Jonathan Fletcher and the CofE: here’s another fine mess

Reading the recent ‘independent’ report into the case of Jonathan Fletcher, one-time vicar of Emmanuel Church, Wimbledon (ECW), is enough to make you despair. And not only of the failings of the Church of England, the Diocese of Southwark and all the other mitred and robed ‘usual suspects’ involved. Nobody emerges from this disaster unscathed – and I am including the congregation and non-senior leadership of ECW in that comment.

Jonathan Fletcher was an Anglican clergyman. He carried out alleged abuses from 1982 until his retirement in 2012 when he was vicar of this church in London.

Anyone wishing to depress themselves by reading the report of the ‘investigation’ into the wreckage of human lives and the reputation of the Gospel in Wimbledon can do so here. If, however, you are hoping for any answers in terms of actual accountability of individuals, or of how this appalling mess was allowed, if not facilitated, then forget it.

As Martin Sewell said recently on the Archbishop Cranmer blog:

If you are looking for a clear exposé of those who were complicit in the abuse by their silence, by looking the other way, or by closing their minds to the obvious, you will not find it. Names are not named: this was not permitted by the terms of reference set by Emmanuel Wimbledon.

If you seek clear chronologies setting out who did what to whom and when, thereby enabling the abuse of others through a culture of obedience and sotto voce threats of exclusion for non-compliance, you will also be disappointed. Such detail is simply not there: it was not allowed.”

This begs the question as to who set these parameters for the review panel. Oh yes, that would be the er, review panel itself, apparently – including the ‘lead representative of the Commissioning Group for ECW’. So discussions were held to determine the scope of the review – with input (read into that what you will) from the very organisation under consideration by the review. Independent? Robust? Answers on a postcard, please.

The very fact that this report is based on a ‘Lessons Learned Review’ is problematic. In the UK, as no doubt in the US, we are plagued by the stock response of ‘lessons will be/have been learned’, whenever anything ugly raises its head in the public arena. What this fatuous stock phrase actually means is, ‘nobody will be held accountable but we will seem to have done something’. Instead, we see a lot of hand-wringing, fake apologies – e.g. ‘I’m sorry if you were offended [subtext: this isn’t an apology for my wrongdoing, it’s an apology for your possible feelings]’ – and promises to do better next time – subject to resources being made available, of course.

“A Lessons Learned Review is not a formal fact-finding investigation but is to provide an external individual or organisation the opportunity to gather and analyse information from a range of sources in relation to an event or series of events in order to draw evidence-based conclusions and make recommendations.”

Right. So what exactly constitutes ‘facts’ here? What the report shows is a lot of generality, waffle and excuse-making, at the same time as providing a timeline of the alleged abuses. I’m not sure what ‘evidence’ counts here, as no criminal charges have been forthcoming. All we have are allegations.

Having gone through the report in full, I re-focused in on the section ‘Why it took such a long period of time for the abuse allegations to come to light.’ Apart from identifying the alleged abuses, this would seem to be one of the principal issues in the review. So what do we find? Waffle, that’s what. The first sentence under this heading reads thus:

The answer to this question is complex and multi-faceted and reviewed thematically in this section of the report.”

Ah yes, complex and multi-faceted. Here’s a word of advice folks, from an old pro with years of experience in recognising BS when she sees it (I was a university head of department). Postmodernists, liberals, ‘activists’ and assorted other social-demolition experts, all love to preface their inane word-salad answers to straight questions with ‘Well, it’s complex and multi-faceted.’ For which read, ‘What I am about to say is BS dressed up as an answer with lots of fluffy words that mean nothing, but they make me look clever. I’m counting on you not be clever enough to see through me.’

Well you’ve picked the wrong person with me, pal. I have a highly sensitive BS radar and I know all the fluffy words. As we say here in Yorkshire, ‘You can’t polish a turd’. Sorry for that, but we are talking about a lot of excrement here.

