It’s been a hell of a winter here in the UK. The Pagan community has had to come to terms with the issue of child abuse within our community, as no fewer than four pedophiles, identifying as Pagan, were sent to prison.
Generally, there have been many child abuse court cases recently. The British police and justice system has had a change of culture in recent years, and is now proving itself committed to detecting and prosecuting child sex abusers. Well-known British television personalities and even government ministers have been investigated and some convicted. These are people who had been protected by their positions in the past.At the moment it feels as though the whole of British society has woken up to child vulnerability after a long and sorry history of looking the other way, of denial and of cover-ups. It is a society doing its best to right the wrongs of the past.
There’s no surprise that among the non-famous there will be people from every profession and from every religious path, including ours. It is hard, though, to watch. I think most of us Pagans want to be able to keep imagining that child abuse only happens elsewhere. “Our sort are not ‘that sort.’ ” We might all wish to believe that a true Pagan (whatever that is) could never do such things and that a person who did commit such atrocities could only be masquerading as Pagan.
But wishing doesn’t make it so, as the old adage goes.
The most recent pedophile to be sent to prison was Redvers ‘Barney’ Barnard, a man from the North of England, who wore his pentagram necklace prominently visible in his court appearances. He was a regular at Pagan gatherings and was involved enough in the community to be known to event organisers. His Facebook profile included home snapshots that depict a Pagan leading a “normal” home life.
When Barnard was charged, acquaintances in the Pagan community were deeply shocked, and remain so. Everyone who knew him has been keen to stress that Barnard had no official roles in any Pagan organisation. It appears that none of the children that he abused, and there were many, were victimised or groomed through Pagan events or Pagan social networks.
But was he a pretend pagan? No, it doesn’t look like he was.
Pagan event organisers have recently been in consultation and meetings to discuss the broader issue of child safeguarding. The Barnard case, and several other related ones, have been sobering. Most longstanding officers serving in Pagan organisations have been closely following the case involving Kenny Klein, the well-known American Wiccan priest and musician who was arrested on child pornography charges. After that news was made public, others came forward accusing Klein of predatory acts allegedly aimed at minors during the Pagan gatherings at which he performed.
Here, in Britain, some safeguards are in place already. Anyone working near young people must have a government child-background check; Pagan events are now requiring this check of their own volunteers. There is also a coordinated plan to roll out a ‘stay safe’ initiative which will be used at all UK Pagan events. Whether it be a midsummer camp, a weekend conference, or a family-friendly pub moot, the responsible adults will now have their eyes open and be listening carefully as never before.
The U.K. Pagan community is well-positioned to make real strides. We are diverse in many ways but, in many respects, we are tightly interwoven. The Pagan Federation is a national body that has been working across regions and denominations for 41 years. Thanks to that work, Paganism is taken seriously as a spiritual path by most of our national press and the government.
In addition, our ability to address this problem with the police is strengthened by the Pagan Police Association. When we are working with officers who may not know that abuse and sacrifice are anathema to our religion, we can call upon the Pagan Police Association to vouch for this fact. Acknowledged experts such as University of Bristol’s Professor Ronald Hutton have also spoken as court witnesses to this fact.
Because we are a small island, assistance is never more than a three-hour drive away. The U.K. is a concentrated population on an island the size of California, so even national bodies regularly have in-person meetings. We don’t have the challenges facing North Americans, who are spread across a great land mass and six time zones.
In addition, the British government is centralised, so when we work with one region’s legal authorities, the principles apply elsewhere. This is a significant difference from America’s federal system, where many policies, laws and statutes apply only within an individual state.
We have a long road ahead of us and we are learning every day about being more effective in the sobering, important task of protecting our children. The will is there. Stay tuned.