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.