So last week it was Michael Jackson’s turn to be in the spotlight with some powerful descriptions of the abuse reportedly experienced at his hands by two boys, now young men. The TV coverage was lengthy and then some of the media follow up focussed again on why it is difficult for people to tell what is happening to them at the time, and equally why people around Jackson who could see what was going on, did not call time on his behaviour.
Jimmy Saville’s name resurfaced in these reports and how the cult of celebrity can mask abusive behaviour and blind observers from taking appropriate action.
In our safeguarding training at all levels, we focus on the difficulties that victims and observers alike can experience when aiming to tell their stories, and the powerful forces that often get in the way. As trainers we hope and pray that by raising the issue we will have enabled individuals in churches to be more confident about reporting and that a fresh culture of openness and transparency will signal an end to secrecy and innuendo. But how can we be sure that this is the case?
Audits of our practice against the Church’s policy standards are a good start, but the challenge is how to judge the deeper quality of what we do and how well we respond when a matter is brought to our attention. Going further, however, can we be confident that all matters which should be reported or are suspected are being heard in the first place? Again and again we return to the question of our culture, and whether it allows for painful truths to surface. Organisational safeguarding casework reviews have often pointed to examples where those who wished to speak out were prevented from doing so or their stories either batted away or like the proverbial can, kicked along the road. This is despite fine sounding policy statements.
There is no simple test that we can apply here, and even when people’s voices are heard counter narratives generally appear to discredit those who speak up. In Jackson’s case people are now conflicted over whether they can still appreciate his musical legacy. Can we separate art from the artist’s actions? I leave that one for you to ponder.
The message to our churches from this is to keep plugging away. Don’t be disheartened. Call out resistance to hearing. Keep a log of what you see and hear. Get support from people who get the agenda.
An emerging IICSA theme is that ‘organisational (and societal) culture gets in the way of open discussion about child sexual abuse that can help to raise awareness and increase understanding and make it easier for people to disclose.’ There is still work for us to do no doubt.