In this case, the question ‘Why did it take so long for the abuse allegations to be come to light?’ has a fairly simple answer:

Quite a few, perhaps many, people at ECW knew there was some odd, not right, dodgy and problematic stuff going on, BUT CHOSE TO SAY AND DO NOTHING IN PUBLIC.

That’s it. folks. CHOSE TO SAY AND DO NOTHING. At least in public. Are we seriously to believe that there were no phone conversations, dinner table discussions, coffee chats or whatever, between men and women in ECW about what they were seeing or hearing? Over a period of 30 years?

This question leads me to the main point I want to make here. What the heck is it about Christian congregations that makes them so gullible and stupid? Not say criminally negligent? Jesus didn’t sit back and let abuses go unchallenged. Look at how he dealt with the Pharisees and the money changers in the Temple. So why do so many Christians just ignore rumblings of abuse and other forms of dodgy behaviour? I’ll tell you why – for a quiet life. So as not to rock the boat. So as not to lose members. To keep the numbers up, with all that goes with that.

Having been a Christian since childhood and having been a member of many churches over my life as I have moved around, I have come across abuse – indirectly – in several places of worship. My parents and sister were social workers. I used to work in the NHS in England. We all saw, professionally, many examples of physical, emotional and sexual abuse in our clients and patients. Yet within church over the years, we have equally seen levels of gullibility, stupidity, willfully selective blindness, passing-the-buck and brushing-under-the-carpet that would make an ostrich with its head in the sand blush.

At one stage of my career I relocated for a new job and started attending at a cathedral. It was soon explained to me, unofficially, by several folks, that we had a new director of music, because the last one had been ‘up to no good with the choirboys’. Result? He had been shunted off to another cathedral to no doubt repeat his behaviours there. The same church also contained a prominent citizen who was locked up eventually for interfering with the a young lad in church, whose parents had been oblivious. Another church I attended years later saw a priest locked up for interfering with his team of servers after many years. Another church, also years later, suffered a huge split because the vicar insisted on accommodating a known, convicted child sex offender in church; this was decided because of ‘grace and forgiveness’ for the man – but never mind the families with young children. Many families voted with their feet and left, resulting in wounds that took years to scar over. The same church had a male parishioner who was found to have been sending highly inappropriate text messages to vulnerable women in the congregation; when reported to the vicar, he sent an apologetic text to one victim that I know of. And that was it. The man remained in church doing his Sunday roles and the recipients of his texts had to walk past him on their way in every Sunday. This was illegal harassment at the very least. And those are just the situations I knew about. There will have been many more unrecognised messes in those churches too.

What we see in the ‘answers’ to the complex and multi-faceted situation as given in this report is a series of excuses and waffle dressed as responses to the question. Anyone wishing to see the gobbeldygook word-for-word can look here at Section C3 of the ‘Lessons Learned Review Findings’.

The authors of the report appear to be utterly unaware (or deeply disingenuous) that this section, combined with Section C1 (‘A comprehensive picture of Jonathan Fletcher’s activities in relation to the alleged harm caused to individuals’), provides a perfect illustration of how abusers operate and get away with it. In these two sections we see a description of the numerous ‘activities’ that Fletcher engaged in for years, in plain sight, WITHOUT A SINGLE REPERCUSSION TO HIM, plus a set of excuses for why this was allowed to happen.

No – let’s go further: let’s just say that this abuse (alleged, of course!) was not only allowed to happen, IT WAS FACILITATED by the leadership and those congregants who knew of it, BUT WHO CHOSE TO STAY QUIET.

Am I being harsh? Well let’s take a look. Here are some of the principal accounts provided to the review panel:

verbal evidence of psychological domination, manipulation and bullying;

the minimisation of harm was evident in accounts where terms such as ‘public school banter’ served to excuse or diminish the impact of the behaviour on many participants;

people who were not up to the grade would be humiliated;

accounts of coercive and controlling behaviours;

correspondence [was] one of his chief tools for manipulation;

JF was suspected of misuse of funds and unaccountability for money;

personal work provided an opportunity for JF to build close relationships with those around him, which would make it easier for him to later engage in other potentially harmful behaviours [i.e. grooming];

in Bible studies, a number of participants recall[ed] being asked about masturbation;

JF required or pressured young men to share in naked showers, naked saunas and naked massages;

“JF employed various sanctions in response to information I disclosed to him. These included being beaten with a gym shoe and taking cold baths”.

