Over the past year, the Church of England has faced its own sexual abuse scandal that in many ways mirrors the horrific accusations swirling through the Roman Catholic church. And while most observers agree that there has been little accountability, and myriad instances of questionable veracity, extending all the way to Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, there were signs that the church was finally taking abuse seriously.
That is, until the recent announcement that former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey, whose license to officiate had been suspended for turning a blind eye to sexual abuse in the church, was reinstated and allowed to return to ministry. The move is a slap to victims worldwide and shows that the good old boys network at the top of the Church of England is alive, well, and looking out for its own. In short, that it’s back to its usual tricks.
For those not familiar with the Peter Ball scandal, Ball was a Anglo-Catholic bishop who, with his brother, organized a monastic order, the Community of the Glorious Ascension (CGA). In keeping with his leadership role within the order, Ball worked closely with novice monks, many of whom were under age 18.
Eventually it came to light that Ball was using the CGA to groom, manipulate, and sexually abuse young men, including individuals under the age of consent.
This in turn led to criminal charges, with Ball serving jail time for three incidents of sexual abuse.
Subsequent government inquiries concluded that the Church of England, including multiple senior officials, had engaged in coverup for Ball. This including bullying and silencing whistleblowers and victims.
Coming in for particular criticism was Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Carey, who was found to have received seven letters from Ball’s victims and their families. Only one of these, the least alarming, had been forwarded to police, and Carey did not add Ball to the Lambeth List, which is the Church of England’s central watch list of clergy who may have engaged in inappropriate conduct. Moreover, Carey provided financial support and ran interference for Ball, saying that he believed him to be innocent.
For many, Carey’s actions were pretty rich, given his ardent opposition to LGBT rights. Over time, Carey has resisted marriage equality, including in the House of Lords, and has inappropriately interfered in the independent American province of the Anglican Communion over its decision to ordain openly gay bishops. And yet Carey is willing to run interference for a bishop, a convicted criminal, who is known to have engaged in serial sexual abuse of young men below the age of consent. How does that work?
Meanwhile, government inquiries expressly found that Carey had not only colluded with Ball, but engaged in cover-up of Ball’s crimes. Carey eventually apologized to victims and claimed he accepted responsibility for his inaction, resulting in Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby asking Carey to resign as an assistant bishop in the Church of England. Welby also withdrew Carey’s license to officiate, or PTO, but a replacement PTO was issued not long afterwards by the Diocese of Oxford.
But other actions were taken, including the criminal investigation many survivors have requested, and to this day Carey retains his seat in the House of Lords.
Suspension over John Smyth Affair
Then, in 2020, another wave of scandal hit the Church of England. John Smyth, an evangelical leader of Church of England summer camps, was found to have imposed severe, brutal, sadomasochistic beatings of adolescent boys. And, much like the Peter Ball affair, it turned out that the matter had been known in some church circles for years, decades even.
The ensuing investigation revealed that while Carey was not accused of abuse, he had ignored complaints about Smyth’s behavior. As a result, in June 2020 the Diocese of Oxford, suspended Carey’s PTO, even as Carey claimed he didn’t remember Smyth.
Reinstatement in 2021
But Carey’s second suspension didn’t last long.
In early 2021, a National Safeguarding Team of the Church of England concluded that Carey indeed had seen the reports about Smyth’s abuse and failed to report them to authorities. The team further concluded that it believed that Lord Carey now would forward any reports of abuse that might arise. Shortly afterwards, Carey met with the Bishop of Oxford, who reinstated Carey’s PTO.
Meanwhile, a full report on the church’s handling of the Smyth affair is due later this year, and many believe the findings will be every bit as ugly as those set forth in the Peter Ball report.
The results of Carey’s reinstatement have been rapid and predictable.
On the one hand, members of the Church of England, ones I both trust and know to be far more knowledgeable than me of the specifics of Carey’s situation, feel that Carey has been treated badly.
On the other hand, victims of abuse feel that the church has done everything in its power to bully them, to discredit them, and to silence them. They further believe the fact that any bishop would welcome clergy who colluded with Peter Ball speaks to the utter breakdown of ethics in the Church of England.
To be sure, there are others, every bit as culpable as Carey, who have behaved badly, but have suffered no consequences for their conduct. That includes Justin Welby, who has at best a questionable recollection of own conduct in these matters. Indeed, we know for a fact that Welby has ignored myriad letters from victims of abuse, yet still gets to serve as primus inter pares of the English bishops.
But that approach also creates a logical fallacy.
If we argue that bishops should not be held accountable because no one has previously been held accountable, then we are externally locked into the status quo, unable to ever address abuse within the church. Thus, the question might appropriately be framed in terms of why not do more to discipline feckless bishops, versus why impose discipline on Carey?
Looking at the Episcopal Church
Nor is the Episcopal Church any better. Over the years, I have come to know many victim’s advocates, including my late friend Anne Fontaine, who locked horns with more than one bishop over similar issues over the years, and reported that there are hundreds of abusers who remain active within the church.
I’m also friends with numerous men and women in the Episcopal Church who have suffered sexual harassment and abuse, but have yet to hear anyone say that their complaints were handled well. Let me reiterate: I have never yet heard anyone say their situation was handled anything but poorly. Not one.
Indeed, the reports of authorities bullying and silencing whistleblowers and critics is, in my experience, normative in the Episcopal Church.
It also is worth keeping in mind that, in every single instance, #metoo legislation that was passed by the House of Delegates during the last General Convention was dumbed down, weasel-worded, or rendered illusory when the measure reached the House of Bishops. Indeed, the latter has proven to afford world-class expertise in protecting its episcopal prerogatives and shielding abusers, all while hiding behind a smoke screen of fine words, lofty ideals, and truly hideous vestments.
The situation of the Church of England, with its role as the state church, resulting layers of bureaucracy, and quasi-government commissions may seem foreign to Episcopalians. But when it comes to abuse and the response of church hierarchies, things are every bit as bad in the Church of England as they are in the United States.
And no matter how we parse the specifics, we need to be clear on one thing: Carey’s losing his PTO is hardly commensurate with his egregious collusion and coverup in the Peter Ball case and the human suffering it caused. Indeed, if collusion and coverup indeed occurred, as appears to be the case, criminal charges, including conspiracy, are appropriate, and survivors of abuse have every right to be outraged at the Church of England’s horrific indifference to their suffering.