Yes, theologies of forgiveness and confession have played a role in Church abuse and cover up

An open Letter to Paul Richardson from Linda Woodhead.

Dear Paul Richardson

Thank you for an interesting opinion piece on Christian Today, 'Senior clergy don't need MBAs to deal with abuse'. I agree with much that you say.

I must take issue, however, with your suggestion that there is little evidence to suport my claim that theologies of forgiveness and confession have played a role in abuse and cover up.


In my Church Times  article to which you refer, I cite an example from the recent IICSA hearing on the CofE in which we learned that a serial clerical abuser, Gordon Rideout, took the view that 'he had been forgiven by God, his slate was therefore wiped clean... as if the abuse hadn't happened'.

This chimes with findings and recommendations by the Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Abuse. Earlier findings from Ireland were similar. In Marie Keenan's book 'Child Sexual Abuse and the Catholic Church', for example, she quotes a priest who says: 'in all the times I confessed to abusing a minor I can only remember one occasion when I got a reprimand or advice not to do this thing' (p.163).

There have also been well publicised examples from independent Protestant churches, including this excruciating video of a US pastor confessing his abuse of a teenager in front of the congregation and receiving forgiveness and a round of applause.

Sometimes hearing for yourself is believing, and it was my own interviews with victims of abuse in England, and support groups, that really alerted me to the significance of theologies of forgiveness in the abuse scandal.

I therefore stand by my statement that a faulty theology of forgiveness has been 'used by abusers to salve their consciences, by officials to move on without dealing with the problem, and by parishioners to marginalise "un-Christian" victims and whistleblowers'.

Best wishes

Linda Woodhead

Linda Woodhead is Professor of Sociology of Religion at Lancaster University. She can be found on Twitter @LindaWoodhead