Through the ongoing autopsy of the Saville Business in the media the question ‘How was it allowed to happen?' continually recurs. Among the answers that get offered nobody talks very much about the institutional inertia which permits wrongdoing to carry on, based around what, I am absolutely sure, is an unspoken but nevertheless real assessment on a brutally rational level of what exposing the wrong will cost. A person who acts abusively, in any way, within an organisation is ipso facto going to be someone with a degree of power within it, which means that pulling them out of the structure is going to hurt. It’s going to take time and energy, and will entail loss. The other cost is that everyone else within the structure is going to have to reassess their relationships with the offender and therefore with the organisation. The offender is almost certainly going to have had a positive influence on the organisation over some time, otherwise they wouldn't be important to it, which means that some people at least will like them personally and find it hard to believe they've done anything wrong. Anyone who decides, against all these considerations, that the allegation, whatever it is, should be acted on, is going to have their work cut out for them. The brutal truth is that, very often, it is far less costly for an institution to stifle and ignore victims, who are powerless, have few relationships with other people within it, and are more likely just to go away.
I wonder how often we face such questions in churches? There are of course many well-publicised instances of sexual abuse, some covered up for decades, some swiftly acted on, but I suspect there are plenty of other sorts of hurt which go under the radar.
Once upon a time Miss Brown complained to me about Miss Black, who held a responsible position in the church. Miss Black had offered to do some cleaning for Miss Brown and, Miss Brown alleged, had found papers alluding to an old family matter; Miss Black was now going around the congregation and the area generally spreading rumours about her. When I asked about it, Miss Black said she had indeed found the papers while tidying up, realised they were personal, and put them back. Nobody else had said anything to me about this, and I hadn't noticed anything amiss in people's attitude towards Miss Brown. I asked the director of a local charity Miss Black had been active with whether there had ever been any hint of trouble during her involvement (as Miss Brown had alleged there had been), and got a negative response.
Over subsequent months Miss Brown’s allegations became more involved. Miss Black had somehow got hold of her bank details and was making online purchases with her money, then stealing the items from outside her house. Miss Brown changed her bank cards, saying that Miss Black had stolen them repeatedly. Finally she phoned me up to say ‘I reported it to the police and I'm pleased to say that woman has been arrested, so everything is all right.’ I even called Miss Black on the pretence of speaking about something completely different, just to see what she said; she had not, as far as I could ascertain, been collared by the constabulary.
I was uncomfortably aware of the disparity of power between Miss Brown and Miss Black, and, although my minimal investigations hadn't discovered anything that suggested her allegations were true, I knew that reaching this conclusion was very much in my interests and the church’s. It would be so much easier just to dismiss Miss Brown, in her own words, as ‘a mad old woman’, as losing her would cost the church next to nothing on an institutional level. I think I drew the right conclusions about it all, but I look elsewhere, at other cases, and retain a tremor of discomfort.