Friday, 12 October 2012

As a Child of Chichester

From my safe haven beneath the flight-paths leading to and from Heathrow airport, I have been watching with interest (if that is the right word) the developments in the Diocese of Chichester. The reason for my interest: I grew up in Eastbourne and half of my primary school mates went to Bishop Bell School (you know, the school with the maths teacher who offers one-on-one French Exchange trips for Year 10 students). Added to this, my nieces and nephews still attend that school and my own Much Revered Muvva is on its Board of Governors. (I didn't go there because in 1983 the place was perceived by many parents at the time as a dump and French Exchanges involved linguistic work)

You have Bishop Bell School, then you have the wider issues surrounding conduct towards children by priests who lived in or around Eastbourne while I was there and a Diocese now under the scrutiny of an Archepiscopal Visitation (a bit like being on Report at school, only with mitres and police involvement and fair bit worse for all concerned). They are, in greater part, prodding around in the undergrowth of the Sussexes in the wake of Frs Ridout and Coles, both of whom I knew (and neither of whom came within a mile of me, for the record). There are also ongoing investigations into the alleged behaviour of the former Bishop of Lewes, Peter Ball. I have known Peter Ball since I have was a child and am in no way a victim to what he is accused of - and indeed, he is why I am here as priest. I can, of course, speak only for myself and of my own experiences.

Yes, there is some nasty stuff happening out there and that has happened for years, and it seems in all walks of life. One only need reflect on the developing saga of Jim'll Fix It and one Sir Savile  It is now a daily occurrence that dozens of people are adding their testimonies to the panoply that have already surfaced, begging the question 'why only now'? The evidence and volume of witnesses paints the account in a way that would be hard to deny its truth, but why did so many people remain silent for so long in the wake of manifestly illegal and inappropriate treatment? The same can be said of those who were allegedly abused by priests. Fr Ridout is facing down allegations and charges that at their most recent are forty years old. 

Of course, it is quite wrong to blame victims for bottling it all up and we cannot level accusation at them for not coming forward sooner. The situations in Chichester and indeed within the BBC highlight something altogether more worrying (if anything can be more worrying than predatory sexual abusers in positions of trust) - that in our civilised society, connected by every means of communication possible, in an apparently enlightened age, why it is that so many genuine victims feel that they cannot speak of the attacks upon them. There is more of a lesson in this for the Church than simply how it is we can protect the vulnerable from the predator - but more in how can we enable victims to speak out and seek help, in a way that bypasses the invented and pernicious and protects those in harms way. It is no longer sufficient to say "why didn't you tell us sooner"?

For absolute clarity, my decades in the diocese of Chichester, and specifically in Eastbourne, were happy and affirming. I grew up among some wonderful priests and people and was the beneficiary of some experiences that informed nurtured and confirmed by sense of calling to the priesthood. I have never been a victim to any sort of behaviour mentioned in the press while I acknowledge others very possibly were. I have much to be grateful to Chichester for and I pray earnestly that all those who have been damaged by those in positions of trust will find their peace and healing in God. 


  1. Thinking about it, until London I was, for three years, a mile away from Stoke Mandeville Hospital too - need I take this personally

  2. I taught at Shinewater Primary school where all the pupils went on to Bishop Bell. Canon Rideout was our vicar from 1989-97 and baptised two of my children. Bishop Ball spoke to the Eastbourne College CU and I still remember what he said now. Knowing a situation or a person makes one reflect that not all ministry of people who later attract accusations, and who may be guilty, is to be disregarded as rubbish. I was nurtured spiritually in Eastbourne and ended up a priest. I am very sad but cannot be judgemental.

  3. aspects of this blog underline the very reason people do not come forward. You know / knew some of those whom and the places that are the investigation is concerning and have had like so many others very positive experiences - if all those years ago some one had approached you to say what had happened - would you have believed them? - Often it is only years later when people are older and when supported by others that someone can talk about the abuse that took place. And through the strength of one person others will find courage to speak out. Sadly there will be some for what ever underlying reason will make false allegations but that should not diminish the voice of the genuine and as you say the real task now is creating an environment where victims can talk about their abusers without felling like everyone will not believe them.

