Sunday, 29 December 2013

Benefit of Clergy

One of the main causes of friction before the Reformation was the differences between Secular Courts and Church Courts. Clergy were tried according to the "Privilegium clericale", and were in essence, outside the law of the land. The priest is to be exempt from the laws that are binding on ordinary people.
The leaked letter from Tim Dakin, Bishop of Winchester, to Robert Key, Dean of Jersey says:
"whatever the local law may seek to impose on you, you may not agree to follow it when my lawful requirements require you to do otherwise"
This is an extraordinary statement to make, and one which Bishop Tim Dakin will find it hard to live down. While it is clear from the letter that he is referring specifically to the Ecclesiastical Court in Jersey, it should be remembered that Canon Law in the Church of England in both Jersey and the UK is no longer a special province of the church, but enshrined as part of the general law of the land, passed by the Privy Council, and on the Statute books.
And yet, pleading what can only be described as "benefit of clergy", Tim Dakin says that "this is my court", and it therefore cannot be in opposition to him. This high handed and cavalier attitude may go some way to explaining why he employs Luther Pendragon to handle press communications, something that few other Bishops that I have come across have ever done - and I've had the odd friendly e-mail exchange with several -  Andrew Burnham, former Bishop of Ebbsfleet, and Tom Wright former Bishop of Durham. There was no indication of vetting by any agency before they replied.
Another "benefit of clergy" has recently been highlighted on another blog, that the Freedom Church had at their open day, apparently a convicted paedophile, who the blog says was allegedly with others handing out lollipops to children in the nearby Millennium Park during their open day at the former Odeon Site, to encourage families to look around.
There is certainly a case for forgiveness in the Christian tradition, but this, if true, does seem an extraordinary thing to permit. Certainly there have to be avenues for people who have been convicted of such crimes to rehabilitate themselves, but not where there can be close proximity to children.
Suppose a cubs group wanted to use a volunteer to help them hand out leaflets publicising some event. Suppose they had someone doing this who had been charged and sentenced for two years in 2010 for 'sexualised' children as young as 12 when working in a position of trust as a care worker. Surely this would be regarded as dangerous. Even helpers at cubs group, even when parents themselves, still have to have a police check. If something was flagged up like this, they would not be allowed to work with the cubs group.
It is all very well to say someone like that will be "monitored" by an organisation, but gaining the trust of children when monitored begs the question of what may happen at other times when they are not with the organisation, and hence not monitored. A cubs group certainly would not adopt such a high risk policy. And if it did, the media would no doubt descend upon it.
I was discussing this with some friends, non of them church goers, nor particularly politically motivated, but all thought it showed an extraordinary lack of judgment by Freedom Church, and some of them work with young children, and know all about child protection checks. It's rather like giving a reformed alcoholic a job in a pub.
But different rules seem to apply to churches; it is our old friend "benefit of clergy" again.  And when it is brought to public attention, it becomes invisible. There is a photo in the JEP which gave the people at the open day, and listed them by name:
"Freedom Church open day. l to r Tim ---, Andrew ---, [name redacted], Jenn ---, John ---, Philippa---, Louise ---, front Micah ---  , Phoebe ---  , Phoebe ---  and Peter ---" - and some of those listed are children of 10 or under.
As I do not want to start a witch hunt, I have removed the name of the person convicted of sexual abuse of minors; and hidden the surnames of the others, it is for the church and the authorities to take steps to address the issue. Some of my fellow bloggers may disagree, but rather than name and shame, I think that highlighting the issue rather than the individual is what is paramount.
What is also worth noting, however, is that while it is not reporting on the issue, the Jersey Evening Post has pulled the picture with the caption from their online store of images. It was available, as Google Cache shows, but it is not there now.
The Evening Post is being more cautious than the bloggers, although this may be seen as a conspiracy theory by some. It apparently wants to avoid any potential embarrassment for the church at this stage, and any potential for defamation - there are, for instance, no photos of the alleged handing out of lollipops. My fellow bloggers will probably disagree with this assessment, but journalists do have to abide by a code of conduct.
Nevertheless, the matter should certainly not be swept under the carpet. There is no place for "benefit of clergy", any special pleading for Christian organisations that somehow sets them apart from the rules that govern child protection for any other organisation.
Orwell, writing about Dali, had this to say on "Benefit of Clergy":
"The artist is to be exempt from the moral laws that are binding on ordinary people. Just pronounce the magic word 'Art', and everything is O.K..So long as you can paint well enough to pass the test, all shall be forgiven you."
In our day, it seems that an apt rephrasing could read:
"The religious organisation is to be exempt from the moral laws that are binding on ordinary people. Just pronounce the magic word 'religion', and everything is O.K..So long as you can pray well enough to pass the test, all shall be forgiven you."
Despite the vicissitudes of history, "Benefit of clergy" is still alive and well in Jersey today.

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