There is something uniquely destructive about sexual abuse carried out by religious figures. A report published this week accuses the Church of England of “collusion and cover-up” – for a period of almost 20 years – over the abuse of boys and young men by the former bishop of Gloucester, Peter Ball. The report does more than shred the reputation of George Carey, the archbishop of Canterbury when the allegations arose in 1993, though it does that very thoroughly.
Ball was a charismatic figure who specialised in ministry to young people, especially boys. He dressed as a monk and was the prior of a small religious order that he had founded with his identical twin brother Michael, who also became a bishop in due course. As bishop of Lewes Peter Ball arranged to have young men and boys living with him all the time for their “spiritual development”. A friend of mine, who was for a while one of them, said that “for a summer I really believed he was a kind of reincarnation of Francis of Assisi”.
He had connections with numerous public schools, and at least one of them offered counselling for boys who were suffering from homesickness. Those who were especially spiritually favoured would be invited to shower with him, pray with him naked, massage his legs for phlebitis (he wore nothing under his habit) and occasionally be beaten by him. One of his victims was the chaplain of a neighbouring bishop, but this was not what brought him down.
Everyone kept silent: some people knew; more should have known; many more half knew and preferred to keep it that way. Only when one of his victims attempted suicide did the matter become official. This young man, Neil Todd, survived the first attempt, and made a complaint to the church. He was fobbed off by Eric Kemp, who as bishop of Chichester had been Ball’s superior in Lewes. The next night Todd attempted suicide again. The bishops to whom the allegations had been made reported them to Carey, then archbishop of Canterbury. Todd’s parents reported them to the police.
Some of the bishops involved appear to have been concerned above all to avoid scandal. Others seem to have understood Ball as a truly spiritual figure, and this gets to the heart of his wickedness. Sexuality and spirituality are very closely connected. A spiritual leader is one who has charisma, power and sexual attractiveness – even, or especially, if he is supposed to be celibate, as gay clergy are in most parts of the Church of England.
This power is particularly strong over people who willingly expose their own weaknesses and inadequacies. Particularly in the brutal confines of an all-male adolescent society, boys will tell a priest things they would never tell anyone else. And the spiritual leader – the shaman – is uniquely placed to take the terrifying surges of adolescent sexuality and tame them with meaning. This can look absurd from the outside, but it is also very powerful when the desires involved are in some sense forbidden.
Both Ball and the evangelical QC John Smyth would get their victims to admit to masturbation and then beat them – though Ball made one of his roll around naked in the snow first. But the outward absurdity, and the elaborate justifications for the violence, can only have increased the humiliation and the sense of powerlessness of the victims. The spiritual abuser is in a unique position to manipulate the emotions of the victims, and to promote their own self-hatred.
Neil Todd made a third, successful attempt at suicide in 2012, when the inquiry into Peter Ball reopened. Those who ignored his suffering because they were more concerned with the church’s reputation deserve the disgrace into which they now are plunged.