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Repent, report, and reconcile

17 May 2013

The C of E needs much more robust child-protection policies, argues Anne Lawrence


IT IS Friday, and I am returning home after a week-long retreat, during which I have had no contact with the outside world. I switch on my mobile phone, and upload messages. Many of them are about the latest failure by senior clergy in the Church of England to respond appropriately to allegations of child-sexual abuse. Here we go again!

What sense do I make of these "failings", the media ask? Their query reflects the deepest questioning "Why?" of those who have suffered abuse in the Church, and who were dismissed, vilified, or had their suffering minimised, when they reported it to church authorities, while the perpetrators were protected.

Over the 20 years I have walked alongside victims and survivors of clergy-perpetrated sexual abuse, I have come to understand that, just as sexual abuse is about abuse of power, so, too, is the response of the Church: the responses now being uncovered within the Church of England are a continuum of the original abuse suffered by the victims.

THE continuing inquiries and police investigations into child-abuse perpetrated by clergy and church officials in the diocese of Chichester have revealed that multiple perpetrators were allowed to remain in active ministry, or to move to positions where they still had access to children, even though church au- thorities were aware of police convictions, cautions, confessions, and/or reported allegations of child-sexual abuse made against them.

Those who were supposed to be pastoral leaders took decisions that effectively cut the victims off from processes of justice and reconciliation, re-traumatising them because they were not listened to, or were dismissed as damaged and unable to forgive; and protected the reputation of the perpetrators, who in some cases went on to abuse more children.

The actions taken by church authorities included lying to congregations, parents, and others who raised concerns; deliberately keeping information from external agencies and the police; and even burning files when inquiries were conducted into child-protection failings. The Bishop of Chichester, Dr Martin Warner, has rightly identified that "deception and cover-up" took place; for that is the effect of such responses (News, 10 May).

THE current mantra from church leaders, when asked to explain why they failed to report allegations to the police, is that they followed the child-protection policies that were in place at the time. Indeed, they often did, but survivor organisations have consistently called on Churches in the UK to have more robust and effective policies in place, which do not collude with perpetrators, and which respond to the victims/survivors when they come forward.

Time and again, survivors have had their views dismissed, and have been vilified for suggesting that bishops and church officials should not be trusted to act in an objective way when faced with serious allegations of sexual abuse against their friends and colleagues.

Since the early 1990s, survivors have called for child-protection policies in Churches to make central the need to listen to the victims, and to respond appropriately. Yet both the C of E House of Bishops and the RC Bishops' Conference of England and Wales have repeatedly refused to include in policies the mandatory reporting of allegations to the police and external authorities, or to develop procedures for responding appropriately to victims and to ensure that their needs are met.

While senior church officials seek to hide behind inadequate policies to explain their failures, no one within the Church of England is telling the media and the public that the current child-protection policy still does not require bishops to report cases to the police or other external agencies. The current policy still maintains that if clergy confess to other clergy and bishops, they are protected by the seal of the confessional; that clergy cannot be compelled to have a risk-assessment; and that there is no duty on bishops to disclose to external agencies allegations of child-sexual abuse held on clergy files.

Most alarming of all is that even the most notorious convicted sex offenders remain ordained ministers, as their "nature" is believed to have been irreversibly changed by ordination (would that this were true). This takes us to the heart of the matter, the privileging of the priestly state over the safety and welfare of the most vulnerable.

WHILE there is understandable anger at these continuing failings, if we seek to blame someone, we miss the point, and risk tearing ourselves asunder in recriminations. What we know is that, to date, only the tip of the iceberg has been revealed in terms of the extent of child-sexual abuse perpetrated in the Church of England, as well as in the Roman Catholic Church and other religious communities.

Child sexual abuse is notoriously difficult to detect when it occurs. Children do not have the language, the maturity, the independence, or the right to understand what is happening to them and why; the perpetrator grooms not only the child, but the community around the child, and his or her colleagues and friends, so that they remain silent and disbelieving, even as compelling evidence emerges.

Victims often come forward decades after the abuse has occurred, when they have understood what happened, and when they feel strong enough to seek justice.

WHAT is needed now is for the Archbishop of Canterbury and other church leaders to take responsibility for what has happened, and for the Church to stop colluding with those who abuse power and prey on the most vulnerable for their gratification.

The Church needs to repent; to turn from the institutional instinct to protect itself, its reputation, and its power; and to open itself up to public scrutiny. It needs to call on those who have suffered abuse and those who have concerns to come forward. An independent standing commission should be set up to establish the truth of what has happened in the Church over the past 50 years. The Church should develop processes of reconciliation for all who have been affected: victims/survivors, families, congregations, and other clergy.

Only in this way will the Church be able to reconcile itself to what has happened; only this way will trust in the Church be restored; and only this way can the integrity that sits at the heart of its mission be re- established.

Anne Lawrence is a barrister in private practice, and formerly chaired Minister and Clergy Sexual Abuse Survivors.

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