acknowledge the offence. People fail the acknowledgment phase of the apology when they make vague and incomplete apologies (“for whatever I did”); use the passive voice (“mistakes were made”); make the apology conditional (“if mistakes have been made”); question whether the victim was damaged or minimise the offence (“to the degree you were hurt”); use the empathic “sorry” instead of acknowledging responsibility; apologise to the wrong party; or apologise for the wrong offence,’ says Lazare.
The psychologist and pastoral counsellor Carl Schneider defines apology as ‘the acknowledgement of injury with the acceptance of responsibility, affect (felt regret or shame—the person must mean it), and vulnerability—the risking of an acknowledgement without excuses.’
There is a double irony here. All this, of course, is firmly grounded in the biblical tradition of repentance and in the Book of Common Prayer’s injunction that we should ‘acknowledge and confess our manifold sins and wickedness; and that we should not dissemble nor cloke them’ ‘but confess them with an humble, lowly, penitent, and obedient heart.’
But all this business of confession and contrition is intensely counter-intuitive to the managerial culture in the C of E. This is reflected in the dumbing down of its modern prayers of repentance to ‘politically correct prayers which sound as if they were written by a committee made up of Tony Blair, Karl Marx, and Noddy.’ What can you expect when the Archbishop’s Council produces an idiots’ Guide to Common Worship, which re-titles “Confession” as “Doing the dirt on ourselves”?
The other ironical twist is that apologies actually prevent lawsuits altogether and increase the likelihood and speed of settlement for those that do arise. This is evident from recent research both in the UK and the US. For example, one British study found that many plaintiffs who sued their doctors said they would not have done so had they received an apology and an explanation for their injury (Jeffrey S. Helmreich, ‘Does “Sorry” incriminate? Evidence, harm and the protection of apology,’ Cornell Journal of Law and Public Policy 21 (2012) 574).
Consistent with this view, legislatures in American states have enacted statutes that make certain apologies inadmissible in court thus encouraging more people to offer genuine apologies. Contrary to the recommendations of the C of E mandarins, a new secular culture of confession and contrition is seeking to encourage apologies by explicitly denying their admissibility as evidence.
In some instances the bishops have refused even to tender a doctored apology. Earlier this month Sussex police apologised to the living relatives of the late Bishop George Bell and the BBC admitted that some of its reporting on the allegations against Bishop Bell was wrong. However, the C of E is still refusing to apologise for smearing Bell’s reputation and for the way it handled the case.
The comparison of the bishops with Pontius Pilate made by the survivor of abuse is apt, not just for its powerful metaphor of Pilate ‘washing his hands’ but also for its portrayal of Pilate as the puppet in the pantomime. Pilate is weak-minded, spineless, gutless, easily led and irresolute. The cleverly crafted literature of John’s gospel portrays him as constantly vacillating back and forth as he listens to the crowd. Perhaps it is time the panjandrums in purple stopped listening to the men in pinstriped suits and learned how to say the two most humbling words in the English language: ‘I’m sorry.’ It would be even better if they learned to say the three greatest words in the biblical language of forgiveness and reconciliation: ‘I have sinned.’
It was the best of times; it was the worst of times. It produced the best of bishops; it produced the worst of bishops. One was a saint; the other a scoundrel. One was the spring of hope; the other was the winter of despair. One was going direct to heaven; the other was going direct the other way.
How would Dickens end this tale of two bishops? He would glorify the saint and vilify the scoundrel. How does the Church of England end this tale of two bishops? It smears the saint and shields the scoundrel. It requires a miracle to turn a Dickensian narrative into a Kafkaesque nightmare. The hierarchy of the C of E is used to performing such miracles on a smaller scale—its autocracy, bureaucracy and mediocracy regularly turns wine into water. Just type “Church of England” into that omniscient oracle “Google” and read the results.
This is the tale of two bishops: Bishop Bell and Bishop Ball. Bishop George Bell was the Bishop of Chichester and a great friend and supporter of my hero Dietrich Bonhöffer in his resistance to Adolf Hitler. Were it not for his principled opposition to the blanket-bombing of Dresden, Bell would have been elevated to the See of Canterbury. ‘To despair of being able to do anything, or refuse to do anything, is to be guilty of infidelity,’ he wrote. His words have pricked my calloused conscience when I have been tempted to cower before power. I got to know Bell a great deal more when I read Eric Metaxas’ biography of the German pastor who dared to defy the Nazis—Bonhöffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy.
