The list of untouchable men...or those who think they are - seems to go on and on...Jimmy Savile, Harvey Weinstein, Jeffery Epstein, Bill Cosby, Prince Andrew, politicians too numerous to mention. These (mostly) men have all come to believe that celebrity or wealth or power give them freedom to exploit emotionally and sexually both vulnerable women and men. Such is their popularity, such is their reputation that any abused woman or man is afraid to go public with accusations. They expect not to be believed.
This week comes the latest episode in the tales of women being abused by high-profile men. Now Russell Brand, English comedian, actor and influencer has been accused in various media of rape, sexual assault and emotional abuse while working at the BBC and elsewhere. He denies the allegations – and they are only allegations at this stage. Like all the rest, the truth will emerge probably slowly and painfully as investigations continue. As always in these cases, the organisations which profit from the ‘gifts and skills’ of these men stay silent until there comes a tipping point when the trickle of allegations turns into a flood and these organisations break their ties with the accused to limit the damage to their own reputations.
Among them our beloved Greenbelt Festival. This week this message appeared on its website in the wake of Brand’s headline appearance at the Festival in 2019:
In light of the very serious allegations against Russell Brand in Channel 4’s Dispatches and in The Times, and out of respect and concern for all those who have made allegations, we have decided to remove images, videos and audio of Russell Brand from our website.’
We have never been Brand fans. In 2019, we were elsewhere when he arrived late to speak at Greenbelt. He kept the large crowd who did gather to hear him waiting for half an hour. They were not best pleased. Opinion about his performance and the nature of his connection to Christianity was divided. He certainly never made any secret about his addictive and promiscuous lifestyle so hearing the news this week, perhaps people would be more inclined to shrug their shoulders and ask, ‘What did you expect?’
An entirely different case is that of Jean Vanier, who in 1964, founded the first of what became a global network of L’ Arche communities where people both with and without learning difficulties lived together. Vanier wrote and taught inspiringly and was much loved and respected. We have on our own shelves a couple of very good books he wrote on building community. He died in 2019.
Then, earlier this year, a report was published showing that for nearly seven decades, Vanier had been systematically abusing at least 25 adult women (without disabilities) in the maintenance of what was described as a mystical-sexual sect.
Sexuality and power are clearly a powerful combination. Add ‘religion’ and the toxic mix becomes more debilitating still. Toxic, hierarchy-affirming theology helps not at all.
None of us is immune to involvement in this problem. Every community has its stand-out people. In the political and social world, we are all in danger when we fail to ask questions about any leading figure who glitters in their public performances.
In the church, clergy and laity, both men and women collude in giving too much power and influence to hero, celebrity and priestly figures. Safeguarding procedures are ignored or waived. The celebrities whether spiritual or secular, in their turn, start to believe their own publicity. Sometimes, only too willingly, they take the power they believe has been freely offered to them.
Remembering that no individual or organisation is quite what it pretends to be could help us all. What we can do personally is to try on a daily basis to ensure that the gap between the public self and the private self is not too great. Individual and group accountability is key!