Postcard from London

On a visit to Dublin a few years ago, our Irish hosts advised clergy in the group not to be seen on the streets wearing clerical collars. The shocking running story of child abuse by Irish priests was at its zenith. Not only had it shaken the Roman Catholic Church to its core. It manifested in open hostility directed toward clergy of all varieties, as well as a wholesale drop in church attendance. Priests described being spat on and subject to tirades.

Sexual abuse by religious leaders leaves a trail of destruction and shakes an already fragile public trust in the Church. In the last couple of years, the Church of England has beefed up its child-protection policies. Getting heads around official requirements is a challenge for parish office-holders, schools, and religious communities alike. One new stipulation our parish has needed to face is that persons who share the same house, even though they are not related, may not be alone together with children or frail elderly folk.

Abuse of Faith, an 84-page report by a panel led by Dame Moira Gibb, probes why it was that for almost 20 years the former Bishop of Gloucester, Peter Ball, got away with abusing boys and vulnerable young men, despite his proclivities being known. Ball was imprisoned in 2015 for sexual abuse. The tone is refreshingly candid and forthright. It accuses the Church of England of “collusion and cover-ups.” It depicts a Church more concerned with its reputation than the welfare of survivors. One abuse survivor, Neil Todd, committed suicide.

The Ball brothers, Peter and Michael (Bishop of Truro 1990 to 1997), dressed as monks after founding their own order, the Community of the Glorious Ascension. Peter Ball had connections with elite schools and always had boys and young men living with him. He advocated rolling in the snow and praying while naked, which he spuriously claimed as Franciscan practices. An inner circle would take showers with him, massage him, and take beatings from him.

Lord Carey, Archbishop of Canterbury when allegations against Ball arose in 1993, is singled out for stinging criticism. He failed to enter Ball on “the List,” an official file held at Lambeth Palace of clergy unfit for office. The current Archbishop of Canterbury asked him to stand aside as honorary assistant bishop in the Diocese of Oxford, and Bishop Carey complied.

Ball is revealed in the report as a highly manipulative personality. He claimed to have the support of the Prince of Wales and other “great and good” figures. The report says there is no record of support by the Prince. With his twin brother, he wrote hundreds of letters in a campaign to have sanctions against him lifted. He even tried to cast doubt on the validity of his resignation as Bishop of Gloucester, secured when he received an official police caution.

The report states that whenever Ball won a concession from Lord Carey after appeals to allow him to engage in limited ministry, he was soon exceeding its terms and pushing for more concessions. The report reveals that Ball seemed unable to comprehend that there was anything wrong with his abusive actions.

And the saga shows how susceptible vulnerable young people can be, particularly where an abuser occupies an office such as a bishop. Lessons have been learned, but as Dame Moira Gibb makes clear, the Church of England needs to do more. Not least, she says, is to work more vigilantly to safeguard frail elderly persons. Vigilance in safeguarding is something for every worshiper, not just professionals, the report says. Dame Moira recommends that senior church leaders meet with survivors so they can tell their stories.

How Lord Carey became so entangled with the Ball case is a mystery. Clearly Ball’s unremitting campaigning was a factor, although as the report states, Lord Carey had help and advice available to him. He is implacably opposed to homosexual practices by Christian leaders, which perhaps indicates a blind spot regarding Peter Ball.

At various stages across the years I knew Lord Carey well. I observed that as a Christian leader he always wanted to look for good in people and believe good about them. More than once during his time as archbishop this was exploited.

John Martin