That could be the mission statement of the Crown Prosecution Service, the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church.
It was said, of course, by Caiaphas, the High Priest, to justify the killing of Jesus Christ. It is interesting that the main Christian churches in Britain now subscribe to his view. They do not, I accept, seek to excuse the pharisees for demanding Christ’s death. But they agree with the pharisees that it is better to seek to destroy the reputations of good men than to allow the possibility of criticism of themselves.
You may be finding this diatribe a little obscure. Let me try to explain.
There can be no doubt that, in times past, many secular and church authorities behaved abominably in covering up appalling crimes committed by evil sexual predators. Ireland, in particular, allowed horrific sexual assaults on children to be committed by Catholic priests without batting an eyelid. I thank God that those days are now over.
But what has come about instead?
It was with a heavy heart that I read the obituary last week of an obviously wonderful man. The Right Reverend Michael Perham, Bishop of Gloucester, was accused, in the last days of his ministry, of having committed a sexual assault in the 1980s. He was required to retire early. He then had to undergo about a year of investigations into the allegations. They were without any foundation whatsoever. Even the Crown Prosecution Service, which generally considers that any allegation of sexual assault should be brought to trial even if obviously untrue, finally agreed that the charges were baseless. The Church of England then took another seven months to decide to allow the Bishop to resume his ministry. Can you imagine the misery that poor man went through while the authorities, thinking only of themselves and caring not a damn for the Bishop or for justice, prevaricated?
I remember the case of the only man I knew who was undoubtedly a living saint. Father Michael Hollings was a distinguished war hero. This is the citation for his MC awarded in 1942:
“During the whole engagement, as on all previous occasions, this officer showed outstanding powers of leadership. Towards the end of the fighting he was shot through the throat but made no effort to obtain medical treatment and continued to carry out his duties until, as part of the plan of action, he had disengaged his Platoon from the enemy. The Platoon then had to march for some miles, during which time he kept insisting that his injury was of no consequence. When later he reported to the Regimental Aid Post and was evacuated, it was found that his wound was of the gravest nature and must have caused him great pain for many hours. A major operation was at once necessary to save his life.”
He came back from the war convinced that his future lay in the Church. His Anglican parents had refused to allow Catholics in their house, but it was to Rome that he turned. He was ordained. He became curate in Soho and, in that capacity, married my parents in 1951. In 1952 he baptised me (and did the same for my siblings in subsequent years). Later, he became an inspirational Catholic chaplain to Oxford University. Then he moved back to parish work, first as parish priest in Southall and then in Notting Hill. In the meantime he had given me my First Communion (our own parish priest having refused to do so on the grounds that I was a pupil in an Anglican prep school).
My parents lived in Paddington. Michael’s church was nearby and my mother attended it regularly. I saw quite a lot of Michael. I witnessed at first hand his devotion to the homeless people of Notting Hill. They weren’t really homeless because Michael welcomed them all to his presbytery. I learnt about his habit of rising at 4.00 a.m. so as to be able to pray alone for several hours a day. I also read the news reports which suggested, after the death of Cardinal Heenan, that he was the favourite to become the next Archbishop of Westminster (the job which eventually went to Cardinal Hume). But the man I saw was never cut out to be a worldly prince of the church. He was a priest who, throughout his ministry, put the poor and the destitute first.
Then came disaster, or so it seemed to me. In 1995 a fantasist, known only as “John” alleged that, as a boy, he had been sexually assaulted by Father Michael Hollings. From the start it was plain that the allegation was pure invention. But the church did not see it that way. Terrified that it might be portrayed as covering up another example of sexual abuse by a priest, it ordered him to leave his parish and live in hiding while an investigation was carried out. For a year, Michael was treated as a criminal. His parishioners, other than one or two including my mother, were not allowed to know where he was. I saw him a few times during those awful days. I was struck by his fortitude and by his great faith. Never once did he give in to self pity.
