Jimmy Savile presents a wake-up call to church leadership

When you hear or see the words “a powerful person” – what springs to mind? For many of us, I guess we would think in terms of politicians – prime Ministers and presidents who wield enormous influence and whose decisions and policies impact all of our lives, or possibly high-flying business tycoons whose corporate empires provide jobs, control the media and shape an economy.

The mere comments of these high-flying moguls can send the FTSE soaring or plummeting. In terms of power stakes, however, we may be less likely to think of the celebrity philanthropists, popular and well-known though they may be. But what the sad and shocking revelations that are now emerging about Jimmy Savile clearly demonstrate is that power was a very significant factor.

It seems that the reason that such horrendous abuse accounts are only emerging now, a year after his death, is because many victims or witnesses considered that they would not be believed if they went public with their allegations. Jimmy Savile was such a revered national personality that he became untouchable. And it seems he knew it. The nature of such power may be very different to that exercised by politicians and chief executives in business, but its effects can be no less far-reaching or even devastating when misused. Until a few days ago, in popular perception, to have accused Jimmy Savile of impropriety would be akin to saying that Mother Teresa was perpetrating fraud.

Such power is built on the back of celebrity status, particularly where there is high profile charity and philanthropic involvement. The person is simply “too good” or “too kind” for any sort of accusations to be credible. They are literally beyond reproach. The worrying thing is that that is exactly the kind of reputation that is afforded to many clergy and church leaders, by the very nature of their work and ministry.

People tend to hold them in high regard, and their spirituality must, it is believed, preclude any improper behaviour, sexual, financial or whatever. The sense of shock and betrayal is therefore all the greater when it emerges, as has sadly happened in recent years, that not a few clergy have exploited their positions of ‘power’, to take advantage of others and commit horrifying sexual abuse, inflicting unquantifiable damage on the victims, on the reputation of the Church, and on the Name of Christ.

Lord Acton’s famous axiom that “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely” is no less true when considering this kind of power of reputation and public standing. The high level of trust generally accorded to clergy can easily become something that is exploited. The very caring and pastoral nature of church ministry tends to engender in people a strong sense of gratitude, perhaps even obligation, towards the minister. Yet church leaders remain fallible, sinful human beings, prone to temptations, and vulnerable to the attacks of a spiritual enemy who will leave no stone unturned to exploit any personal weakness or vulnerability.

The recent events concerning Jimmy Savile are a salutary warning that church leaders, and indeed all who may enjoy a high level of public esteem, nevertheless need to have a system of accountability in place. I read many years ago that Billy Graham made it his policy never to travel alone in a car with a member of the opposite sex, unless it was his wife or daughter. Such measures may seem today to be somewhat ‘over the top’, but in actual fact they simply recognise not only the damage that can be caused by rumour and innuendo, but also the frailty and fallenness of human nature which must at all times be guarded against. It is when such accountability is lacking that things go wrong.

The abuse of power by spiritual leaders has a long history. Jesus Himself suffered inexcusable abuse from the religious leaders of his day, who used their positions of power to ensure that the Son of God was put on a cross to die an excruciating and utterly unjust death. We need the constant reminder that the very One to whom all power belongs in heaven and earth, humbled himself, and used his power to serve others rather than satisfy personal lusts and aspirations. The empathy, sadness and distress we feel for those who may have suffered at the hands of Jimmy Savile will be of limited value unless we take steps to ensure that all who have similar power in a church context are appropriately accountable, for everybody’s sake, and for God’s sake.

Tony Ward is a Bible teacher and evangelist who was ordained in Zimbabwe. He currently lives and ministers in Bristol.