By the skilled work of the Enemy, the evil of sexual abuse by clergy continues to harm the Body of Christ. A crisis has arisen in Rome with regard to a man abused as a child, now a member of the Holy Father's Committee on Abuse, with whom his colleagues find it difficult to work; and who, in a logical ellipse which is far beyond me, considers it relevant to his predicament to attack the teaching and practice of Catholics and Orthodox with regard to the veneration of the relics of the Saints. And now the subect of sexual abuse in the Church of England is apparently raised in a book which would have been published this week, had not the publisher's lawyers required the recall even of the review copies.
I have a few rambling observations leading to a couple of unexciting conclusions.
Last year, Bishop Peter Ball, who began his bishoping in the Chichester diocese, was sentenced to a term in prison for using public office to procure his own sexual gratification. A little after, an associate, Fr Vickery House, of the same diocese, was sentenced for offences including offences against an under-age boy. It then transpired that a previous Bishop of Chichester, George Bell, now long dead, was accused of offences against an under-age boy, and that the Church of England had paid compensation and apologised both for the act and for the cover-up. In the modern style, Bell, no longer alive to defend himself, is considered guilty because he has no way of demonstrating his innocence; and the Diocese of Chichester cannot even bring itself to say whether or not those who made this decision had asked themselves or their legal advisers the questions "Does this evidence put the matter beyond reasonable doubt?" and "Does this evidence reach the bar of the balance of the probabilities?" (Details about the specific allegations concerning Bishop Bell have apparently just been printed in the Brighton Press.)
I knew Ball well and disliked him, although I had no actual evidence at all that he was breaking the law. My memory both of him and of House is that other people sat spell-bound during their sermons and addresses ... while what struck me was that they both carefully avoided doctrinal, or, indeed, any intellectual or solid or objective content, whether good or bad. Their homilies seemed often to regard reflexively the preacher himself rather than any broader topic ... our Holy Father might have reached for the term narcissistic. Ball, in particular, rarely omitted a paragraph or two of name-dropping. When the vote for women 'priests' took place in the 1990s, he ostentatiously abstained, sitting in the Chamber 'agonising' with his cowl over his head and face: I had no doubt at that this moving public performance was to avoid taking sides so as not to put at risk the adulation in which he was held by both 'sides'. For Ball was commonly regarded as a Walking Saint, 'the wisest and holiest man in the Church of England'. Although he admitted sexual misbehaviour towards a novice monk in 1993 and accepted a Police warning, he promptly set about convincing people that his admission was made simply to save the Church of England from the embarrassment of a public trial. Such were his reputation and his very considerable plausibility that this exculpatory campaign was widely successful; and so a whiff of Martyrdom was added to his already bloated public reputation. Numbers of the Great and the Good wrote letters in his defence, which can now be read on the Internet. Establishment figures seem so often to combine a quite extraordinary gullibility with an equally remarkable confidence in their own judgement; I remember being condescendingly told off by one of those letter-writers because I made it clear - having by then myself seen the written evidence of which the police were in possession - that I considered Ball guilty of very disgraceful conduct.
Bell, also commonly regarded as a modern Saint, has had since 2010 a liturgical commemoration in the C of E (on October 3). I never knew him, but, of course, I was aware of the immense reputation which led to the widespread assumption that he had been unjustly prevented from being appointed to the See of Canterbury. All sorts of organisations, places, and objects, and not only in Sussex, are named after him: they will find it a complicated business to do a complete Jimmy-Saville-style damnatio memoriae. There is even an altar dedicated to him in the Cathedral here in Oxford. I wonder if the C of E will reconsider the current cheerful and slapdash way they stick people on to their liturgical calendar without any forensic process of enquiry. If they had had anything like the sort of process which the Catholic Church has for beatification, surely the calls for information might have brought to light the evidence against him ... assuming of course that he was in fact guilty. If you make a habit of sneering at the legalistic and pompous procedures of the Catholic Church with regard to who can be commemorated at the Altar, and of going for a low-key approach, you may find you get more accidents.
Not that it's any of my business any more. But I am entitled to wonder how much greater the Media interest would have been if similar offences or alleged offences had been brought home to bishops of the Catholic Church in this country.
And have I learned anything from all this? My experiences have led me to conclude, over the decades, that glamorous and 'charismatic' people can be extremely dangerous people, and are best kept at arm's length, or more, or more.