Eventually, of course, John’s allegations were shown to be complete rubbish. In those days the Crown Prosecution Service did not think it its duty to prosecute men who were obviously innocent. No charges were brought and Michael Hollings returned to his parish and to his selfless devotion to his parishioners. To be fair to him, Cardinal Hume did his best to make up for his earlier grossly unjust treatment of the living saint. He was the main celebrant at the Mass in Notting Hill which welcomed Michael back and, all too shortly thereafter, preached a very moving sermon at Michael’s funeral in Westminster Cathedral.
But whatever efforts were made to make up for the church’s treatment of an entirely innocent and saintly priest, there can be no doubt that Michael must have been through a living hell, just so the hierarchy could boast that it was taking allegations of sex abuse seriously. It was expedient for us (the church hierarchy) that one man should die for the people.
Then there is that other saint, Bishop George Bell. He died in 1958. In 2015 (fifty seven years after his death) the Church of England purported to find him guilty, with no proper inquiry, of having sexually assaulted a girl in the 1940s and early 1950s. There was, I am glad to say, widespread distress at the church’s decision to sacrifice the reputation of a wonderful priest in order to demonstrate its newfound desire to pursue every allegation of sexual abuse by the clergy. But Bishop Warner, one of Bell’s successors as Bishop of Chichester, was unapologetic. He acknowledged the hurt many felt at the church’s behaviour, but it was right that the church should seek “to move on from a culture in which manipulation of power meant that victims were too afraid to make allegations, or allegations were easily dismissed.” It was expedient for us (the Church of England) that one man’s reputation should die for the people.
It is not just the church. There has recently been a succession of criminal trials in which men accused of sex crimes have been acquitted by juries in minutes. Some have been young men accused of rape. Some have been dedicated teachers accused by pupils of abuse. In almost every one of those cases it was apparent to anyone reading the news reports of the trial that it would be extraordinary if any jury convicted the defendant. And yet, time after time, the Crown Prosecution Service confidently asserts, after the cases have been summarily thrown out by juries, that it was right to bring the prosecution because it was thought there was a reasonable prospect of conviction. What the Director of Public Prosecutions really means is that it is much better for her reputation and that of the CPS generally to be seen to prosecute every allegation of sexual abuse, however weak the cases may be, than to be criticised by complainants (however deranged they may be) for having failed to bring charges. It is expedient for us (the CPS) that one man’s reputation should be sacrificed for the people.
There was another of those cases yesterday. It was not, of course, at all amusing for the poor defendant, but I confess I found it to be almost funny. A greatly admired housemaster in a boys’ boarding school was accused of sexual abuse of two boys. The allegation was that he was in the habit of stroking boys’ feet when he thought they were asleep. Putting aside for a moment the fact that it was pretty obvious that the allegations were untrue, I did find myself wondering how I and my pals would have reacted, years ago, if we had caught our housemaster stroking our feet when he thought we were asleep. I am confident we would have thought it hilarious. We would have had great fun thinking up a new nickname for him. It is highly unlikely that we would have been traumatised by the experience. But maybe boys were tougher in those days.
Anyway, back to the case in point. What seems to have happened is this: boy A sent a text message, seen by boy B, saying the housemaster had stroked his feet; boy B, an apparently very unbalanced child, then took it on himself to complain to the authorities that his feet had been stroked by the housemaster. The housemaster was suspended from his duties. The usual year long investigation began. In the course of it, the father of one of the boys (not sure whether A or B) made a statement saying the housemaster was absolutely perfect and he didn’t for a moment believe the allegations. No other boy claimed to have had his feet stroked by the housemaster. That’s how the case stood when, a year after the housemaster had been suspended, the CPS had to decide what to do. Of course, it is not given to any of us to know for certain whether the housemaster ever stroked the feet of boy A and/or boy B. But no sane lawyer, looking at the evidence, could possibly have concluded that there was the slightest prospect of a jury convicting him. And yet the CPS merrily pursued the case. The housemaster’s reputation was as nothing compared to the risk that the unhinged boy B might complain that the CPS had not brought charges.
None of this, as my readers, all of whom are very intelligent, will understand, is to suggest that allegations of sex abuse should not be investigated and, if credible, be brought to trial. But those readers will also, I suspect, agree with me that the total disregard for the reputations of men (it is nearly always men) who face weak and unsubstantiated allegations is evil. Caiaphas was wrong.