It is perhaps unfortunate for the Church of England and other public bodies that iPlayer was ever invented. It allows the curious and those obsessed by detail to go back and watch small sections of a programme over and over again. The Panorama episode on the Church of England last Monday was a case in point. Certain things within it jarred for me and I needed to check out what had really been said as well as the demeanour of the person uttering the words.
This blog piece has to assume that the reader saw the programme (or at least read my previous blog) as space does not allow me to run through the things said. Three people were especially prominent in the programme, in addition to the valiant survivors who appeared. One was the investigating Lincolnshire Superintendent, Rick Hatton. The other two were Bishop Alan Wilson and Bishop Peter Hancock. All three came over as having individual sincerity and honesty. Each, in different ways, conveyed emotion and this drew the viewer in to feel with them the sentiments of sorrow they were experiencing. The emotional connection between Superintendent Hatton and the viewer in particular was unexpected, but it made for powerful television. The other two individuals mentioned also drew us into their personal emotional world. We felt caught up in the way they had reacted as human beings to the horrors of sexual abuse by clergy.
However, this spell of identification was partly broken in the final few moments of the programme. One of the bishops showed himself to be unable to answer a straightforward question about the statistics of abuse. Suddenly the good rapport that Bishop Hancock had built up with the viewer over the programme was shattered. His evasive response to the interviewer changed the way we related to everything he had previously said in the earlier parts of the interview. Instead of being a man of feelings and integrity, Bishop Hancock suddenly showed himself as someone who was there to perform in front of an audience. He was there not to speak for himself but on behalf of others.
On the Twittersphere this question has been asked by several people. Who was Bishop Hancock representing and who was he speaking for? The evasiveness of the final moments of the programme showed that all his earlier answers were in all likelihood rehearsed and controlled by other unseen people. Unlike all the other people in the programme, the Bishop’s words came to be revealed as the words of a corporate entity. We were, in other words, hearing from, not a live independent human being but rather we were witnessing a stage-managed, damage limiting show. The story of the Wizard of Oz immediately comes to mind.
Whenever an individual has the task of standing up on stage and presenting views for someone else, particularly when they are likely to be challenged at a later date, one can feel sorry for that person. I felt sorry for Bishop Hancock on Panorama just as I had felt for Archbishop Welby when he spouted out nonsense about the Smyth scandal to Channel 4 barely three weeks ago.
Whoever are the hidden forces who pull strings behind the scenes, one feels an atmosphere of desperation in the system when half-truths and palpably false information are fed to the public. In this age of Twitter, Facebook and email, information travels as fast as light. How anyone can expect to hide truth in 2019 is a mystery? The story of spiritual/sexual abuse in the Church is far too big to be buried in a flurry of misleading statistics.
The revelation in 2010 that there were only 13 cases of serious abuse to be examined in the entire C/E was palpably false information but it had the effect of damping down criticism of the institution for a period. Control of information was then power for those in charge of the Church and they used it effectively to delay the day of reckoning that seems now to be very close.
The truth of the full extent of the abuse scandal within the Church of England is, for the moment, hidden from most of us. The IICSA hearings did prise open numerous cans of worms and give us a glimpse of what appear to be outrageous manipulations of information which were used to protect the institution. I am still haunted by what was revealed at the hearing about Chichester when a detective investigating the crimes of Bishop Ball was actively obstructed in the course of his duties by the then Bishop of the Diocese. The IICSA hearings of last year lead us to suspect that next Monday’s reports and conclusions on the Diocese of Chichester and Peter Ball are likely to be fairly dire.
Somehow the horror of what churchmen (it does seem to be men) will do to try to protect the church from scandal and malfeasance has now limited power to shock. It is a bit like the situation in the States where presidential lies have become so much the norm that no one expresses any shock at a new one. But even the negative conclusions of IICSA towards the Church may be survivable if the Church finally comes to the realisation that it cannot prosper when information in this area is suppressed or manipulated.
The interviewer on Panorama upset Bishop Hancock (and presumably his minders) when she scratched at potentially the greatest scandal of all – the statistics of abuse across the whole Church. What was being discussed was sensitive information about the full extent of abuse in the Church. Not being ready to share that information suggests that Church authorities know that it cannot yet be revealed without a great deal of spin and preparation. The need for the application of extensive communication skills suggests that the news in this area is very bad indeed. Some months ago, it was suggested to me by someone ‘in the know’ that the Church dealing with abuse scandals was a bit like fighting forest fires which keep erupting all over the place.
Panorama indicated to us that control of information is a tactic of power still actively employed by the central Church authorities. The originators of this tactic do not appear to be the bishops themselves but the highly paid Church House officials at the centre of things. Unfortunately for them, their control of the levers of power was all too easy to spot in both the recent television interviews.
The interview of Archbishop Welby on Channel 4 was, like that of Bishop Hancock, unconvincing and somewhat contrived. The bishops themselves both had personal integrity and human warmth but nothing could disguise the fact that they were speaking for someone other than themselves. The Church cannot continue to go down a path of fielding individuals to act as spokesmen for the institution.
The public want, as far as possible, to encounter real human beings who can speak for the church. The people of England relate to real people, people who, like them, are living lives of joy mixed with pain. They will never want to identify with a group when they suspect that the information put out is being manipulated and managed before it is shared with them. In short, let bishops be bishops, shepherds of the flock, not puppets being controlled by forces that are invisible and are not necessarily working for the good of all.