In the news this weekend, an as yet unnamed Conservative MP has been arrested on suspicion of rape. There have been calls for him to have the Conservative whip suspended, for example, Jess Phillips, the shadow Domestic violence minister has expressed shock that this has not happened yet.Her argument is that naming him is necessary for the protection of other staff at the House of Commons.
Meanwhile there have been other questions about the way that senior members of the Conservative Party in parliament responded. Apparently the chief whip was informed about the MP and about threats he had allegedly made against the woman who made the allegations. According to her:
“Our conversation was brief. He didn’t seem interested in the details of the allegations but spent most of the time saying how I shouldn’t worry about the threats. His response was: ‘Well, don’t worry, because the MP won’t actually carry out those threats.’”
It is not clear as to whether the chief whip was informed about the detail and seriousness of the allegations Jacob Rees-Mogg apparently was informed about the issue and advised that the woman should immediately inform the police. According to reports, he was not made aware of who the allegations concerned.
I want to think through those issues very briefly before moving to talk about the implications for church life. First of all, it was right that the woman was advised to contact the police and indeed at that stage, it is not for others to carry out their own investigations but to fully comply with any police investigation. However, I would hope that there would be more than just a quick “tell the police” recommendation. Rather, victims of crimes need to know that they will be fully supported when they go to the police, that they are not on their own. Further, whilst it was not for Mark Spencer or Jacob Rees-Mogg to carry out the criminal investigation, simply to please ignorance is not helpful. You can’t have a “don’t ask, don’t tell” situation. So, the claim that they did not know who was accused or exactly what they were accused of does not sound at all good. People in positions of authority must take care not to become those who turn a blind eye to the behaviour of others.
In terms of the question of suspending the whip, I can fully understand why this is the case at the moment. There is some sensitivity around how this kind of information is communicated. On the one hand, naming the accused can help other victims to come forward, on the other hand, it may result in the victim’s identity becoming public knowledge. Furthermore, most of us still have in our memories the images of Cliff Richard’s home being filmed by the BBC whilst it was raided. We also know of people in the public eye who were falsely accused of being part of a paedophile ring causing them and their families great torment. So, this one has to be handled with care.
However, I want to push harder on this one. Removing the whip is about public image, it is about protecting the honour of the party. It is also a form of punishment. Naming him now potentially subjects him to judgement from outside the court. Furthermore, MPs who call for their opponents to lose the whip risk appearing to see the issue as party political and to miss the gravity of it. Indeed, an MP who has had the whip removed is like an employee who no longer reporting to their line manager but still being allowed to go to work. My view is that the MP should be suspended from sitting in Parliament and banned from the Parliamentary estate. It is important that action is taken, not to punish or shame someone who should be presumed innocent until proven guilty but to ensure that appropriate safe-guarding measures are in place.
Now, I want to turn to the issue of church and abuse. Over recent months and indeed years, we have seen significant complaints made against a number of senior Christian leaders across the whole range of traditions and from various networks. This includes allegations of abuse, bullying and also of racist behaviour including anti-Semitism. I’ve noticed some common theme and threads in these cases.
- The impression that protecting the reputation of a ministry was more important than justice for victims
- That safeguarding measures have not been in place or are seen as a bureaucratic inconvenience
- That there has been a thoughtlessness about the care of victims and witnesses. Instead of having their evidence heard in confidence, sensitive information has been passed straight to the accused
- A failure to apologise and seek to make restitution by those who knew about the problem and failed to stop it.
- The feeling that there is an old-boys network who are more likely to believe and protect each other
- The trivialisation of issues and turning of a blind eye.
- The view that we can sort this in house meaning that there is a slowness to seeking outsider help or placing matters in the hands of appropriate authorities.
Whether we are talking about serious sexual assault, ongoing bullying, physical violence or emotion and spiritual abuse (and I include the aforementioned antisemitism in this category). It is important that we treat possible victims seriously, lovingly and with respect. It is important that we ensure justice is done where there has been sinful and criminal behaviour and that we own our own responsibilities and failings with humility.