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The Post Office Scandal and Shame

You would have struggled to avoid the collective, public outrage that has gripped the country following the airing of the dramatisation Mr Bates vs the Post Office on ITV over Christmas. I have been aware of this controversy for years now and am delighted it has finally got the media attention it undoubtedly deserves. I think it is seeing the devastating effect of false accusations and complete powerlessness, when confronted by almost inhuman bureaucrats, on the lives of ordinary people serving their local communities, and on their families, that has touched a cord with so many.


One of the most consistent responses articulated by wrongly convicted sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses is the shame they felt and the stigma they carried having been accused of stealing from the most vulnerable. It undermined their self-confidence and self-worth and damaged their mental health, despite knowing they had done nothing wrong. It is one of the terrible things about shame, you don’t have to be guilty of the offence in order to feel and have to live with it’s debilitating effects. 


Running the Post Office and village shop, or convenience store, was to be at the heart of the community. Seeing and chatting to the sub-postmistress or sub-postmaster as you collected your pension or benefit payments, paid bills or posted cards and gifts to loved ones overseas gave a sense of reassurance and belonging in either small rural communities or urban contexts where you can feel lost or easily go unnoticed. So the other consequence of shame we see in operation, is the breakdown of trust.


In this scenario, betrayal of trust happened at a number of different levels. There was that felt by the community towards their sub-postmaster or sub-postmistress. What the employee of the Post Office suffered in dealing with an institution they not only worked for, but believed in as a respected brand and essential public service which, in partnership, they were providing for their neighbours. And then there was the damage done to the relationship between MPs and government officials and those tasked with running the Post Office and the company developing and managing the now notorious IT system, Horizon.


However, it should be acknowledged that it was in seeking to avoid shame that the Post Office acted the way it did. The senior managers were afraid of being exposed for failure, inefficiency and the squandering of public money so sought, instead, to blame individual sub-postmistresses and sub-postmasters. While they were prosecuting isolated cases and kept the accused in the dark as to the others going through the exact same trauma, no-one could see the size and scale of the problem which they were desperate to keep hidden.


Now, is there anything in the life and message of Jesus which can help heal misplaced shame, rebuild trust and restore broken relationships in community? Firstly, the bible tells us that Jesus is God in human form and he experienced something of what those sub-postmistresses and sub-postmasters went through. He was betrayed by a close friend and falsely accused by his faith community, his colleagues disowned him and the whole city turned out to witness his public humiliation of dying naked on a cross. But, he was miraculously raised to life again having taken all shame upon himself, so that we can be whole and free once more. That’s not to deny the pain and destruction, though, we can’t go back to a time before the damage was done. Jesus bared the scars of his torture and murder even in his resurrected body. 


We too have to come to terms with our troubled past, and for those involved in the Post Office scandal there is a need to know the truth and bring it into the public domain. There will then need to be an acknowledgement of guilt by wrongdoers and some sense of restitution for victims. This is not just about money though, I was particularly struck by the conclusion of a story on the BBC news website entitled ‘Post Office scandal: “I carried the shame - I refuse to carry it any longer”’. It says, “For Mohammed, who no longer wants to carry the shame, he would like the Post Office to put a poster in every branch where a sub-postmaster or sub-postmistress has been wrongfully convicted, declaring their innocence - and saying they're sorry.” Sorry can be the hardest word to say, but it is also the most healing and allows for the possibility of trust to be restored.

Andrea Campanale

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