  4. I too have been appalled by the sheer volume of reports of long-ago abuse.
    Living my youth (long before yours of course), in what now seems to be a bubble of total innocence/ignorance/naivety, I cannot imagine how such reports would have been received then.
    The only reason I can think of why the victims said nothing, was obviously the fear of not being believed but also, the fear that they would have been deemed to be in some way guilty of meriting such treatment.
    It is, I suppose, a good thing that light is now being poured into previously dark corners, but it does seem that there has been a hell of a lot of 'something nasty in the woodshed' going undetected for a very long time.
    Sickening though it is, it is surely better exposed than hidden.

  5. Thanks for your comment Stella - though I might be so bold as to precisely disagree with you. In an establishment we both know, I was the person who 'someone told' their story to. I acted upon what I had heard, much to my own cost in some ways. However, I do take your point more generally that if you are the victim of a person is much cherished and loved, it is nearly impossible to stand up and be counted, or to feel that your word will be heard. I return to my original point - how can the church learn from this, for learn we must.

  6. Claire, I also agree with you wholly. I know many people who, even now, have trouble reconciling their own whole and good experiences with Gordon with what they are hearing now. I still remember how I felt when +Peter stood accused and before any retraction - and for what it is worth, felt no less love for the man who had done me nothing but good. I take as I find, as you do. I will reiterate my last statement from my last comment - so that we can accept people's mistakes and failings, act for the victims or be ready for them, and not to dispose of the whole ministry of those who became perpetrators. What can the church do?

  7. Picking up your reply to Stella, if you are the victim of a person who is much cherished and loved, then the chances of you feeling cherished and loved enough to speak out seem to me to be small. The victim who disclosed to you was fortunate that you took them seriously and responded appropriately, but this doesn't always happen, as we have seen.

    We might like to imagine a church in which everyone is treated equally, in which people are trusted equally regardless of age, gender, race, seniority or ecclesiology. The trouble is that some people are more trustworthy than others - we only have to think about who we confide in ourselves, who we feel safe with - and this is often as much about perception and instinct as it is about hard won experience. So when it comes to what church can do I think there are a few things...
    1. Prayer. It's often underrated. But we can pray generally and specifically for victims and for perpetrators too (although the latter is a bit fraught with sensitivities)
    2. We can have decent protection policies for vulnerable people, and FOLLOW them.
    3. We can try to be the safe space where victims of cherished and loved people feel they can be heard - although how we do that in practice is non obvious - it's about the tone of the community of the church I think?
    4. If we take seriously redemption and salvation seriously as Christians, then we have to apply those things into the situations we live - not to excuse evil, not to let off those who have committed vile acts, but to remember that if we want to claim to be God's children, that claim applies to all.

    Apologies that this comment is a bit long, and probably needs a decent edit. And it isn't an answer.

  8. But a good comment, and appreciated.

  9. A member of my husbands family worked at Stoke Mandeville Hospital. Many many years ago we had a family conversation about Jimmy Savile and I was shocked by what she said. It was known by many within the nursing staff that things went on but given the good name he brought and the fundraising people felt that nothing could/would be done to change what was happening.

    A young girl of 15 took her life on Wednesday of this week just a few miles down the road from where we live due to bullying on social media that spilt over into the real world.

    My feelings are that this, people whether they be young old or in-between need to be empowered to have that safe place, that person to call, that place to go. Abuse & bullying are blights on our society. The church should be the one natural place that people can turn to. I am not sure what the church can do, but doing nothing is not the answer of that I am sure. The more people talk about these issues and listen to the victims, what would have helped them to come forward, the closer to an answer we will get.

    I will continue to pray in the mean time for all involved, there in the UK and for Amanda Todd the young girl from here, all her family & friends that have been devastated. I pray that we as a human race find away to go forward from all this hurt.

  10. These sad sagas exist here in the U.S. as well. They are not limited to the church, as the recent trial/sentencing of Coach Jerry Sanduskey exemplifies. Anywhere there's a wall to hide behind, such things happen; and often go undetected for years. Children make for such easy targets when perversions are afoot.

    I'm all for getting perpetrators off the street whenever & wherever they're found. But I also wonder if we ought not, as a society as a whole take a hard look at their causes & prevention? I'm not sure I have the answer (or answers, for surely this is a complex issue), but something tells me pornography plays a pivitol role - - and with the advent of the internet, now more than ever.

    I thank God for the far larger number of honorable, godly men & women in leadership roles who take & remain upon the high ground, especially where children are concerned.


    P.S. Soooo glad to see a minister speaking openly of this.



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