It is a week before Good Friday. The Archbishops of Canterbury and York are re-enacting the Passion Play. The prelates take the part of Pontius Pilate – the archetypal political opportunist around whom pivots the denouement of the Passion. Pilate’s melodramatic and stunningly symbolic ritual of washing his hands has become a colourful and compelling metaphor for the artful evasion of responsibility at the highest level of authority.
Archbishop John Sentamu is standing in a queue before Pilate’s washbasin. He is waiting his turn. A bevy of bishops are dipping their hands into the shallow pool of sophistry and prevarication. They are chanting the absolution from the Church of England’s liturgy for Safeguarding and Child Protection. ‘It’s not my problem. It’s someone else’s problem.’ Amen.
They are shepherds and guardians of the flock. Fr Matthew Ineson is a member of that flock. Ineson complains that another vicar repeatedly raped him when he was 16 years old. He wants the Pilates in purple to give him justice. He appeals to Peter Burrows, Bishop of Doncaster. ‘That bishop did nothing,’ says Ineson. ‘Nothing.’
Ineson hopes that the other magnificent men in mitres will shield him with their staff and apply the balm of Gilead to his wounded soul. Like Bunyan’s Pilgrim he sets off to meet Steven Croft, Bishop of Sheffield; Martyn Snow, Bishop of Leicester; Glyn Webster, Bishop of Beverly; Roy Williamson, Bishop of Bradford (retired); and finally the Archbishops of York and Canterbury. But each time he says he is shoved into the Slough of Despond and the bishops ceremoniously wash Fr Matt’s muck off their hands.
‘It’s not my problem. It’s someone else’s problem.’ Amen - Absolution from the New Liturgy of Safeguarding
Ineson is calling on the bishops to resign over their handling of his complaints. This month he has been parading Sentamu before the judiciary of the mainstream media, social media and blogosphere. A Data Protection Act request has unearthed a memo that would make Pilate look like an amateur.
The memo deals with Ineson and the suicide of his alleged abuser. It is headed: ‘For the attention of the Archbishop.’ It ends with THERE IS NO NEED FOR YOU TO TAKE ANY ACTION. THE NATIONAL TEAM ARE MANAGING THE CASE. The last box on the memo is for ‘Archbishop’s Response’. The second highest-ranking cleric in the global Anglican Communion sums up his response to the suicide of one priest and the alleged rape of another in a single word: NOTED.
Earlier in the week, Justin Welby has been dragged before the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA). Welby is not so foolish as to stand on the balcony of Lambeth Palace with a washbasin and towel. He has watched Sentamu and other bishops wash their hands using distilled water and carbolic soap. He has observed the media backlash.
At the hearing, Fiona Scolding QC socks it to Welby. ‘The other thing that we have seen a lot of in respect of leadership, or some people would say we have seen a lot of, is shifting the blame,’ she says. ‘Yes,’ replies Welby, carefully picking his monosyllable. Scolding lands an uppercut on the archbishop’s jaw. ‘Everybody admitting that it was partly their responsibility and they're sorry for that, but actually, “It wasn’t really my responsibility and these are the 15 reasons why somebody else was responsible for it”.’ Welby knows when he’s out for the count. ‘Sure,’ he mumbles his second monosyllable.
A Data Protection Act request has unearthed a memo that would make Pilate look like an amateur.
But soon, with Machiavellian cunning, Welby spins Pilate’s washbasin strategy at dizzying speeds like a schoolboy spinning his top. He spits righteous outrage at Pilate’s washbasin. ‘Nobody can say it is not my fault. It is so absurd,’ says Welby. ‘To say, “I have heard about a problem but it was someone else’s job to report it”, that is not an acceptable human response, let alone a leadership response. If you know a child is being abused, not to report it is simply wrong, for every human being.’ Bravo, bravissimo, Archbishop Justin!
Ineson tweets back to the Arch of Cant: ‘Tell that to @JohnSentamu who ignored my disclosure & 5 years on (5 years my abuser was left to abuse again) now says it wasn’t his job, it was @Steven_croft’s. Problem is neither of them have the decency to apologise & @c_of_e hasn't got the decency to hold them to account.’
He’s right. Aren’t these just ‘words, words, words’ that sicken Eliza Doolittle? Why isn’t Welby calling for the resignation of his opposite number in York?
Ah! But what if this is precisely what Welby is doing? The mob on the portico of Pilate’s palace is baying for Jesus’s blood. The best way to feed the hungry sharks is to throw them a steak. Pilate gives the mob a choice. He lines up a terrorist named Jesus Barabbas alongside Jesus of Nazareth. Pilate is not too fussed about whom the crowd will choose. After all, they have the same first name, ‘Jesus’!
Why isn’t Welby calling for the resignation of his opposite number in York?
Barabbas is Pilate’s joker in the pack. With Faustian foresight Welby has struck a bargain with Mephistopheles and crucified other bishops at the altar of public relations – the dead Bishop George Bell and former Archbishop George Carey. Now it’s time to throw Sentamu to the sharks. If he has not shredded every fibre of self-respect, though, Sentamu should resign immediately.
Pilate is a postmodernist. He has three principles. Power is absolute. Truth is relative. Survival is non-negotiable. Pilate makes Jesus of Nazareth the scapegoat that allows him to survive in power at the expense of truth.
After scapegoating Bell and Carey, Welby magically produces a number of sacrificial lambs he can lead straight to the slaughter. He pretends the problem is factionalism. ‘A lot of it goes down to tribalism within the Church. Different groups who felt the liberty of defending their own position, right or wrong.’ To claim that tribalism leads to sexual abuse is a high jump of faith only an Olympic athlete would attempt. Welby’s solution is to ‘introduce diversity in training’.
He blames clergy and laity in the parish. The Twitterati erupts with indignation. ‘This is appalling deflection. It’s not PCCs, CWs and Parish Clergy who have routinely undermined safeguarding protocols, passed the buck and allowed space for child abuse to continue is it. No, it’s Bishops and Archdeacons. Blame the small guys. Nothing changes,’ tweets Gareth Jones, Crown Court Chaplain.
Ultimately, the real scapegoat is truth. ‘What is truth?’ asks Welby, in his poshest Roman accent. Pilate survives to this day. Every time we recite the Apostles Creed or the Nicene Creed we remember that Jesus was ‘crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate’. And at every rock concert when the heavy metal group Megadeth belt out their song Elysian Fields from the Youthanasia album, they are singing the line ‘Pontius Pilate is still washing his hands . . .’