Garden of Gethsemane, Jerusalem

From the autumn 2020 edition of New Humanist.

In July 2016, I received a phone call. It was my solicitor, David Greenwood – head of the abuse compensation claims department at Switalskis Solicitors – calling with an update on my case. He was representing my claim for compensation from the Diocese of Chichester for the abuse I had suffered as a teenager at the hands of the former Bishop of Lewes and Gloucester, Peter Ball. The Church insurers had put a price-tag on that abuse, measured each intimate violation and the weight of its unquantifiable aftermath, subtracted the variables, and were offering a modest financial settlement. David wanted to know whether I would accept the settlement.

This was almost a year after Bishop Peter Ball had been sentenced to 32 months in prison for misconduct in a public office relating to the sexual abuse of 16 young men, and two counts of indecent assault against two teenagers. I had lived as a trainee monk with Bishop Peter for a year between 1990 and 1991. I was one of those teenagers.

I had sat in the gallery in the Old Bailey as barristers read extracts of my statements – profoundly personal experiences announced to a crowded room – and watched as Bishop Peter received his sentence. It was difficult to look at the bishop directly. He had once made me promise never to tell anyone: he had said that no one but God would understand. After the old man had been sentenced and taken away, I hesitantly began a claim for civil damages. I did not anticipate that the compensation process would take many more months of interviews, cross-referencing of my previous statements, meetings with psychologists and more in-depth probing into the minutiae of my daily life, from relationship break-ups to mental health issues to my drinking habits. As with the abuse, there was no room for privacy during the invasive compensation process.

The amount the Church insurers were willing to offer was more than I would earn in a year in my part-time office job. It was barely a month after the EU referendum and every day, as I walked between home and work in West Yorkshire, I saw laminated signs saying “Leave”. The compensation money would be enough to take those signs literally and emigrate. If I was careful and lived simply and frugally, the money might stretch for a year or maybe two. Most of all, it would enable me to leave England and start over somewhere new.

And yet, guilt is a strange and constant companion, an uninvited guest that lingers long after the abuser has bolted. It is a shadow that lengthens in the corner of the room when you trust someone enough to break the silence. It whispers what you imagine everyone must be thinking: “Are you telling tales again? You promised not to tell. If it was that bad, you would have run away or resisted like any normal person.” It is a presence that appears for no reason in a supermarket queue or at an empty café table. And when you do dare to tell the police, or speak to a solicitor, it digs its nails in places that only you can know.

David was still waiting on the telephone for my answer to the offer. If I hesitated, it was because of that shadow, the sense that I ought to be ashamed and silent, not seeking compensation. Recognising that this was dead tissue from an ancient injury, I accepted the financial settlement.

When the cheque finally arrived in the early autumn, I left England. It was partly the particular political moment that drove me abroad: a desire to flee the public discourse of nationalism after the EU referendum. More than that, however, it was a long-standing desire to run away from a country that revered privilege over truth. I had witnessed first-hand a rottenness at the heart of the establishment. Various bishops and MPs, an archbishop and a law lord had allegedly sought to influence the investigation into Bishop Peter and to shield him from prosecution. I wanted to leave that broken system behind, to search for a better society.

* * *

After leaving Dover by ferry, I arrived in Calais to volunteer at the refugee camp known as the Jungle. The compensation money from the Church had been a symbolic gesture, so it was important for me, as a humanist, to put that money to humanitarian use. The work in the Jungle was simple but necessary: sorting blankets and emergency clothing, preparing medical kits and hot meals. After only a week, the Calais camp was dismantled by the French police, so I travelled to volunteer at other projects around the world. Each journey put more distance between me and the UK, as I sought out different visions of altruism.

I went to Greece, Israel, Japan, Australia and Nepal, finding international communities that were seeking, in vastly disparate ways, to create a more humane world. I wrote about my travels on a blog and wondered if it could be a book. It was compensation for abuse that had funded this search for a better world. Writing about that search was, I realised, one way to transubstantiate the injury of the past into something positive.

It is not so easy, however, to leave the old world behind; its shadows are a constant companion. Either because of the source of the money or because I’d had to endlessly recount details of the abuse in order to receive it, memories of Bishop Peter began to resurface.

I first met Peter in 1990, when he was the Bishop of Lewes. I was 17 and had just dropped out of sixth-form college. Although I am an atheist now, I was a devout Christian as an adolescent. Bishop Peter had run a monastic scheme for young men who wanted to experience the religious lifestyle. By the time I arrived, the scheme had ended, but he said he would make an exception for me to live as a trainee monk in his house. This involved rising at 5am to pray silently in the chapel, attending daily religious services, cleaning his house and tending his garden, keeping silent in the evenings. In time, he added more extreme ascetic practices.

Bishop Peter said that you must enter into the suffering of Christ in order to be truly Christlike. You must take the Kingdom of Heaven by storm, he said, surpassing Jesus’s own suffering in Jerusalem. Christ had not only suffered at his crucifixion, Bishop Peter said, but the night before, in the Garden of Gethsemane, he had suffered the agony of knowing what was to come.

I did not decide to go to Jerusalem because of Peter, at least not consciously. I went because I wanted to volunteer at an Arab–Jewish peace project in the Judean Desert. However, when I reached Jerusalem, the memories that I had recounted so many times to police and solicitors, which I had compartmentalised into a written statement of facts, came flooding into the open.

