Denis Desert on the safeguarding policies intended to prevent the abuse of the vulnerable

A year or so ago I was discussing the subject of the abuse of the vulnerable with a bishop. He commented, ‘The problem is that the bishops are running scared on this issue’. Obviously when we are in a panic, our judgement is likely to become somewhat skewed and we overreact. So it may well be that our diocesans, rightly concerned about this serious issue, are taking their guidelines almost to the point of risibility. I am informed by my confessor, who has held the Bishop’s Permission to Officiate for many years, that at the end of this year all PTOs in the London Diocese are to be cancelled and that any who may wish to reapply will be required to undergo a training course.

Judgement set aside

In the York province it seems that the files of clergy going back as much as sixty years, including those who are deceased, are to be examined and assessed. Clearly the sexual abuse of children by clergy is a serious matter. For those of us who use the vesting prayers will pray at putting on the girdle, ‘Lord gird me about with the girdle of chastity and quench within me the fire of lust’. I cannot understand how it is that any priest, Anglican or Roman, can celebrate the holy mysteries knowing that they abuse children. However, it may well be that the bishops in their anxiety to eliminate the stain of abuse from the life of the Church are setting aside their pastoral discretion and judgement and rigidly applying whatever guidelines that have been put into place. This could, in certain instances, cause grave hurt to priests who have served our Blessed Lord over the years.

I happen to be acquainted with a priest who, many years ago, was accused and found guilty of ‘incitement’. At the time he was going through a breakdown and had to spend a lengthy period in a psychiatric hospital. He went on to exercise a faithful ministry over the years continuing into his retirement. Now, because of his CRB record of fifty years ago, he can no longer obtain his bishop’s Permission to Officiate. This decision has left him distraught and the congregation who has valued his retirement ministry are bemused as he is no longer permitted to serve them as a priest.

Out of proportion

What concerns me is the atmosphere of fear and distrust that is being bred within the Church. It appears that new safeguarding checks are not only being made on the clergy but also on an increasing number of volunteers. As a friend of mine perceptively remarked, ‘This smacks of the McCarthyism that swept the States in the fifties with the cry reds under the bed. Now it’s abusers under the pews!’ In a recent stay at the Shrine at Walsingham it saddened me when visiting a number of churches in the area to see, prominently displayed in the porch, notices setting out ‘Our Protection Policy’.

I have discussed this matter not only with brother priests and laity but also members of the legal profession. While concern and shame is expressed that clergy have been exposed as compulsive abusers it is generally felt that the bishops are overreacting. Lawyers, in particular, feel that the Diocesans are getting this matter out of proportion and may well be in danger of infringing human rights. This, if my memory serves me correctly, was point made in a recent General Synod.

So how can the diocesan bishops and their safeguarding officers be encouraged to apply their policies on the abuse of the vulnerable in a more moderate manner? Also, at the end of the day, is it possible to put in place safeguards that ensure clergy and others do not commit abuse? This is obviously a serious matter that needs to be addressed but at the same time bringing into play our Christian understanding of redemption with the possibility of a renewed life not only for the abused but also for the abusers. ND