Institutional abuse

The revelation that senior figures from the major relief charity Oxfam, whose income is £400m annually, engaged in prostitution and possibly the abuse of minors whilst doing relief work after the Haiti earthquake, has shocked the nation. That’s especially so as it emerges just how many other major charities have experienced the same, and largely winked at it, over recent years. Some in the know speak of deliberate infiltration of the charity industry (sic) by abusers.

I say the nation was shocked, but what is more shocking is how many of the commenters on news sites, including some claiming to be aid workers, have said that what charity workers do “in their spare time” is nobody else’s business and that we should all “grow up”. In many cases the point has been made that prostitutes are poor people, who need the money … which is rather the point of our outrage.

And yet in one sense the revelation is not shocking at all. I’ve been totting up just how many areas of life have been implicated in sexual abuse scandals in recent years. It began, as I remember, with the Catholic Church, but has since included other mainline churches for which priestly celibacy cannot be an explanation. Amongst these, we should also include the scandals involving Televangelists going back decades. Perhaps it is appropriate that the churches came first, since “judgement begins with the household of God”. But note how often in these cases the problems have been defined as “institutional” – and the solution ever closer safeguarding. (This last is not a bad thing in itself – in order to become an elder in my church I not only needed a police check, but Level 3 Safeguarding training. Village churches try harder than major relief organisations, apparently.)

After the churches, in Britain a few years ago we then had the bombshell that Jimmy Savile, the leading TV DJ whose popularity and charitable works in hospitals gained him a primetime TV show working with children and a knighthood, had all the time been the most predatory paedophile, paederast and abuser of young girls in British history.

This, to a limited extend, raised the lid on a culture of abuse in TV showbusiness – and to a lesser extent the one in pop music, which probably gets something of a free pass because rock and roll’s very founding identity was based on getting the girls, or the boys, or both. They scapegoated Gary Glitter and Jonathan King because they were somewhat passé and risible figures anyway: David Bowie or Jimmy Page still have hero, or even cultural icon, status, simply because of their sexual profligacy. Nobody dares accuse the rock industry of institutional abuse, because that would be to admit it is an institution, not a counter-culture. A few souls, like Tom Petty, have done so from within – from his song Joe (the record company CEO) about the abuse of female wannabes: “You get to be famous – I get to be rich…” But “institutional abuse” *has* been thrown at TV, though pundits have preferred to pick off individual targets rather than question the whole corporate ethos.

Schools and music colleges, including the celebrated Yehudi Menuhin School, have also been implicated in institutionalised abuse, and of course children’s homes – including an entire immigration policy for young people in Australia.

Government had its moment in relation to Bill Clinton, though he was too powerful an alpha male to be sanctioned in the end, but recently even the British Parliament has had women blowing the whistle on a culture of abuse. This came around the same time as the Weinstein affair suddenly showed with shock and horror that the casting couch, which even I heard about in my youth, had been operating in Hollywood “for decades” – by which we should surely read “for a century, since film started.” The longstanding nature of this particular institution’s dirty secret may not be insignificant, for it was surely in film that the rumours of illicit love became a popular fantasy, long before rock and roll took it to the extreme – my mother used to tell me that British crowds, she among them, turned out to see a visiting Hollywood star in the thirties because she had been divorced.

But apart from all these, institutional sexual abuse has happened to recruits in the armed forces (and, in Guantanemo Bay, with shock and awe, to armed forces prisoners under the excuse of doing it to “bad guys”); also in élite sports, in the theatre, in ballet, in journalism (not often trumpeted given that it’s journalists who give us the news). And now, it seems, major charities are “institutionally” abusive too, despite all the extra safeguarding – apparently you’re not only at risk from Western charity as a starving teenage girl in Haiti, but even as a teenage boy in a charity shop back home.

The unstated secret surely is that, if so many of our institutions are full of endemic sexual abuse (and others, perhaps, are simply not yet in the spotlight), it’s futile trying to fix the institutions, because it’s actually our whole culture that is institutionally abusive… or as they used to call it in the days of Noah, corrupted to its roots.

The postmodernists and feminists have an easy answer to this, blaming all power and privilege – except their own, of course. White heterosexual males, that’s the trouble. Except where it’s black males, or white females, or red and blue bisexuals. What they do have right is that it’s about power and impunity – but it’s not “theirs”, but “ours” as a society – at least as much as slavery was in previous centuries. Victims are either directly powerless and, crucially, socially inferior – or powerless because they believe they need something, whether that be the Haitian needing the money or the Hollywood actress needing the fame.