Jerusalem. It is known as Urusalim to the Canaanites, meaning City of Shalem, the god of the Evening Star. In Hebrew, it is Yerushalayim, which is translated as the City of Peace. In Arabic, it is al-Quds; simply meaning “the Holy”. So many names, so much unresolved.

* * *

When I arrived, I walked around the old city, the Ottoman walls built by Suleiman the Magnificent. I passed each of the seven gates without ever quite entering. Jerusalem takes time. It supposedly took Jesus a week. After circumnavigating the walls, I headed towards the Mount of Olives. That was the hill I had come to see.

At the foot of the Mount of Olives, they say, is the Garden of Gethsemane – or one of them. Sites of imagined importance are surprisingly contested. One sect claims that the improbable probably happened here, another that the unevidenced evidently occurred over there. The Garden of Gethsemane is one such moveable notion.

Gethsemane was significant to Bishop Peter. He made it significant to others. At his house in the South Downs of England, between Berwick and Wilmington, he manifested the Garden of Gethsemane to justify his abuse.

Every Thursday, if you were there, if you were chosen to be there, if you had no choice but to be there, you prayed with Bishop Peter. It was always on a Thursday because, so the story goes, Jesus went into the Garden of Gethsemane on a Thursday, the day before his crucifixion, and prayed in agony for another way to be possible. According to the Gospels, his sweat was as great drops of blood falling down upon the ground as he prayed: “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass me by. Nevertheless, let it be as you, not I, would have it.” No other way is possible but agony, but suffering, says God, says Peter’s God, says Peter. Thy will be done. And so it was, every Thursday, in Peter’s manifestation of Gethsemane on the South Downs.

All these things returned to me in Jerusalem. No longer restricted to a written statement, the memories – lived experiences, anticipated and endured – reopened as I approached the Garden of Gethsemane, next to the Church of All Nations, at the foot of the Mount of Olives. Old priests in black cassocks and bitter faces prowled the garden paths. The olive trees were locked up behind iron railings as if in a tree museum. 

It was unplanned, but I had found myself on a symbolic pilgrimage. I do not know what I expected. A thunderclap of forgiveness, emancipation, absolution? An apotheosis of understanding? The end of it all? As I stood there, I realised that this was not my Gethsemane, that place of weekly agony. There was none of that here.

There are Gethsemanes everywhere: places of suffering inflicted by the powerful on the powerless. At the same time that I was in Jerusalem, Bishop Peter was sitting in a prison cell somewhere in southern England: an old man contemplating his own suffering. I imagined him counting down the days – 32 months – until his impending release, reciting the same words of Jesus before his crucifixion: “Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass me by. Nevertheless, let it be as you, not I, would have it.” Bishop Peter was ultimately released from jail after serving half of his 32 month sentence. He died two years later, in June 2019.

As I stood there in Jerusalem, I understood it clearly: the Universe does nothing. Victim or monster, there is no one to help. God is dead. We must try to do our best without him. I reached through the bars of the tree museum, from the outside in, and stole a sprig from an olive branch. I considered taking it with me, a symbol of something I had gained or resolved, but none of those things was true. After a moment’s thought, I laid the leaves down like an offering, a message, a weapon unused. Then I turned and left the imprisoned trees and their twisted trunks behind.

* * *

When I left England in late 2016, I had imagined the journey to be a political quest, a search for utopia among various alternative communities. I did not envisage that Bishop Peter would follow me. However, it was compensation from the Church that enabled me to leave. Perhaps it was inevitable that a shadow from that institution would follow.

Speaking recently to David Greenwood, my solicitor, I asked whether he thought financial compensation from the Church could ever make amends for clergy abuse. He said that it cannot – and, of course, I agree. David added that most survivors want two things: recognition from the Church that the abuse happened and to prevent it from happening again. For issues such as continuing psychological harm, he said that compensation was appropriate but that the system is not designed to cope with the needs of survivors. “The system can be doubly traumatising,” he said. “All institutions tend to protect their reputations.”

I put the same question to Richard Scorer, vice-president of the National Secular Society and another abuse compensation lawyer. He agreed that most survivors of clerical abuse seek genuine apologies, and assurances from the Church that past failings will be addressed. He added that the Church approaches financial compensation in a highly adversarial fashion, which obviously damages victims even further.

It is not easy to have all the intimacies of your life, your habits and your relationships put under the clinical microscope of claims adjusters. Your own shame makes this all the more difficult. At the moment, we are waiting for the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse to write up its recommendations. If it includes measures such as mandatory reporting so that churches can no longer cover up abuse, then there is a thread of possibility that things may improve, in the UK at least.

Nothing was settled in Jerusalem, just as nothing was settled by receiving that begrudging pay-out from the Church. But the money did enable me to finally confront Gethsemane. Whatever significance it once held for me dissolved once I saw what it was. There was nothing to revere, nothing to be afraid of. All that was there was olive trees behind bars, old priests prowling the perimeter and hissing at tourists who dared to venture too close.
As anticipated, my compensation money lasted for just over a year. Living frugally and volunteering in progressive projects around the world, I did find fragments of what I had left England to see: glimpses of what a better world might look like. When the journey ended, I made a new home for myself in Europe and finished writing the book in which the shadow of Bishop Peter is named, confined by text and enclosed behind pages.

“Life As a Kite” by Cliff James is published by LittleBirdZine