Bishop Peter Ball? Bishop who? I had never even heard the name until newspaper headlines screamed it out in 2015. Only then I learned that Ball was suffragan Bishop of Lewes and diocesan Bishop of Gloucester.
That’s when the story takes a Kafkaesque twist. In the case of George Bell, an unidentified woman, known only as ‘Carol’ first complained in 1995 that Bell had sexually abused her when she was five. Carol is now 70. But it was only when she wrote to Archbishop Justin Welby in 2013 that the C of E went into safeguarding overdrive and its sainted bishop was pronounced a paedophile overnight. Carol received £15,000 as compensation. The Child Protection Gestapo went on a cleansing spree and adopted a scorched earth policy to buildings, schools and other institutions named after Bell.
In the case of Bishop Ball, an identified individual, Neil Todd, first complained in 1993, about the horrific sexual and sadistic abuse he had suffered at the hands of Peter Ball. The C of E went into cover-up overdrive. Leading establishment figures, including senior clergy, colluded to protect Bishop Ball. A BBC report said that ‘another person in the church who helped one of Ball’s victims tried to raise concerns with 13 different bishops who appeared to take no action.’ It was only through the heroic persistence of priests like the Revd Graham Sawyer, one of Ball’s victims, that Ball was sentenced in October 2015 to 32 months in prison for the grooming, sexual exploitation and abuse of 18 vulnerable young men between 1977 and 1992.
If there is one institution that ought to be a beacon of justice it ought to be the church. This is because its foundational text, the Bible, has justice at its very heart. It is the Bible that was instrumental in giving birth to many of the principles of Western jurisprudence.
Most prominent is the principle of equal justice under the law. ‘You shall not be partial in judgment. You shall hear the small and the great alike. You shall not be intimidated by anyone, for the judgment is God’s,’ declares Deuteronomy. Exodus backs this up. ‘You shall not fall in with the many to do evil, nor shall you bear witness in a lawsuit, siding with the many, so as to pervert justice’. Leviticus echoes this. ‘You shall do no injustice in court. You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbour’.
Equally important is the principle of evidence. Rabbinic exegesis on the Tower of Babel story in Genesis points to the verse where ‘the Lord came down to see the city and the tower’ which the citizens of Babel had built. Rashi, the great eleventh-century rabbi, used this as a basis for evidence in a trial: ‘And the Lord came down to see—He really did not need to do this, but Scripture intends to teach the judges that they should not proclaim a defendant guilty before they have seen the case and thoroughly understood the matter in question.’
Other legal texts in the Bible take this further when discussing the role of witnesses. ‘A single witness shall not suffice against a person for any crime or for any wrong in connection with any offense that he has committed. Only on the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses shall a charge be established,’ states Deuteronomy. ‘Do not admit a charge against a presbyter except on the evidence of two or three witnesses,’ writes the apostle Paul to Timothy.
So why did at least one archbishop and a number of bishops allegedly close ranks and collude in an act of partiality to protect Ball when there were so many witnesses against him? On the other hand, why did the C of E pronounce Bell guilty when a single uncorroborated witness testified against him? Why has the evidence not been made public? Bell could not defend himself from the grave. Has the politics of expediency replaced biblical principles and the ethics of a fair trial in the way the church conducts its legal and disciplinary procedures?
After much pressure from a cadre of eminent lawyers, commentators, writers, and members of the House of Lords, the C of E finally agreed to an independent review of the Bell case at the end of June 2016. A gaggle of incompetent and frightened bishops who have tarnished Bell’s reputation now have to contend with historian Andrew Chandler’s meticulously researched and recently published biographyGeorge Bell, Bishop of Chichester: Church, State, and Resistance in the Age of Dictatorship. Chandler ends on a note that any historian, judge or journalist would be wise to heed when judging Bishop Bell.
‘The allegation of 2015 is anomalous. Indeed, it seems to exist in its own world, evidently uncorroborated by any other independent source. It also remains unique, for apparently no other such accusation has arisen. In sum, we are asked to invest an entire authority in one testimony and to dismiss all the materials by which we have come to know the historical George Bell as mere figments of reputation. The corollary of such a method may now be witnessed in the hasty removal of his name or image from public institutions and commemorations. It may simply be observed here that such iconoclastic activities are not unknown to historians of other, far darker, times and contexts.’
For the Church of England, it is indeed, the worst of times.