Writer Sarah Molyneux-Hetherington recaps the evolving situation with the Church of England's investigation into Mike Pilavachi and explores why speaking out about can be so difficult.
It is important to start this article with a recognition that the news coming out about Rev Canon Mike Pilavachi will affect people in radically different but deeply emotional ways. Soul Survivor camps have had a huge impact on the faith journeys of many people, either positive or negative. Even if you never attended the camps or the church, their influence was felt in almost every area of the church in the UK.
We must be kind and gracious with one another. For those who had concerns before the latest news, there may be a temptation to feel vindicated, to chime in with "it always felt off". For others for whom Soul Survivor held a treasured place in their spiritual journey, the allegations may have blindsided them and there may be a temptation to reject the allegations out of hand. Or this may have triggered a painful process of considering their experience of Pilavachi anew. Some people may have direct experience of the behaviour being disclosed and to hear these stories being discussed openly in a public forum will bring a particular kind of pain.
There is individual and collective trauma being experienced that is aggravated by the fact that at present everything is alleged, and we do not yet know the outcome of the investigation.
So what do we know?
In early April it was announced that Pilavachi was stepping back from ministry amid an ongoing investigation within the Church of England about "non-recent" incidents.
We know that this is not an isolated case. A few years ago, similar disclosures were made about Jonathan Fletcher, the former vicar of Emmanuel Church Wimbledon, which included massages and saunas. Fletcher held a similarly prominent position in the Church and was known for his preaching and his charismatic personality. Fletcher had been well-liked and well-respected and the allegations that came to light caused widespread discomfort.
There are also comparisons being drawn to Ravi Zacharias, who exposed himself during massages and kept intimate photos of his massage therapists.
We also know that in these cases, and many others, the behaviour reported was not new but had been present for a number of years and was known in some quarters.
What prevents disclosures from being made, being heard and being actioned?
No one reason prevents disclosure, instead, there is often a whole culture surrounding the incidents that makes disclosures incredibly hard and painful. However, I want to touch on two briefly as these are two that all of us can contribute to.
The person is well liked
When allegations come out about an individual it is guaranteed that some people will respond with, "they couldn’t have done X because they are so lovely/gifted/holy" or "I have never seen any of that kind of behaviour when I’ve been with them". While these statements may be true, they maintain the idea that someone is wholly good or wholly evil, which simply is not the case. Moreover, it is particularly because these people are so well-liked that disclosures can be so hard to make.
An independent enquiry into Emmanuel Church Wimbledon and Jonathan Fletcher concluded that: "The positive experiences reported [about JF] dispel the myth that people with positive attributes are not capable of committing abusive behaviours. The positive experiences also acted against disclosure, it being difficult to disclose in a context where the individual and their ministry is perceived positively by many. This is one of the reasons why it took so long for abuse allegations to come to light and not to be disclosed at ECW."
I would caution us to be circumspect in our reaction to disclosures of abuse, especially when it regards someone we admire. Our reaction may be complicit in concealing the truth.
There is a fear of being shunned
There is a long history of victim blaming within and outside of the church. Often the victims become the problem and the focus of scepticism and attention. It is more convenient for them to be wrong; maybe they misunderstood his intentions, maybe they’re being touchy or maybe they’ve just got an axe to grind. Whatever the reason, the reality is that victims and whistle-blowers risk losing their jobs, reputations, spiritual homes, and support networks. There is a very real cost to speaking out. In some cases, abusive leaders will use the threat of isolation as a means of control.
We need to consider how our reaction to victims and whistle-blowers may make it harder for them to speak out and escape an abusive dynamic. Are we complicit in the shunning of victims and whistle-blowers?
It is worth ending with a reminder to be kind and generous with one another. Everyone processes differently and will have different feelings to reflect on. But we must be mindful that we are not inadvertently silencing one another in the way we speak about these matters. Silence on matters like this is ungodly and puts us to shame: "Everyone who makes a practice of doing evil, addicted to denial and illusion, hates God-light and won’t come near it, fearing a painful exposure. But anyone working and living in truth and reality welcomes God-light so the work can be seen for the God-work it is." John 3:20-21.