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Handling of sexual-abuse allegations in the Church of England

24 May 2013


Sir, - I am not surprised to read of allegations of abuse against a senior priest in the Church of England (News, 17 May). I am not surprised that church officials did not inform the police, and made their decisions focused upon the alleged perpetrator rather than the victim.

When in training to be a priest, I was sexually assaulted by the curate of the parish to which a group of us were sent on placement. We were in our early 20s, away from home, working hard in an urban setting. One night, the curate engineered a situation where I was obliged to share a bedroom with him. There were two beds, but he complained of being too cold, and asked if he could share my bed. I was young, naïve, and sexually inexperienced. He came into the bed and assaulted me.

I was distressed, and spoke the next morning to a priest whom I could trust. He spoke to the vicar of the placement parish, who called in the Bishop of the diocese. The Bishop spoke to the curate and the vicar, but never to me.

The curate was immediately transferred to another parish, and the vicar called those on placement together to explain that the curate was leaving because of an incident that had arisen "due to a misunderstanding". This left me feeling to blame.

He said that the curate had made it clear that he had never done such a thing before, and we should believe that. In fact, we knew it to be a lie; by then, we had realised among ourselves that I was by no means the only one of us he had assaulted.

Not one of us, however, was spoken to about it;no investigation took place; and no pastoral care was ever offered. Indeed, we were told that the matter was now closed.

It was not only the curate who abused his power. The power that the Bishop and the vicar had in the situation meant that we were silenced. Despite a pattern of abusive and predatory sexual behaviour with a series of young men over whom he held a position of power, the priest was simply moved on to another parish with no one knowing the truth. It would be unrealistic for me to try and bring any action against that priest now, years later, and I can only hope that his ways have changed, but he is still in parish ministry today, and, because of the way we were silenced, no CRB or church record will alert anyone.

I fear that this pattern, of failing to listen, of silencing the victims, moving the "problem", and failing in both pastoral care of victims and accountability in clerical behaviour has been repeated all too often.

For too long, bishops have held too much power in the Church of England; some have been bullies themselves, and many have encouraged a culture of defending clergy in all situations, even when they have clearly been guilty of abuse.

As a victim myself, I would hope for a much more thorough inquiry than has been announced, into how the Church of England has handled and continues to handle accusations of abuse by its clergy, deeply searching in nature and thorough in its recommendations.

Name and Address Supplied

From the Revd Catherine Shelley
Sir, - In response to your leader comment (17 May): the Church's fault lies not simply in silence over sexual abuse, but in its manipulative defence of the clergy in question. Detailing the perpetrator's distress at the allegations not only rejects the complaint, but casts the complainant as the villain for daring to make such awful allegations. The defence is not simply of the institution, but of "people like us".

It is replicated in the Church's poor handling not only of sexual abuse, but other abuses of power, such as bullying. What is needed is not only Anne Lawrence's suggested process of reconciliation, but also the truth that precedes reconciliation.

2B Minehead Avenue
Manchester M20 1FW

From Canon John Goodchild
Sir, - If clergy learn about abuse from a victim who does not want it reported to the police, they should still inform the police, while telling them the victim does not wish to follow it up. The police can then file it on a database so that any trends can be noted and others can be protected.

Some clergy may not be able to conceive of themselves abusing anyone, and want to be close to people to express pastoral care, but they need the wisdom of serpents as well as the innocence of doves, and to ensure that they are never alone with someone who could make a malicious false accusation.

For good practice, clergy must always work as members of teams rather than lone rangers.

39 St Michaels Road
Liverpool L17 7AN

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