Who will atone for this turbulent priest?

The Church of England seems shockingly unrepentant about the Sheffield cult case

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When the stories about the Reverend Christopher Brain and his sexual activities began to break last week, I was surprised at first by what looked like great openness on the part of the Sheffield clergy, coupled with a striking reluctance to question the kind of evangelical practices that had led to the establishment of a dangerous cult within the Church of England. But within a couple of days the mystery had evaporated.

The clergy were being open in their readiness to condemn the individual, and to say what he had been up to (masturbation, otherwise known as "releasing the Rev Brain for his ministry") and how he had left many women in need of long-term counselling. But as far as the other cult practices were concerned, not only did the clergy not really condemn them. They did not even understand what the charges were.

Time and again, one expected the spokesmen to resort to some little formula, such as "We are going to have to look very carefully at this area of the church's activities ... something seriously wrong somewhere ..." Time and again, what we got instead was: Chris Brain made a terrific contribution ... wonderful postmodernist stuff ... relevance ... tremendous vitality ... mustn't throw out the evangelical baby with the bathwater of sexual abuse.

On Friday, the Bishop of Sheffield, the Rt Rev David Lunn, was in this mode on Radio 4, saying that "We ought not to underestimate the amount of help that the teaching of Mr Brain gave to a large number of people", but adding that while he backed the nature of the "public ministry" of the Nine O'Clock Service (the "house church", which was clearly a cult) he did not in any way back "this apparently private ministry of Mr Brain to individuals, which I believe to have been scandalous."

Now the Nine O'Clock Service was for much of its existence an autonomous church under the umbrella of the Anglicans, attended and supported by both the Bishop of Sheffield and his archdeacon. It made exorbitant demands on its members, both psychologically and financially. Asked about the financial sacrifices the congregagtion made, Bishop Lunn said: "People gave him money. They can do that if they want. They are grown up."

This is where the bishop comes across as rather more shocking than his priest. He cannot see, he simply cannot see, the nature of the charge. Cults make their recruits among the vulnerable. They rip them off. They are a prolonged and pitiless version of the confidence trick, running off with the money and the confidence as well. But all the responsible bishop can say is: These people are grown up, they can look after themselves, when the whole point is that they cannot look after themselves.

To make matters worse, the bishop said later in the same interview that the pity was that Mr Brain's mission had been very successful among the damaged, and that now it appeared the damaged had taken over. In other words the bishop knew there were vulnerable people there, but he still thought that was their own look-out. What's more, he was on the radio again yesterday morning, defending the charges the church was levying for the counselling of the victims.

Two things make it difficult for the case to come to trial. The first is that striking openness about the charges against the Rev Brain. A former Lord Justice of Appeal, Sir Frerick Lawton, has commented: "The diocese has acted very oddly. So much detail has been publicised about his alleged behaviour it would seem to render a fair trial almost impossible. I have read enough of what the diocese has said to think it could not come to trial."

The second thing is the helpline that was set up to counsel any further victims of the Rev Brain's attentions. A Mail reporter, posing as a victim, was told that: "The only offence you can commit is rape and if that's not what we're talking about, then there may not be an offence against the law."

Not only did this advice ignore the question of sexual or indecent assault, it also came in the context of a caution against going to the police. The counsellor said at some length what a gruelling process giving evidence to the police about sexual matters could be - as indeed it can, but if you have just been told that only rape victims need apply, the meaning of this advice is particularly discouraging.

One might ask whether these two actions by the Sheffield diocese (the public airing of the allegations and the misleading advice being given in private) are the outcome of incompetence or are part of a strategy. There must be a strategy for handling this scandal. What do we think it is?

Well, there's that third element to consider: the diocese, having obtained an admission of his misdemeanours, took the Rev Brain away for "counselling", at the end of which it was made clear that he had had a breakdown and had voluntarily committed himself to a mental hospital.

The tendency of these outcomes, whether by accident or by strategy, is to make it difficult to prosecute the Rev Brain and to get any kind of redress. Yet many people must feel swindled, not least financially, and damaged. To whom might they turn? To the diocese of Sheffield, by any chance? To the Anglican Church?

The Nine O'Clock Service was anomalous, being a church without a parish, and therefore without a parochial church council, and some might say beyond the area of responsibility of the diocese, because for a while beyond its control. Yet it was a kind of church set up by Anglicans, promoted by them and held up as a model by the people who still, last week, were refusing to disown many of its methods. The members of the cult were clearly under the impression that they were within the Anglican Communion.

Will the Church of England consider paying compensation to its victims? Or will it continue in last week's unrepentant mode? The Bishop of Oxford's plan appears to be that in the future two people should not share the same sofa when counselling is in question, although, according to reports, there was groping during the "planetary mass" itself. The archdeacon of Sheffield, the Venerable Stephen Lowe, told a newspaper: "I said to my wife a couple of weeks ago that if I wanted to make a fortune I could write a book about this, but nobody would believe it." Perhaps he should write that book, and make that fortune, and shunt it into the direction of the victims of his church's negligence.

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