Graham Sawyer articulates some deeply painful issues
I have written this article in response to Colin Podmore’s piece in the February edition of New Directions, “Episcopal Justice”. My own position is this: I am a traditionalist priest who is a member of the Society of Ss Wilfrid and Hilda, and an enthusiastic member of The Guild of All Souls, the Australian branch of which I refounded after an abeyance of over 75 years. I am also, however, one of the two victims of the sexual offences to which Bishop Peter Ball pleaded guilty last October, after which he was sent to prison.
Dr Podmore mentioned two of the more recent cases – Peter Ball and John Satterthwaite – and I should like to make mention of one other: George Bell. Praying for the souls of the departed, honouring their memory for the good that they have done, and acknowledging the communion of saints are all vital parts of Catholic prayer. George Bell did much good in his life, and it is important that we continue to pray for his soul and to give thanks to God for his life and witness. At the same time we must all acknowledge that, like each one of us, he was a fallible human being whose life was redeemed in Christ.
It appears that someone has come forward after many years of attempting to have her story heard and acknowledged which gives light to Bishop Bell’s human frailty and fallibility. Perhaps if the victim/survivor had been listened to when she first came forward then we should not be in the position that we now face. It is important though that we acknowledge her bravery in persisting and that at last she faces acknowledgement of what she said took place. I would argue that we can and should hold both these seemingly opposite and contradictory scenarios and place them in the hands of Christ for redemption, forgiveness, and gratitude.
Dr Podmore’s article rightly raised, however, the important question of the mechanisms and criteria for achieving such a balance in the Church on earth. I waived my right to anonymity with respect to being a victim of Peter Ball for two reasons. The first was so that I could be a voice for the many people who did not experience justice last October with respect to his actions. Bishop Ball pleaded guilty only to two offences against individuals; but it appears that there may have been up to 30 or more other people who made allegations to the police. It must also never be forgotten that the young man who made a complaint to the police in 1993, causing Peter Ball’s resignation as Bishop of Gloucester, took his own life three years ago. The second reason is similar to that of the woman who came forward with respect to Bishop Bell: the enduring and escalating vilification, bullying, condemnation and discrediting of anyone who is brave enough to come forward with their story. As a priest I bear a particular responsibility to be prophetic in such a situation.
The recent case of “Joe” published in newspapers and on electronic media in mid-March is an example of how people who come forward with an allegation may expect to be treated. I know “Joe”, and I know that it took 18 letters from him before he received a reply from a correspondence secretary at Lambeth Palace – a reply that stated that the Archbishop of Canterbury would be praying for him. I have received similarly totally unsatisfactory replies from the same correspondence secretary. Dealing with the national safeguarding team of the Church of England is similarly soul-destroying. I have received promises of enquiries, and yet these have never materialised. Letters go unanswered, and meanwhile every attempt seems to be made to destroy the credibility of individuals who come forward.
The Archbishop of Canterbury invited me to lead a small delegation to meet with him in Lambeth Palace last summer to discuss safeguarding issues. We told him much of what I have written above, and we also told him that many of the people involved in safeguarding issues in the Church of England were discredited and should be set aside with replacements who could help redeem the situation for Christ and His Church. I specifically said two things to the Archbishop: first, that we needed to establish a mechanism for truth, reconciliation, and peace; and secondly, that we needed to ensure that this terrible sadness pervading the church could be redeemed. I also said that I thought that there was perhaps only one bishop in the Church of England who might be able to effect that: Martin Warner, bishop of the very diocese where so much sexual abuse of vulnerable people has taken place in the past.
The present Bishop of Chichester has bravely tried to achieve and initiate a balance in the Bishop Bell case, and I wrote to him to thank him for what he has tried to do. I am sure there will be times when he gets it wrong in the eyes of many; but I believe – I should make it clear that I have not spoken to him about this – that he is trying to redeem this terrible situation for Christ and His Church. He is doing this in the eye of the storm, and at the very centre of a diocese where much evil has been done.
I am sure that there will be more revelations; and the Jay Commission will make further very uncomfortable reading. The lack of transparency in the handling of cases, and the continuing insistence of the Church of England to police itself in such matters – with the concomitant tendency and temptation to cover up and ignore – cannot be allowed to continue. Furthermore, the profoundly mistaken modus operandi of the bishops who see their primary role as saving the face and reputation of the Church rather than being guardians of the truth has to be exposed as an approach that creates exponential harm. New bishops need to come forward who have a love for poverty, humility, and truth.
When asked by a journalist how she could possibly be successful with respect to her mission to the poor, faced with so many millions of people, St Teresa of Calcutta paused for a moment and then replied: “I am not called to be successful. I am called to be faithful.” We must be faithful in prayer for the departed, including Bishop Bell. We must pray for those who have been dreadfully wronged, and we must pray that the situation may be redeemed by Christ. And we must also pray for Bishop Martin Warner and the diocese of Chichester, as I do.
The Revd Graham Sawyer is Vicar of St James’s, Briercliffe, in the Diocese of Blackburn.