The truth will set you free

As I followed the proceedings of General Synod this week, I became aware that the acronym MACSAS appears to have become part of our language. MACSAS is “Ministers and Clergy Sexual Abuse Survivors”. Having found their website, I have been browsing the stories on it. These are not comfortable stories to read as they tell of serious crimes and deep betrayal of trust by clergy and the subsequent failures of the church to pursue justice in response. The stories are not comfortable, but we need to hear them and respond with humility and honesty. A common significant pain point in the stories of abuse “survivors” (a much better word than “victim”) is that they have all in one way or another been disbelieved.

To hear the story of a survivor and then not believe it is horribly unjust. The church should never be guilty of doing this. But here we hit a problem which we really must face head on if we’re to make any progress. To state it plainly, our knowledge is imperfect. This imperfection is cripplingly debilitating for the cause of justice when faced with an allegation against a member of the clergy which the clergyman (usually, but not always, man) denies. By their very nature, most of the cases in question involve only two witnesses: the accused and the accuser. If both tell different stories, who is to be believed? The legal answer is clear: innocent until proven guilty beyond reasonable doubt. But this places an intolerable burden of proof upon genuine survivors who, again by definition, were on the weaker side of an imbalance of power when the offence occurred and (from testimony on the MACSAS website) have usually suffered for many years from mental ill-health. They probably will not be able to prove their accusations beyond reasonable doubt. So, in many cases, the accused is not found guilty. It is very easy at this point for the accused then to become cast as a victim of an unjust accusation and for the survivor to become the “guilty party”. This is evil.

What then should the church do? Should we lower our “innocent until proven guilty” standard? After all, the risks inherent in making the accusation in the first place make it rather likely that the complainant is being more truthful than the accused. Should we adopt a standard of “innocent until accused”? Well, probably not. Otherwise we put far too much power into the hands of malicious false accusers. The law’s standards are formulated in the clear knowledge that justice will not always be done. The law prefers to err on the side of passively failing to give justice than to be on the side of actively perpetrating injustice against the unfairly accused. “Innocent until accused” is open to far more abuse than “innocent until proven guilty beyond reasonable doubt”.

So we come back to the original problem: our knowledge is incomplete. Very often justice simply cannot be done because we are unable to know the truth. But the church needs to be able to do better than this because of our pastoral charge of care both for survivors and for the unjustly accused, not to mention our charge to care for sinners of any stripe.

As I reflect on this serious problem, I am reminded of another area where the church gives pastoral care to those whose story is disputed, namely prison ministry. A substantial minority of convicted criminals insist on their innocence and maintain that they have been unjustly convicted of a crime they did not commit. And some of them have: juries sometimes get it wrong.

When a prisoner insists on their innocence, they are claiming to be victims of a serious injustice. The prison system has a simple approach to these cases: they assume the jury got it right. They assume, therefore, that the prisoner is refusing to acknowledge their guilt. Consequently, the prisoner incurs certain sanctions which are intended to help them to face up to what they have done. If they continue to maintain their innocence, then they will spend longer in prison and under harsher conditions than a prisoner who admits guilt. For the prisoner who really is innocent, this is a double injustice.

(You may wonder, by the way, whether it’s worth just admitting guilt even though you’re innocent. I imagine some prisoners do this, but it isn’t easy. First, it will come as a knife-thrust to the heart of any of your loved ones who have believed you so far. Second, it leads to a tangled web of lies which you may not be able to maintain. As a simple example, take the parole officer who immediately responds “then tell us where you buried the body”.)

What pastoral response should a prison chaplain give to a prisoner who claims not to be guilty? Their pastoral situation is either one of a sinner in denial or one of a victim of double injustice. The pastoral response will be dramatically different depending on the truth. But the truth is exactly what is in dispute.

One encouragement in all of this is that Jesus promises that a day of judgement will come when the truth will be fully known. “Whatever you have said in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered behind closed doors will be proclaimed from the housetops” (Luke 12:3). “Now I know only in part; then I will know fully” (1 Cor 13:12). One day the truth will be fully known and “the truth will make you free” (John 8:32).

One day. But how can we respond pastorally in the meantime? The only answer I have found in the context of prison ministry is to believe the prisoner. I might still have doubts, but in responding pastorally, I find I have to assume that the prisoner is a victim of injustice rather than a sinner in denial. And this works because as a chaplain, I have no power to save them from the injustice – that’s the task of their legal team. My role is to listen, to pray with and for the prisoner, to listen to God with and for them, to be an instrument of God’s healing, to help them grow as disciples and all the other normal tasks of a pastor. Now, it might be that the prisoner is lying. Well, that is between them and God. It might be that they eventually want to stop lying. I make it clear to prisoners that if they confessed to me that they had been lying all along, then I would respond with the delight of a pastor who accompanies a sinner in coming before the throne of grace. But unless and until such a confession is made, I will take them at their word.

Can this approach help us with those accusing the clergy of abuse? Could we allow ourselves to live with doubt whilst simultaneously saying to people, “I take you at your word”? Might we even be able to believe a claimed abuse survivor even if (despite our best efforts) we are powerless to give them justice? In fact, might our powerlessness be the essential point which sets us free to act pastorally?

If so, then when we’re told a story of abuse, we need to do everything in our power to bring the truth to light. We need to be willing to stand with the alleged survivor and seek the truth for as long as any doubt exists. And if, once we have done everything in our power, the truth is still uncertain, we need to be able to say, “We cannot give you justice, but we can take you at your word and love you and minister to you as we would any other survivor of injustice”.

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