When politicians or clergy abuse, the institution doesn't need protection: it needs honesty

'I [...] was worried I would be blacklisted as untrustworthy. In Westminster, where power and loyalties are hard currency, I feared making enemies', wrote Jane Merrick as she explained why she did not report former defence secretary Michael Fallon's attempt to kiss her to the party whips.

Labour activist Bex Bailey was told by a senior party member not to report the fact that she was raped because it might damage her career. Other women who have come forward as victims of sexual assault or harassment in Westminster have found that officials have 'at best turned a blind eye and at worst actively covered it up'. Why is it that institutions are so reluctant to hold their members accountable for sexual assault?

It's a pattern we are becoming used to, that is even becoming normalised: someone (typically male) empowered with a sense of entitlement, acts towards another (typically female) as if he had the right to her body and then somehow passes the burden of shame and professional consequences on to the one they have assaulted. Unless, the abuser or those around them reassures the victim, they keep it to themselves. Otherwise, the one who has been betrayed is warned: you won't be trusted; you'll be letting the side down. It is not surprising that efforts to hush up sexual assault scar all political parties. Such is the cost of tribalism.

Both the UK's major political parties, I'm sure, wish perpetrators of sexual assault were only to be found on the opposite side of the Commons. All institutions, likewise, hope it is only Hollywood and Westminster where these incidents take place. Yet nothing could be further from the truth: a survey for the Young Women's Trust found one in eight large employers admit they are aware of sexual harassment that has gone unreported. More than half of women say they have experienced sexual harassment at work, according to research by the TUC.

We all want to be immune from wrongdoing ­­– just as much perhaps as we want to be immune from harm. It is surely the belief that we – whoever that 'we' is – are above such things that leads people to suggest that victims of sexual assault should not come forward. After all, we don't have a systemic problem: it's just a couple of bad apples. No need to make a fuss.

No wonder, then, that the Church has so often suppressed the truth of sexual assault in order to present itself as the representative of the Truth. If victims of sexual assault in Westminster can be asked to put party loyalty over their own needs, how much more can church leaders ask those in their care to prioritise God's public image.

If the act of assault itself is an issue of abused power and potential misogyny, then part of the sin behind hush-ups is that of self-righteousness. Supposing that, in order to be trustworthy and authoritative, a group must be seen as having a squeaky clean record, certain of its members invest great energy into presenting an immaculate façade and suppressing voices which would testify otherwise. But it is a short-term solution: as Jesus warned the Pharisees, trying to look free from sin is connected to not actually dealing with sin, and hence the charge of hypocrisy:

'First clean the inside of the cup and dish, so that the outside may become clean as well. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside, but on the inside are full of dead men's bones and every impurity' (Matthew 23: 26-7).

Hypocrisy is one of the central obstacles to people not engaging with political parties and the Church. Both politicians and church leaders claim to know what is in the interests of others, not just themselves. And yet, time and again, their actions suggest they really are just self-interested after all, and that claims to the contrary were just made for the sake of retaining power.

Cover-ups, then, do not bolster trust in such institutions: they demolish it. Violating someone's body is a horrendous wrong. But so is silencing their voice, denying their experience, and refusing to take action to prevent it from happening again. And those who commit the second are not always those guilty of the first. Deception corrodes any claim to stand for and protect the weak, as both politicians and church leaders do.

It is not the case that everything would be fine if victims of sexual assault just kept quiet: sticking-plasters over mouths do not heal wounds. Enforced silence does not make an institution a place of safety and flourishing. Vulnerability, humility, and openness, however, do. Where there are dark corners and closets full of secrets, we need light. We need failures to be admitted, forgiveness sought, and amends made. That means letting go of the pretence of perfection. But that pretence long ago lost people's respect.

Maybe we are all ready for an age of vulnerability and accountability: one in which leaders accept, rather than deflect guilt, and always try to do better; one in which no one is left alone with a burden of shame that they did not deserve; and one in which we do not protect the institution at the expense of the individual.

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