Articles · Books · The Lutterworth Press

Where institutional narcissism becomes a spiritual sickness

From 2004-2010 I worked as diocesan safeguarding advisor (DSA) for the Church of England in Bath and Wells. I thought I would have something to offer from my previous training and experience as a social worker and as a psychoanalytic psychotherapist. Part of the support structure was an excellent group of DSAs from other Christian denominations. It was the Catholic and Anglican DSAs rather than the Methodists, United Reformed or Baptists who tended to adopt ‘gallows humour’ whilst discussing the way their institutions responded to abuse. Why? Well, all was not what it seemed, especially when situations involved alleged abuse by priests where there was an almost perverse lack of empathy towards survivors in contrast to support for the alleged perpetrators, and where the church’s reputation took precedence over best practice and guidelines. Through my own experiences I began to realise that below the veneer of pleasantries were levels of complexity, deception and anxiety in the mainstream churches that made the NHS adolescent psychiatric unit where I had previously worked seem like a vicar’s tea party.

In many ways the church’s response to abuse by priests replicates the dynamic of power and control between perpetrator and victim where the solipsism and self-justification of the perpetrator takes precedence over any needs of the victim, and where the self-serving sense of entitlement and renunciation of responsibility by the perpetrator in denial of what has happened is frequently mirrored by the institution.  

It’s not unusual to defend against disturbing feelings elicited by child sexual abuse, and deception and defensive processes have been the default position of the church hierarchy as a way of combating anxiety for a long time. These ways of responding are what I have called a spiritual sickness linked to institutional narcissism. All organisations and institutions are to a certain extent healthily narcissistic – they have to be to survive and to thrive. However, the Church has become unhealthily stuck at the level of survival to the detriment of thriving, often complacently dominated by its own internal self-preoccupations (usually to do with sex, gender and power), to the extent that it is increasingly out of touch with society, and reliant on self-generating authoritarian structures. In Sex, Power, Control I research what that means and why such an ethos still predominates in the response to survivors despite the advances in safeguarding procedures and trainings.

One example of the use of a defence in the mainstream churches has been to act secretly. Secrecy is not only a central dynamic between the sexual abuser and the child or young person but this same dynamic has permeated the way that the church hierarchy has responded over decades to disclosures, especially those involving priests and those in religious orders. Secrecy and deception were for many years efficiently pursued through internal and arcane legal systems, such as canon law, or managed discreetly within the church hierarchy.

One example of such discreet management was the case of the Reverend David Smith from Clevedon in Somerset, who first came to the attention of the public in 2007; it later emerged that his paedophilic behaviour had been well known for a number of years, but only to the church hierarchy. This case is significant because, as a result of what came out at his trial in 2007, the Past Cases Review was instituted where all old files were to be assessed for safeguarding concerns. Whilst later findings would reveal that this review was inadequate and in itself a ‘cover-up’, it was still an important moment of recognition that situations had always been managed with scant regard for victims and survivors. I had first-hand experience of such secrecy when, following Smith’s arrest, it was assumed that the situation would be handled centrally and that my role would be limited. The hierarchy closed ranks by rallying around one another to minimise the damage that the arrest might cause in the diocese. I was seen as peripheral (not ordained, female and not, as it turned out, ‘in the know’ about what had been going on). Here was the ‘closed system’ in operation, for I found out there was a long history to this case; Smith was a serial sexual predator who had been ‘managed pastorally’. As the safeguarding advisor, I had not been told about Smith’s history and knew nothing about the past allegations (I found out about his abuse of boys over a 30-year period from the press reports at the trial). Indeed,I only learnt then that there was indeed a ‘special’ file which contained details of clergy who had in one way or another ‘transgressed’. It was some time later that I was allowed to view the file. The dynamic of collusion in high places, secrecy, avoidance, proceduralism and obfuscation held sway.

Institutional dilemmas, like abuse by clergy, are anxiety-provoking and lead to an uneasy tension between wantingopen and transparent processes and discreet, more deceptive ways of managing – this leads to a ‘fudge’. When such cases hit the public consciousness, a formulaic response is given – usually the reassurance that everything is so much better now, the promise of a lessons learnt review, and eventually apologies. An authentic response might expose shadow aspects of the institution and uncover deeper malaise; one way of managing and avoiding this discovery is repeatedly to reframe the presenting problem by commissioning the reports, inquiries and reviews: ‘Must do better’ or ‘That was then, it’s all right now’.

When such allegations are made the institutional church has found it extraordinarily difficult to respond empathically to the victim and survivor. Why? Some survivors have experienced a legal, confrontational approach erected in part by insurers and advisers – this clearly prevents getting help and support and discourages a pastoral approach. Others have found a discrepancy where policies and guidelines are approached with different levels of emotional awareness: not in those handling situations at the local level, who are aware and know what to do, but located within the upper levels of the hierarchy who are then involved in further decision making. Here the institutional narcissism can be found where power and control based on a collective ethos and preoccupation to promote the Church’s mission and religious and social purpose limits other insights and reflections (misogyny and homophobia plus the cultivation of elites also play a part here). This ethos based on tradition, and thus hard to shift, is largely influenced by male public-school types of education where emotion is suspect (girly or gay), bullying and abuse seen as a fact of life, and a dismissive-avoidant style of relating to others employed. Many in the church hierarchy, in the past and now, are themselves survivors of such an early stunted environment replicated in the institutional work setting where feelings have to be hidden, intimacy seen as suspect, and trouble has to be avoided at all costs. This ethos has become normalized and has characterized much of the response to survivors over decades, which becomes fundamentally a matter of damage limitation and risk management: the way that the church has responded to survivors is a spiritual sickness. 

In researching the book, I found many examples of this. The treatment of Neil Todd, one of the many victims of Bishop Peter Ball, is especially tragic. By the time of Peter Ball’s arrest in 1992, at least three senior bishops and other clergy knew of the allegations made by Neil Todd. None of them told the police because the reputation of Ball and the Church was given a higher priority than the distressed young man – it could not be accepted that such a ‘holy’ man had transgressed. A campaign of intimidation and pressure on witnesses was begun – evidence about other victims suppressed, and a false narrative of the wronged good Christian by a lying mentally ill young man was peddled – a narrative that I discovered was still to be found in 2010 in Somerset. When criminal investigations were reopened in 2012 Neil Todd took his life. One can only surmise that he was simply unable to face a repetition of the isolating and destructive treatment he had received from the Church over the previous twenty years. The stress and fear of the post-abuse trauma repeating itself was too great.

There is the powerful assumption that the church offers something ‘special’ (a word sadly tainted from its overuse by some abusers), something sacred – priests are ‘called’ by God, something loving, and something superior to the secular. The church prides itself on being about love, compassion and kindness; a spurious assumption for no one gets love from an institution – it is a contradiction in terms. Clearly there are many individuals in it capable of love, kindness and compassion but the institutional collective is greater than the sum of its parts and seems to not have the capacity for this. It is almost as if there has not been a choice in the way it responds. The awareness that the Church has further spiritually abused already abused victims is a challenge to its very identity.

Fiona Gardner

Author of Sex, Power, Control, Responding to Abuse in the Institutional Church

The Lutterworth Press, 2021

Order Sex, Power, Control: Responding to Abuse in the Institutional Church Now


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