Larry Hurtado’s book Destroyer of the Gods, which I was reading this week, gives a good account of how, in Roman times, the sexual abuse of the powerless and the socially inferior was taken across society as morally unexceptionable, much like the mainstream opinion on abortion now. Marriage was actually more sacrosanct than it is nowadays – adultery for wives was unacceptable, but also, perhaps surprisingly, for males (apart, of course, from the richest, most powerful and most popular). To avoid adultery, full use was made of prostitutes (socially inferior, of coures), of slave girls (ditto), and of young teenage slave boys (ditto). Note that, as now, this is all related to social power, not sexuality… note also that, like now, the issue was seldom true paedophilia (often wrongly ascribed), but the abuse of teenagers at, or soon after, puberty – young adults are the most naive and powerless.

Note also that this was not simply a po-faced and chaste preservation of the marriage bed for men – the average civic banquet in a place like Corinth had “after dinners” in the form of low-status females (who were either slaves, or needed the money, as per Oxfam in Haiti). This bears close comparison with the recent scandal of the “President’s Club” in London, where MPs, foreign diplomats and other role-models of society indulged their privilege on fine dining, alcohol and “hostesses” – and all, of course, they raised large sums for charitable causes that needed the money, just like Jimmy Savile and Oxfam.

Hurtado points out that the remarkable thing about early Christianity, as it impacted this scene, was that it made huge behavioural demands of its adherents, particularly in this area of sexuality, and also that of idolatry. Now, one might say that what one teaches in church on Sunday doesn’t necessarily alter what happens in private in the week. There would be no church scandals if that were not the case… though one has to ask how often chastity is preached nowadays when even the subject of marriage is an ethical hot potato, and when church discipline risks litigation.

But the bigger demands on early Christians were made in the public sphere: to avoid idolatrous worship in that society meant facing massive problems with the daily veneration of household gods at home, with employment when your company or guild was dedicated to a god, with civic occasions held in honour of deities, with social relationships in an obligation society in which you would have client-relationships to social superiors expecting conventional behaviour, or with political life if, as a leader, you were expected to take your turn as a priest or sacrifice to the genius of the Emperor.

You had to be truly committed to sign up to Christianity under those terms – and you would take the commitment to sexual morality equally seriously, and would be seriously out of step with society for so doing. Not only was the morality behind Christian sexual teaching unique – the honour of marriage as analogous to the faithfulness of Christ and as a sign of God’s good creation. It was also teaching that was given to men, women, free, slave, civic leader and ex-prostitute within the same public meetings. This is, on consideration, an astonishing and revolutionary thing. (Incidentally, I ought to add in passing, since many Christians are ignorant of it, that refusal to abort babies, as well as exposure of unwanted infants, marked Christians, like Jews, as oddballs during the centuries when Christianity was a minority faith.)

Have you ever considered (as Hurtado does) how revolutionary it is in Paul’s letters that a master should be told to treat his slaves with respect as brothers in Christ as the slaves were listening in the same worship service. Social differences were not abolished, but they were greatly relativized by the gospel. In the churches, the socially-inferior woman had a voice, and lack of money could be brought to the church as a need, not to a lustful aid-worker as a proposition. Remember that St Nicholas’s famous gifts of gold were to rescue a poor man’s daughters from the street. The good-looking teenage boy knew what Christ had commanded his master (if, at least, the master claimed to be in Christ), because he was in the same room when the teaching was delivered. And the churches were not afraid, it seems, to discipline offenders in public.

In short, the despised teaching that respected not only marriage, but the socially inferior as equals in the Lord, left no space for the Roman double-standard, any more than it leaves for modernity’s double-standard. “Growing up”, before the sexual revolution, meant something other than initiation into exploitation – except for the careless and degenerate aristocracy we now despise. And that’s why the apostles’ teaching replaced the double-standard in public morality, though of course not in all individual practice, for 1700 years, until secular rationality began to call it puritannical and repressive, and told us all how sexual freedom would inevitably lead to sexual health and good vibes all round.

Only that isn’t how it’s turned out, unless “sexual health” means more treatments for escalating sexually transmitted infection, which is fast ceasing to be the case because of antibiotic resistance. The myth, which suits the powerful, is that prostitution is a woman-empowering profession, that pornography is victimless, that “adult” entertainment is the opposite of “naive” prudery, and that exploitation of children via sexting (by their own peers, learning to abuse) and grooming (by older people, who have already learned) is only an unfortunate and inevitable side-effect of social media to be held back by more counselling and yet more safeguarding. For every moral corruption we believe we have an institutional fix. But are institutional evils ever solved by the institutions themselves, or only by those repudiating the institutions?

And when even all the laudable freedoms of our society fail to satisfy the urge of the powerful to control others through sex, then we can simply export the whole bloody shambles and call it “development aid”.

Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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