It was gut-churningly horrible to sit on Thursday night and watch the news headlines, where the local elections had been knocked off the top of the programme by a vicar in my Diocese being found guilty of sexual abuse, despite his denials. Here is the press statement from the Bishop:
Statement by the Bishop of Bath and Wells, the Right Reverend Peter Price on 3 May 2007
The Revd David Smith has been found Guilty of a number of very serious charges. We are shocked and horrified that he has fallen so far short of the very high standards expected of Priests in the Church of England.
We apologise sincerely to David Smith’s victims, their families, the parishes and all involved in this case. We are very sorry that these offences were committed by a man in a position of trust.
We have ensured that proper pastoral care is being offered to all in this case who need it and we will do all within our power to mitigate the harmful effects of these offences. We are also offering appropriate pastoral care to David Smith.
We have taken all necessary steps to do everything in our power to ensure there is no repetition of this situation.
Press enquiries should be made to Prebendary John Andrews, Bath & Wells Diocesan Press Officer, 07971 484061.
It's very hard to know what to say. It also makes me wonder what the effect will be - the BBC was trying to call it the 'tip of the iceberg' and scaremongering the suggestion that there may be lots of similar cases. I very much doubt it - the CofE takes child protection pretty seriously, we were all summoned to Wells on a three-line whip a couple of months ago for some fairily rigorous child protection training. But the media will be scouting for more stories, looking for a re-run of the Catholic sex abuse scandals in the Anglican church.
The trouble is that all vicars are human, and whatever weaknesses we have they don't go away once you put a dog collar on. If anything, the pressure on those areas intensifies, because of having a vocation which requires you to be at your best so much of the time, where you can deal with birth, death, tears, laughter, boring committees, architecture, administration, team-building, finance, vision, worship, research and 20 other things all in the same day. Most clergy go beyond the levels of stress needed to function well, into the zone beyond that. If we're not careful to find healthy ways of dealing with this, then there are plenty of unhealthy ones available - drink, sexual temptation, anger, laziness, abuse of power, neglect of key relationships, money, and so on.
The thing which bothered me at the time, and which still bothers me now, is how little time in my training was given to issues of character. College wasn't an easy place to admit to weakness, and it certainly wasn't a place where the formation of character and dealing with sin (lets call it what it is) was given priority. Study and worship were the main priorities, which is fine as far as it goes, but issues of character and lifestyle just didn't seem to get confronted and dealt with. In a selection system shared between parish, Diocese (at several levels), national church selection panels, training instutions and back to Diocese again, it's easy to pass the responsibility buck to someone else, and let them deal with the difficult stuff. The danger is that nobody deals with it.
I don't know whether, this coming week, parents will look at me more warily than they did last week. Whether the church's reassurances that all our childrens workers have CRB clearance will carry a bit less weight, and it will be that bit harder to reach children and young people with the good news of Jesus. We became bad news on Thursday.