Society of sexual snoopers

All the clergy are obliged to attend safeguarding courses which are designed to help us spot the physical, emotional or sexual abuse of children or adults. Dutiful as ever, I went along to Hailsham Parish Church to do my bit. But of course it was nothing like a parish church. Fifty years ago there would have been pews, copies of The Book of Common Prayer and other unmistakeable signs of traditional country town Anglicanism. Not these days. The pews had been wrenched out, there were no Prayer Books, only copies of some awful modern version of Holy Writ – a sort of Bad News Bible. Colour posters everywhere. Slogans. Pictures of the parish clergy – only you couldn’t tell they were clergy. They wore jeans, t-shirts, polo necks and other emblems of today’s ecclesiastical with-it-ness. Banana-split grins and pasty faces, as if they had spent too long in the crypt coffee bar.

About thirty of us sat in small groups at tables set out where the pews once were. There was a screen and there was about to be a presentation by our safeguarding tutor, a retired schoolmistress of forbidding countenance and stentorian insistence. Think Fairy Hardcastle in C.S Lewis’ That Hideous Strength. When she spoke, she used words – but not as we speak in the street: “Vulnerable…mechanisms…sharing” and others from the whole glossary of politically correct psychobabble. Our tutor was not without religion and she began with a prayer in which she helpfully informed the Almighty that we were meeting to discuss “very serious matters.” When she had finished putting God in the picture, she moved on to tell us things we perhaps had not noticed hitherto: “Children talk to one another.” We might usefully listen to them in order to pick up any suggestions from the subject of their talk which betrayed evidence of abuse.

Cut to the screen and a video of children talking to – and shouting and screaming at – one another. It reminded me of accidental glimpses I occasionally used to catch of such television shows as EastEnders or Grange Hill. The children used phrases such as “You’re doin’ mi ‘ead in!” and, whispered, “This is going to be our secret.” By these signs we might suspect that the children were using the argot they had picked up from abusive adults. Ken Loach would have rejoiced to observe that video’s raw actualite.

When incidents of abuse are suspected and reported, the Social Services might get involved. Our tutor surprised some of us by saying, “Social Services don’t barge in and remove children from the family home.” What then was the substance of the frequent newspaper reports we read of their doing exactly that? I wondered whether, in any particular case, the effects of calling in the Social Services might make a bad situation worse. But the tutor told us that such a decision was not our responsibility. All that was required of us was to report the matter to our safeguarding officer, “Then you’ve done your job.” This is the substance of the quotation from T. S. Eliot with which I began: in the safeguarding “mechanism,” ethics is replaced by process and moral problems are effectually demoralised as the system takes over and I am not deemed capable of formimg my own judgements as to the best way to proceed. Just report it to the safeguarding officer. Job done. The excuse, “I was only obeying orders” comes to mind.

And such a system it is! There is a full-time safeguarding supremo and he supervises many assistants throughout the diocese. And most other institutions and professions – teachers, youth workers, nurses, the Social Services themselves – deploy a similar regime. Even my taxi driver said he was obliged to attend a safeguarding course and asked, particularly regarding his women passengers, to “keep my eyes open for signs of abuse.” The image is of a ubiquitous, paranoid system in which everyone is spying on everyone else and watching his own back at the same time. Indeed, our tutor told us: “Safeguarding includes safeguarding yourself.” As with all bureaucratic systems – especially in what are now called “the caring professions” – there is that uneasy combination of callousness and sentimentality.

Naturally, we were given infantilised exercises: small bits of card with “typical signs of abuse” itemised and we were invited to assess whether a woman’s bruises were caused accidentally or by violence; or a child’s sleeplessness might suggest sexual abuse. “Watch out for changes in eating habits. What would you conclude from observing that a young person was constantly hungry and even scavenging waste bins for food?”

I’m afraid I couldn’t resist: “I would conclude Jeremy Corbyn had become prime minister.”

But in the safeguarding workshop’s pervading atmosphere of political-correctness, jokes are no laughing matter.

Some suspected/reported incidents of abuse give rise to grave concerns. For example, we were told of a teacher who had sent what was alleged to be an ambiguous email message to a pupil. Did it contain sexual references? The recipient didn’t think so, but others did and they called the police. No charges were brought against the teacher but, because an official complaint had been made, he was put on the register of sex offenders. This is scandalously unjust: the teacher was neither convicted nor even charged with any offence, and yet he was punished as if he had been proven guilty.

There are many such abuses of natural justice in the paranoid, surveillance-driven society which safeguarding has created. The worst of these arise from the safeguarding dogma that the “victim” is always to be believed. But the so called “victim” is not a victim until a perpetrator has been identified and the fact proven. Currently in the diocese of Chichester there is being played out one case involving such a spectacular injustice that it is scarcely believable in a free and open society. George Bell, Bishop of Chichester during the Second World War, was recently accused of committing a sexual offence against a woman. This would be particularly difficult to prove since Bishop Bell died in 1958. That presents no problem for the Church of England authorities. In keeping with safeguarding’s article of faith that the “victim” must always be believed, they have removed all memorials to Bishop Bell so that in effect he has become what in the Soviet regime was called a non-person.

There has been no trial. The word of his accuser has been accepted as the truth concerning an incident which, it is alleged, took place at least fifty-nine years ago! She has been allowed to retain her anonymity. And the Church of England has paid her an undisclosed amount of money in compensation.

Palpable injustices such as that visited upon the memory of George Bell are the signature behaviour of totalitarian states.

We don’t do these things in England, do we?©

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2 Comments on Society of sexual snoopers

  1. When I worked in a school, I was subjected to a ‘Safeguarding’ lecture, given by a verbose, and self important former headmistress. As well as the instructions detailed in Revd. Mullen’s article, we were told that should a girl suffer anaphylactic shock, as a result of a bee sting or similar, on no account were we to administer the adrenaline, that known sufferers carried with them, since this counted as a ‘medical procedure’, but to fetch the nurse (who was usually in a building five minutes run away)whilst, one assumes, leaving the poor child gasping for breath on the floor. I hope that most of us would, if called upon, have ignored this instruction.

  2. If measures such as these succeed in preventing another Rochdale type episode they may well be a price worth paying. My fear, however, is that such schemes will largely fail to prevent occurrences of actual abuse and will instead give rise to outcomes redolent of Arthur Miller’s ‘The Crucible’. Indeed, this seems to be the lesson to be taken from Peter’s account of the Bishop Bell incident. What was it we used to say? ~ That the road to hell is paved with good intentions.