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How clergy became scapegoats of the sex abuse crisis in the Anglican Church

Clergy must abide by strict new rules governing their relationships. Shutterstock

How clergy became scapegoats of the sex abuse crisis in the Anglican Church

Clergy must abide by strict new rules governing their relationships. Shutterstock

As the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse hearings have made abundantly clear, Christian churches in this country scapegoated the victims of clergy abuse for decades in an attempt to protect their reputation. That was at best deluded, and at worst evil.

Some parts of the Anglican Church of Australia were complicit in this appalling behaviour until the levels of abuse came to light in the late 1990s. Since then, the Anglican Church has directed enormous energy into establishing procedures to ensure that abuse was a thing of the past, and that churches would be safe places for all children and vulnerable people.

In the process, however, in a frantic effort to restore the church’s damaged reputation by demonstrating it is “tough on (sexual) crime”, it has created another group of scapegoats – its own clergy.

This may seem a harsh assessment, and one that will not be popular with abuse survivors. Survivors have often been so scarred by their abuse that they have no sympathy at all for the clergy as a class.

Nevertheless, as I write in my new book, absurdly severe restrictions are now being imposed on the private lives of all Anglican clergy because the abuse crisis has opened the door to opportunistic interventions by puritan elements in the church. Always eager to impose rigid rules on all sexual behaviour, in this febrile climate no one dare challenge their demands. The clergy have become the new scapegoats.

The Anglican Church’s new rules define sexual abuse way beyond inappropriate contact with children, young people and the vulnerable. Now virtually the only non-abusive sexual contact an Anglican priest can have is with a spouse of the opposite sex. (Same-sex relationships are totally and utterly forbidden under these rules.)

Under the new rules, clergy are not supposed to have romantic relationships with parishioners, or even sometimes lay people outside their parish, without the permission of their seniors. Even so, the relationship can still be hedged with restrictions. This is because all parishioners – even highly competent adults, including professional people – are deemed to be under the power of the clergy.

In Melbourne, Anglican clergy being installed in new parishes or roles now have to make a public commitment to “abstention from sexual relations with anyone in my pastoral care to whom I am not married”. Congregations hearing this are bemused – presumably without such a vow, what might their priest get up to?

The public reasoning behind these rules is that clergy are in a fiduciary relationship with all parishioners – like a teacher to a child or a lawyer to a client. In other words, there is always a power imbalance in favour of the priest. While that is true with children and vulnerable adults, it is a fundamental misunderstanding of the church’s ministry, and has radically altered the status of lay people.

It destroys the biblical principle of lay people as co-workers with the clergy, members together in the “priesthood of all believers”. It effectively infantilises them and, ironically, increases the danger of according the clergy a higher status and power than the laity, which is known to be a factor.

If clergy break the new rules on adult relationships, or are even suspected of it, the punishment can be severe. This extends right up to the harshest punishment the church can inflict – deposing a clergy person from Holy Orders. Deposition, or “defrocking”, was until recently very rare. Some clergy have described it as akin to a death sentence.

Now it is becoming relatively common. It has been used to punish clergy whose consenting adult relationships are in breach of the new purity rules, and against bishops who have mismanaged survivor complaints, as well as the abusers who thoroughly deserve it. While defrocking might be appropriate for those who have sexually abused children and vulnerable adults, its use in non-abusive cases actually devalues the seriousness of real sexual abuse.

Lay people are not exempt from the purity panic. In some places it seems everyone who has any sort of role in the church will soon be subject to confronting screening processes, including police checks. Even the elderly ladies who staff parish op shops will not be exempt from these stringent requirements, despite the fact that there is no evidence that any of their number has been guilty of church-based sexual abuse. It is all about “public perception”, apparently.

Perhaps these harsh rules will make the Anglican Church look squeaky clean again. In the process, though, this scapegoating may terminally damage the morale of the clergy, who are increasingly living in fear of frivolous allegations and feeling they are always under suspicion. And once their morale is completely shattered, a shiny reputation will be no compensation for a hollowed-out church.