Let’s think about this for a minute. If you heard of any one of the issues listed above, would you not at least consider raising it with church leadership formally? Or the diocese? And if that did not work, then what about considering bringing in the police? No?

Section C3 gives all the usual excuses. Fletcher was a good man; he preached well; he was in charge; he was a vicar; he taught well; he was just eccentric; he helped people; he was kind and generous, he was charismatic. Ah yes, charismatic.

You bet he was. This is exactly how predators operate. They cover their tracks by doing lots of good things, with the express purpose of using these to defend themselves should any allegations arise. What, me? Good old me? You surely don’t believe that, do you?

When I worked at Leeds General Infirmary, I came across Jimmy Savile quite a lot. For US readers, Savile was a high-profile TV and radio presenter for decades, with the BBC. He was famous for his charity work and received awards and many personal benefits because of all that. Much of his work was done as a volunteer at Leeds General Infirmary in Yorkshire (he lived in Leeds). After his death in 2011, it became apparent that he had used his positions at the BBC and as a charity worker to commit huge numbers of abuses on the vulnerable aged between five and seventy five years, for over six decades. His accusers and various whistleblowers during his lifetime were not believed, for virtually all the same sort of reasons that Section C3 delineates about Fletcher. Savile was one of the most charismatic, eccentric individuals I have ever met. He did a lot of good. But it was to cover up his abuses and to enable him to continue with them. That’s how it works.

My point here is simple. This is yet another mess for the Church of England. Yes, ECW is a proprietary chapel, but it comes under the Diocese of Southwark. And here we are in 2021 with a history of leaders and church members who knew something was wrong, for decades, but chose to stay quiet – allowing the continued alleged abuse of many young men. This review doesn’t answer any of the big questions. It is not clear if any referrals have been made to the police. If they have, I haven’t heard or read about it anywhere.

ECW released a statement that said:

We are profoundly grieved by the abuse suffered by those affected by Jonathan Fletcher, and we pray for them, their friends and their families. We also recognise that this Review raises wider issues relating to the culture of a broader network of which we are a part.

We see repentance as central to the Christian life, and so we commit to reflecting humbly and prayerfully on each of the specific recommendations made in the Review, to listening widely to other voices, and to talking openly about the lessons we can learn.”

Oh good. That’s ok then. If they can humbly and prayerfully commit to behaving properly now, why couldn’t they do so before? This goes for all churches, not just ECW. I suspect we are now likely to see a number of similar cases coming up in the press from independent churches too – where pastors often have absolutely no accountability frameworks in place – other than “God put me here” and ‘Touch not the Lord’s annointed”. Watch this space.

The Independent Advisory Group, who helped the review panel, say this in their summary:

And so, our prayer is that through the publication of the Review, and the ensuing public discussion, to which this is our contribution, those who were Fletcher’s victims may begin to find an increasing measure of justice and consolation as they see the compassion, love and truth of Jesus embodied in the response of CE churches who name Him as their Saviour.”

On what planet does a review, publicity and public discussion grant any ‘measure of justice and consolation’ to those who reported being abused by this clergyman? What exactly constitutes the ‘compassion, love and truth of Jesus embodied in the response of CE churches’? And if they ‘name Him as their Saviour’ now, where were they when all this was going on? On a break?

Since when does prayer suffice in cases like this? Can we imagine a report on the corporate abuse of individuals from, say, Silicon Valley, or a US or European car giant, ending with ‘we’re sorry and we’re praying for the victims’?

Words fail me. Well, almost.

One thought on “Jonathan Fletcher and the CofE: here’s another fine mess

  1. Pingback: Jonathan Fletcher and the CofE: here’s another fine mess – View from the Crow’s Nest | Fulcrum Anglican

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