You may remember me writing some time ago about my life in the Diocese of Chichester, where I was a worshipping child during the heady days of the 1980s and 90s in Eastbourne. You will also know that Eastbourne has been exposed as something of the epicentre of abuse by priests, a number of whom have been charged and prosecuted for the sexual abuse of the children in their pastoral care. Names like Roy Cotton, Robert Coles and Gordon Ridoubt are names in the public domain and are the names of people known to me throughout my own childhood. Other names will eventually become known and I know them too.
I was reminded yesterday something of the dangers that exist in church life as this matter and the wider debate was discussed at a meeting I attended. It is the case, for all sorts of laudable reasons that for many Christians this is to be dealt with in a pastoral way. By that I mean that in receiving the testimony of an abuse victim, who may or may not wish to disclose that abuse to the statutory authorities, a priest has not passed on the knowledge of either recent or historic abuse allegations to anyone else. This is matched by a fervent desire to walk with the victim and not to add further pressure to them by making a disclosure.
Sadly, such love is devastatingly dangerous. It is true to say that sex offenders act compulsively and often habitually and a statistic was cited by an expert yesterday that an offender, when caught, is likely to have offended in excess of a hundred times, and that unless stopped, is likely to re-offend in the future. The implication, therefore, of taking a pastoral view with a victim is that the abuser is spared legal process, kept away from therapy, and is allowed by lack of prevention and the secrecy engendered by the shame of sexual abuse to continue. It seems that this is symptomatic of the way such matters were dealt with in Eastbourne and wider afield. Greater love hath no (wo)man than to prevent abuse.
Questions such as the seal of confession also play into this debate that is now acute. The abuser and victim of sexual abuse experience shame and for opposite reasons seek to hide the fact of their abuse (given or taken) from others. Indeed, it is also the case that the average time from abuse to disclosure is 23 years!
Until recently, I will confess that I wondered why people left it so long to disclose abuse. Cases like Jimmy Savile have created a new culture of honesty and bravery among historical victims, and so it is that many clergy will start to receive disclosures from victims, often wrapped up in terms of not wanting their secret disclosed. As soon as the disclosure is silenced in love, the abuser walks free from justice or indeed from help. If you are a clergy person (or anyone else) who is approached by an abuse victim, please tell someone as soon as you can. Better to betray the wish of a victim couched in their sense of shame than to discover that in so doing, another victim was created.