Blackmail, closets and naked ambition

I have recently finished reading Frederic Martel’s book In the closet of the Vatican – Power, Homosexuality, Hypocrisy.

in the closet of the vatican

It is a meticulously researched book about the Vatican and those in power there. One of its conclusions is that those in power in the Vatican, especially pope emeritus Benedict XVI, have been fighting the wrong battle. Martel shows that in campaigning against homosexuality and homosexuals, the church has created a culture where clerical child abuse and abuse of vulnerable adults can thrive. By fighting something which is legal, loving and between consenting adults, it has not only failed to focus on protecting the vulnerable, but has created an environment where protection of the institution has been put above protecting the vulnerable. The book makes compelling reading.

A key feature of Martel’s argument is that if someone who is homosexual in the church finds out about child abuse, they find it very problematic to report that abuse because of the threat of blackmail. ‘If you report me for child abuse, I’ll report that you are homosexual and tell them about your boyfriend.’ There are too many instances where the outed homosexual cleric has been reduced to the status of laity and the abuser has been moved with only a slap on the wrist. As the British security services discovered, when people are forced to stay in the closet, they are liable to blackmail and bigger secrets can be left unreported.

For the record, Martel suggests three steps that he considers essential if the Catholic Church is to deal effectively with child abuse, (i) end clerical celibacy, (ii) accept homosexuality and (iii) ordain women.

This has led me to consider how this would play out in the Church of England today.

Imagine a situation where a report about child abuse is made to a bishop, but the source is not entirely credible, or there is a lack of proof. They decide to be diligent and investigate anyway. Until the blackmail threat arrives – drop the investigation and cover it up or the fact that they are homosexual will be made public, along with the information about his same-sex partner, bringing with it the threat that ‘You will be finished in this diocese’.

If that bishop were the CEO of a UK company, they could simply call a press conference, come out, call the police and report the blackmail. Diligence and integrity rewarded. Anyone in the Church of England doing that would find that their chances of career advancement would be over.

The thing about being vulnerable to blackmail is that once you have covered up one thing, it becomes harder to deal openly with anything else.

It could also lead to the, hypothetical, case of a bishop covering up some reported incident, so that they can stay in the closet and years later the reports come out anyway. Then that bishop faces condemnation for a safeguarding failure by not acting on reports of abuse and the only way to defend their inaction would be to admit they were being pressurised to keep quiet. For them it is lose-lose, they either willingly covered up abuse or they admit to being in the closet. Either way it will be difficult to remain in post.

We need a climate of openness and honesty. As the Very Revd Jeffrey John reminded us all recently in his powerful Voices of Hope reflection, based on John 8.32, ‘the truth will set you free’.  This is available to read here.  We need a climate where truth can set us free. Free to be who we are, free to be honest about the problems in the church and free to set about building a safe church environment where the kingdom of God can flourish.

It has been over six years since the House of Bishops in the Church of England concluded that there was no impediment to those in a civil partnership being ordained to the episcopate.   Report available here.  The important part is item 7, which confirmed ‘that the requirements … concerning the eligibility for ordination of those in civil partnerships whose relationships are consistent with the teaching of the Church of England apply equally in relation to the episcopate.’

The relevant documentation affirming this is GS Misc 44 CHOOSING BISHOPS – THE EQUALITY ACT 2010 (REVISED).  This can be accessed here.  [Note – this document dates from before women were admitted to the episcopate, so all references are male.]

The most important sections are # 25, 28 and 30.

25. A person’s sexual orientation is, in itself, irrelevant to their suitability for episcopal office or indeed ordained ministry more generally. It would, therefore, be wrong if, during the consideration of a nomination to a diocesan see by the CNC or the selection process for a suffragan see, account were taken of the fact that a candidate had identified himself as of homosexual orientation.
28. It follows that clergy in civil partnerships who are living in accordance with the teaching of the Church on human sexuality can be considered as candidates for the episcopate.
30. As in the case of divorce and further marriage, the fact that there may be those who are in a non-sexually active civil partnership who have been added to the preferment list does not mean that the CNC, or the diocesan bishop and those advising him in relation to a suffragan nomination, are thereby precluded from imposing a requirement that anyone in a civil partnership cannot be nominated to the particular office concerned. Those responsible for making the nomination are entitled in law to reach a judgement on whether the fact that someone is in a civil partnership would prove an obstacle to nomination given the strongly held religious convictions of a significant number of those worshipping members of the Church of England to whom the bishop concerned would (once appointed) be ministering.

The Pilling report (GS 1929), did not have a problem with ordaining homosexual bishops either. It required all candidates for ordination to abide by the church’s policies, without discrimination.   Yet in the years since the House of Bishops’ decision in December 2012, no openly gay bishop has been appointed, either in a civil partnership or single.

It is interesting that since 2012, the Church of England has decided to ordain women bishops and so far there are 19 female bishops selected.   The first ever female bishop was announced less than 6 months after the decision.

In 2012, the House of Bishops initiated the Turning Up the Volume programme to increase the number of BAME clergy in senior appointments within the Church of England. This has led to more BAME bishops, including the first female BAME bishop – the Bishop of Loughborough.

Yet we are still waiting for the appointment of a bishop who is openly homosexual – male or female, partnered or single.  Anyone who has ambition in the church will get the message that staying in the closet is that only way to be considered for advancement.   Making the closet unnecessary would make the church a better place for all of us.