I’m a Methodist. In our denomination (I expect it’s the same in yours) any of us who hold a responsibility must undergo regular checks and training as part of our Safeguarding procedural requirements to keep children and vulnerable adults protected from harm. The many (unsurprising to those 0f us who’ve attended church a long time) revelations of abuse perpetrated within a church or other institutional context make it absolutely essential to have such Safeguarding measures in place.
But there are some aspects of it that cause me unease.
One is that our emphasis is on detecting and dealing with perpetrators, and protecting vulnerable individuals from them, rather than on strengthening the individuals to make them less vulnerable to abuse. This is in keeping with the present trends of approach to the problem of rape culture (prevalent in most societies of the world). In the past, the approach to protecting vulnerable individuals against rape culture has been to encourage those individuals to cower out of sight of predators - to dress modestly lest their clothing invite attack, to stay at home at night lest being out late should invite attack, to lower the eyes and behave submissively lest boldness be misinterpreted as invitation, to avoid intoxicants lest drunkenness render one unable to detect attack and defend oneself against it. Etc. The current movement to re-focus attention on the perpetrator - teaching sexual aggressors that other people are not commodities for their opportunism under any circumstances, is long over-due.
But there is a third way that I think is under-emphasised. Not catching perpetrators, not teaching the vulnerable to be good in the hope of escaping predation - but helping the vulnerable to be both vocal and strong. We are not good at that.
To pay attention to our children’s reluctance to be in the presence of certain adults, to allow our children to refuse unwanted kisses and embraces from adults (aunts/uncles, grandparents, family friends etc), to encourage our children to believe they can be courteously assertive and protective of their personal dignity; this is still lacking. The approach of strong authorities leaping to their defence to detect and remove predators actually enhances weakness and vulnerability. Oh, what would I do without big strong you there to protect me?
Another aspect of Safeguarding, as it really is, that concerns me is the matter of untidy consequences left lying about all over the place to trip us up. Experiences with long tails.
What if it is the institution itself that has made an individual vulnerable and damaged his/her mental health? What if the individuals delivering the Safeguarding training bear a strong resemblance to the perpetrators and have many characteristics in common?
In every institution I’ve come across, from the family up and out, it is the whistle-blowers who are punished. “Don’t rock the boat,” as my mother used to say. When, as a teenage care assistant, I saw across the garden the priest run his hands up the leg of the attractive resident of the nursing home, and saw her discomfort and bewilderment, I knew better than to tell the nuns who ran the place. Actually, it didn't occur to me. In the 1970s, that’s what girls were for. I didn't know abuse was abuse, and I strongly suspect the same is true of the Jimmy Saviles and Rolf Harrises of this world. We are to a great extent products of our times and our society.
I know more than one excellent teacher who has been bullied into mental breakdown within the professional structure of public (and private) education, then made to sign a vow of silence in return for the handout standing between them and destitution.
Edward Snowden, David Kelly, Chelsea Manning – these and no doubt countless silenced individuals – bear witness to the reluctance within the political institution to take responsibility. Hushing things up is how institutions invariably deal with their own wrongdoing.
But, what do we do with these long tails? With the unacknowledged hurt, the still aching scars of those whom the system has wounded but who for one reason or another still wish to operate within it? Those who, for example, still feel the imperative to preach the Gospel and make common cause with the Christian faithful, but whose souls bear the thumbprint of institutional ineptitude or worse?
What do we do with the long tails? Is it always only about being tidy and authoritarian? Will we never progress to the place where the people of God organise into a circle not a pyramid, where the voices of the anawim (the little ones, the lowly, the poor and marginalised) are no longer silenced and disregarded? Will we never find a way to get past shame as the principle tool of control? Will we never realise that control is not a worthwhile aspiration in the first place? Healing is better.
And how do I deal with the long tails in my own life? I don’t know. I don’t know.