Crimes committed against children are, of their nature, particularly heinous in the pantheon of violent crimes. There can never be an excuse for an adult, no matter what ‘excuse’ they might proffer, for committing such an act of violence against a child. When the perpetrator of such a violent crime is a member of the clergy, there is an added element of righteous indignation directed towards them because these people, meant to be ministers of the Gospel, have not only perpetrated unimaginable levels of harm upon their victim, they have also betrayed the especial trust placed in them because of who they are and what they are supposed to represent.
Any member of the clergy who commits such a horrific act deserves the full weight of the criminal law to be visited upon them.
Such an assertion is not contrary to what Muriel Porter writes about in her new book, The New Scapegoats, and her book should, under no circumstances, be seen as an attempt to diminish the harm suffered by the survivors of clergy child sexual abuse. Her own Church, the Anglican Church of Australia, has had to face up to the prevalence of such abuse perpetrated by members of its clergy just as my own Church has had to, rightly so, because of the work of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.
The primary thesis behind Porter’s work, however, is a call to recognise that her Church, as part of its response to the scourge of child sexual abuse and its endeavours to restore a tarnished reputation has effectively created a new group of victims: those members of the clergy who, having not been perpetrators, are now subjected to a most intrusive form of regulation of their professional and private lives.
Porter does not seek to minimise the harm done to innocent victims by some members of the clergy, nor does she pretend that child sexual abuse is the only form of harm that has been perpetrated by clergy members of the Anglican Church of Australia. Porter is, I would strongly suggest, in a very strong position to be able to comment on this topic amongst many others.
Through an examination of several specific cases – some in the public domain, others not – Porter builds a cogent case to suggest that Anglican clergy members are now subject to a regime under which even a minor breach of the expected and stringent standards of behaviour can have the most devastating outcomes for members of the clergy. And all in the name of protecting or restoring the reputation of the Anglican Church of Australia, rather than attempting to ensure that appropriate levels of protection and safeguarding are built to ensure that the risk of further cases is minimised and that there is an appropriate procedure by which the Church can respond in the unfortunate case of further cases.
Significantly, Porter argues this intrusive form of regulation of clergy lives has also opened the door to the more conservative – some might say puritanical – elements within her Church to insisting on a view of sexuality and clergy behaviour that is more stringent than that expected of the rest of the Church members, creating a gulf between clergy and parishioners that is entirely arbitrary. Porter suggests that such a division is entirely contrary to some of the theological underpinnings of the reformist movement that originally saw the Church of England break from the Church of Rome in the first place, and return to a form of clericalism contrary to the Church’s understanding of the ‘priesthood of all believers’.
This approach, Porter argues, is damaging to the fundamental nature of the church as the Anglican Church understands it, moving away from a community built on shared faith towards the more secular corporate model.
Porter also suggests that the approach adopted by the Anglican Church of Australia diminishes the harm perpetrated on survivors of child sexual abuse by failing to recognise that it is not the same as any other crime – and that diminishes the stories of those who have suffered and survived this horrible and heinous crime, stories that need to be heard and acknowledged.
This is a challenging book to read. It is so because there is a naturally understandable desire among members of society – including among members of the churches – to ensure that children are protected from any harm. Appropriate policies, procedures and protocols must be present in any organisation in which children participate. Porter hopes, however, that in seeking to protect children from harm, which should be a priority for any organisation but especially one based on the Gospel of Jesus, her Church does not unwittingly create more victims of this terrible crime among the overwhelming majority of Anglican clergy who provide a good and productive ministry within society.