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Inside the minds of Church sex abusers

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Sex, Power, Control: Responding to Abuse in the Institutional Church by Fiona Gardner; The Lutterworth Press, February 2021

WHEN she was the Director of Safeguarding for Bath and Wells, Fiona Gardner was puzzled about why so many of the diocesan hierarchy asked her, ‘How can you stand it?’ At the time, she thought that ‘it’ must be sexual abuse and predation. Only later did it occur to her that ‘it’ was something different: the shadow church, as difficult to face up to as the shadow side of one’s own psyche.

The anecdote gives a flavour of this important book. Gardner draws on many years of experience as a psychotherapist, a safeguarding officer, a spiritual writer and counsellor. She was one of the people who eventually helped bring former bishop Peter Ball to justice. She knows the Church of England from inside out, and the human psyche too. She writes with clarity and understanding about the mind of the abuser and the trauma of the abused, always grounding her thoughts in actual examples.

It is Gardner’s multifaceted experience that enables her to do something fresh and useful: to psychoanalyse the Church in order to explain its abusive tendencies. While sociologists like me are wary of attempts to psychologise social phenomena, Gardner gets past my defences because she understands institutions and social relations so well. She knows that they always involve power, and that an institution is in essence a structured set of power relations. The book’s title ‘Sex, Power, Control’ is well chosen.*

Back to ‘it’, the grubby side of the Church of England that those in power want to bury. Gardner’s achievement is to drag it into the light. By listening carefully to the insights of survivors and analysing ‘the mind of the abuser’, she finds a key to unlock the Church of England’s bloody chamber.

Narcissism features prominently in the analysis, narcissism being understood in clinical terms rather than simply as vanity. The narcissist buries shameful things that he or she cannot bear to face. Some of these may derive from childhood, some from later episodes and actions. To defend against horrible feelings, a false self is constructed. The more grandiose the self, the more it needs to be continuously re-inflated. One way of doing so is by joining an institution that confers dignity. Dressing up, being given a title, and being treated as more ‘reverend’ than others does the job very well. So – to take a further step – does controlling, demeaning and even abusing other people. The smaller you make them, the bigger you feel. The abusers that Gardner encountered were all men, and were all predatory narcissists.

In sociological terms, abuse both exploits existing social inequalities and reinforces them. Victims of clerical abusers are selected because they are lay, young, lower-class, female, or have other vulnerabilities. The abuse reflects and reinforces their relative powerlessness, meaning that abuse serves a social as well as a personal purpose: it is not peripheral to hierarchical structures, it is integral to them.

Gardner tells us about the warning signs of narcissism. She sees in men like Ball a ‘completely self-absorbed sense of reality’. Everything is all-about-them. They work tirelessly to salvage their reputations and inflate their egos, and draw on all the connections and tools available to them to do so. They are deeply manipulative. Those who cross them are likely to be treated with rage, contempt and various forms of intimidation. As well as a campaign of letters from Ball himself, Gardner was advised by three senior church officials to back off, in one case being walked round the bishop’s palace grounds for a ‘chat’, and on another being telephoned by Lambeth Palace.

As well as the solipsism, the narcissist gives himself away by a lack of boundaries. There is no thee and me, just me. You are of interest only insofar as you serve the narcissist’s needs, and you have no separate subjectivity or independent existence for him. This blurring of boundaries extends to the body. The abuser does not just groom victims emotionally, he invades their personal space uninvited with touches and gropes, hugs and strokes; he may sit people on his knee, or suggest sharing a bed.

Understanding the mind of the perpetrator helps Gardner to understand why the Church has been so hospitable. It is a rigidly and steeply hierarchical institution. The clergy, she says in one chilling passage, are the subjects, the laity are objects, and victims of abuse are not even objects – they are marginals, untouchables, a kind of ‘matter out of place’, as the anthropologist Mary Douglas put it in her discussion of dirt and impurity. To allow the victim to speak and have agency is to upset the whole order, thereby putting at risk not just the institution but the very identity of those whose sense of selfhood is bound up with it. No wonder that when Ball’s abuse was reported to no fewer than 19 bishops and an archbishop by increasingly desperate victims and concerned supporters, not one of them intervened.

Gardner uses the idea of ‘institutional narcissism’ (which I think comes from Stephen Parsons and his blog) to take the analysis further. It helps to explain why senior leaders crave success stories even when they involve things as dodgy as the Ball brothers’ monastic order or Chris Brain’s ‘Nine O’Clock Service’. It explains why those who try to blow the whistle are ignored or traduced, and why bad news has to be hushed up. It explains why so many large and costly ‘comms’ teams are employed by dioceses, Church House and Lambeth to pump out good news and bury bad. It explains why truthfulness is not a value you ever hear preached. This all makes sense because there is institutional grandiosity to defend, and an ‘it’ to be denied.

Gardner includes a helpful chapter on the public schools from which more than half of the bishops are drawn. The repression of emotion and vulnerability in order to appear strong and manly, and ambivalence about homosexuality and women, are discussed. This helps to situate the current problems in a wider framework of English class, privilege, and establishment.

If that all sounds a bit grim, it is. The obvious conclusion is that the only way to rid the Church of England of abuse is to dismantle its hierarchical structure completely. Safeguarding is a hopeless sticking plaster.

Yet I found at least one hopeful thing in Gardner’s analysis, for she reminds us that abusers are made, not born. And if the making of an abuser is a process, that process can be halted. Gardner gives the example of a young man abused by his mother as a child who is aware of his own attraction to children, and terrified by it. Instead of surrendering to this part of himself by, for example, downloading images of children, masturbating, becoming addicted, and perhaps going on to offend, he seeks medical help. This allows him to manage his desires by understanding, externalising and controlling them. There can be ‘interventions’ just as with any other kind of addiction, and the earlier the better. Books like this help by making people more alert and understanding.

But can the institution change its spots?  Gardner is too nice to say ‘no’, but she probably thinks it. She may be right, but I wonder if a more historical view of the Church of England would have let in a bit more light and possibility. It is easy to think that the way things are now is the way things have always been and always must be, but the diocesan structures that weighed down on Gardner in Bath and Wells are actually rather recent. It was only in the second half of the twentieth century that diocesan bishops became powerful bureaucrats, as the Church was remodelled along the lines of the state with its own kind of regional devolution and expanding civil service. Parliamentary control and lay patronage were whittled away, and the disastrous simulacrum of democracy, the General Synod, was born.

For all the episcopal bluff, the Church of England is not really one thing, and never has been. ‘Unity’ is a narcissistic fiction. The Church of England is one big unhappy family whose several parties divorced one another some time ago. And although some parts and parties of the Church really may be abusive at the core (where abuse means abuse of power, which opens the door to sexual abuse), other parts can more easily be cleaned up.

Gardner is right that the problem of abuse is tied up with theology and governance structures, which means that any real solution must be, too. I have long thought that the constituent parts of the CofE should be allowed to separate from one another, develop on their own terms, and become parts of a federal structure. If the Church wants to be taken seriously by civil society, let alone enjoy the privileges of establishment, then the criterion for remaining part of this loose affiliation must be to respect the basic norms of equality, non-discrimination, transparency and independent oversight that govern other public bodies. That, combined with proper safeguarding and an open learning environment, might just save what is worth saving.

*Full disclosure: I have not met or corresponded with the author, but she cites my book with Andrew Brown That Was The Church That Was: How the Church of England lost the English people and its definition of the institutional Church.

This article first appeared in Surviving Church on April 8, 2021, and is republished by kind permission.

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Linda Woodhead
Linda Woodhead is Distinguished Professor of Religion and Society at Lancaster University.

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