IICSA: How can we hold the past to account?

Now that the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) has held its preliminary hearing into the next cycle of material coming forward from Church of England institutions, we can look forward – if that is the right term – to further painful examination and analysis in July, when the full hearing takes place.

Looking through the published transcript of the preliminary hearing, available in full on the IICSA website, it's clear that the implicit methodology of the hearing will include attention to questions that are essentially historical ones. In using that word 'historical' I don't mean that they're far in the past and therefore have a limited bearing on the present – far from it. You've only got to look at the continuing distress of those affected to grasp that, in terms of their impact and the damage they cause, these are present and ongoing matters.

BBCWindsor Davies and Michael Bates in 'It Ain't Half Hot Mum', now regarded as offensive.

What I mean is that the attention of the inquiry will have to include considering what were the processes and standards of safeguarding in place officially at the time the various allegations of abuse and institutional failure at issue happened, how they compared with those of other professions or with best practice at the time, and whether – probably the key question – responsible individuals failed to observe the processes and standards in place, or whether the Church and its institutions corporately were at fault for failing to follow contemporary best practice.

In looking at these matters, the inquiry will have to concern itself to some degree with comparisons between the present and the past, albeit a very recent past. This is just a specific example of a general issue affecting all such inquiries into the iniquities of the past, of course. And it leads to a predictably sensitive and acute question – can you judge the behaviour and attitudes of the past (even the recent past) by the standards of the present? Can you hold the past to account?

A lot of nonsense is written about this, probably to try to defend the indefensible. It seems to me that, for a start, there's an obvious distinction between things that were accepted as wrong at the time they happened just as they are today, but which may have been ignored or covered up, and things (this holds particularly for attitudes I suppose) which we'd now regard as unacceptable but which were widely thought to be harmless or just eccentric or humorous at the time.

How this distinction apples in practice might seem a straightforward matter, and on the whole I think it probably is. Child sexual abuse falls into the first category, obviously. A great deal of what passed for popular humour a generation ago might fall into the latter – jokes that we'd now see as obviously sexist or racist, for example, were commonly accepted as harmless in the 1970s and 1980s. The recent death of Windsor Davies, star of the 1970s sitcom It Ain't Half Hot Mum, has evoked memories of a time when mainstream family comedy was shot through with attitudes that today would be regarded as abhorrent.

But there are some grey areas, even so, which can make the matter of holding the past to account a tricky one. The distinction certainly isn't, for example, a simple fault line between actions and words. Just as some forms of humour were beyond the pale and widely condemned even at the time, some actions in the past were unacceptable to many, but only partially so, and it's unclear how widely they were criticised. Back in the 80s, I was slapped on the bottom on several different occasions by a clergyman at the church I attended. I was taken aback, a bit shocked even, but I was unsure what to think. It was in the presence of his partner. Was it simply playful? Was it a kind of advance? It was certainly unwelcome. But I didn't say anything at the time, and now realize I probably should have done.

I think I rather minimised the matter, assuming most people would go for the 'he's just being light-hearted' line and it wasn't worth making a fuss. Also, I rather liked him, and didn't want to make things difficult. A common enough reaction, as I realise. But looking back, it's significant I remember distinctly each occasion, and the very fact that I didn't want it to happen and that it was a repeated pattern puts it in a different light today.

And this gets more complicated still when we try to take into account the processes by which things in the first category, things which were clearly wrong and widely accepted as such, were handled at the time. Sometimes – these occasions seem depressingly rare – they were publicly exposed or condemned, or taken to the police perhaps, with definite consequences for the perpetrator. But quite often we seem to be dealing with situations in which the processes used were thoroughly inadequate to the nature of the abuse.

And here the distinction between individual culpability and systemic or institutional failure is not at all clear, partly because standards of safeguarding have changed. What if someone in a position of authority thought they were taking firm action to stop something happening again, by perhaps warning others and moving the perpetrator on from a particular job, or making sure they never worked in that capacity again? What if – at the time – it was widely thought that this was the way to deal with bad situations? What if, by their lights, they were taking appropriate action according to the advice they received?

I don't have an answer to these questions, and I'm not looking for a way of exonerating anyone. But I do have two comments, which to some extent cut across each other. One is that, by my reckoning, it's an awful long time we've been talking about child abuse and other forms of sexual and domestic abuse – well over 30 years. The Orkney case of alleged ritual abuse, for example, may have been effectively disproved (or at least called into question), but it came at a time of growing public awareness of abuse, and that was nearly 30 years ago. Churches were already aware of the potential scale of these problems back in the 1980s – indeed the Catholic Church in Ireland was taking out insurance against claims over 30 years ago. So the argument that people weren't aware of these things, or didn't take them so seriously, can certainly be pushed too far.

The other comment is that the suggestion that 'standards and processes were different then' can be put to the test historically. It ought to be possible to review just what was expected of people in positions of authority by way of safeguarding anything up to 30 or 40 years ago, with examples of good practice then, and some attention to the norms and values which guided the processes (even if utterly inadequate) in place, and also to the changing language of safeguarding.

This is the stuff of good historical work, looking at relevant documents, interviewing people who were alive then (including survivors as well as figures of authority, and even perpetrators), rooting particular directions and ideas in the broader assumptions of the time about harm, family life, intimacy, and so on. I know this is in part what IICSA hopes to do. Good luck to them.

Rev Dr Jeremy Morris is Master of Trinity Hall, Cambridge.

This article appears on ViaMedia News and is used with permission.