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The hidden scandal of adult abuse

27 September 2013

The problem of sexual predators in churches needs to be addressed, says Susanna Gridley


THE phrase "sexual abuse" in a church context brings to mind paedophile priests (News, 24 May; Comment, 17 May). Like everyone else, however, most religious leaders are attracted not to children, but to other adults.

A survey by the ecumenical support organisation Minister and Clergy Sexual Abuse Survivors (MACSAS), The Stones Cry Out (2011, available on its website), says that: "Almost completely below the public radar has been the sexual abuse and exploitation of women and men perpetrated by clergy, religious, and other senior church officials. . .

"There is no recognition of the extent and the nature of the sexual abuse of adults . . . within Churches, despite the growing evidence of the widespread prevalence of such abuse."

It has been said that child abuse is the perfect crime. But abuse of adults also takes place in secret, and there is the same problem with corroborating evidence. In the Church of England, I know personally of lay leaders, priests, and even bishops, who have ranged from ogling, making inappropriate remarks, trying to kiss, molestation, propositioning, to having extra-marital sexual relationships with women and men in their churches.

Colin Mason, the co-founder of Spiritual Abuse Support, says: "Ninety-five per cent of clergy abuse is of adult women." I suspect that this figure is too high only because of the extra difficulty that men have in reporting abuse. Three male friends have told me that it has happened to them.

THERE is such denial of the problem that victims, male and female, often cannot recognise what has happened as abuse. I am using "abuse" to mean any exploitative sexual behaviour, and saying "victims" rather than "survivors" because "survivors" suggests a healing process, which does not happen when victims cannot name it, and are not, therefore, healing from abuse; I would also emphasise that it is victimisation.

The MACSAS helpline co- ordinator, Helen Charlton, says that, like paedophiles, those who prey on adults sense whom they can target. Christians who have been abused sexually, physically, or emotionally in childhood often turn to the Church as a place of healing and safety. They become involved with it, and thereby become accessible targets for predators.

Churches usually have more women who want a Christian husband than men wanting any sort of wife. I know of many Christian women who are past the age of 30 and are so desperate to get married that this can make them vulnerable. Ms Charlton notes that some predatory men target churches. Large urban congregations can be blackspots, providing an endless supply of women for men, including leaders, to try out, or keep in a "hopeful harem" - another type of sexual misuse.

Worse, it is not always recognised as professional misconduct when a priest has an extra-marital relationship. Surveys in the United States suggest that between 20 and 50 per cent of Protestant and RC clergy have had or are having illicit sexual relationships. The Stones Cry Out says that these often start as counselling. Churches, however, usually refuse to recognise the parallels with a therapist, doctor, or social worker's becoming sexually involved with a client; they see only "consensual affairs".

IT SHOULD always be the responsibility of the professional to keep a professional boundary. In 18 states in the US, a priest or minister who has sex with a church member is guilty of rape: the power imbalance is understood to make consent impossible.

It is recognised that even "minor" sexually abusive behaviour can be destructive. Some common effects, Ms Charlton and Mr Mason say, are long-term mental and physical illness, marriage breakdown, isolation, self-harm, alcoholism, legal and illegal drug dependency, pornography, and other sexual acting-out.

Church abuse usually means the loss of community - and, sometimes, a job. George, a church worker, had two references from his vicar. The first was good; the second, after he had ignored the vicar's sexual comments and touching, was bad. He lost both his church and a post he was being offered.

When the predator has a spiritual role, the abuse has a spiritual dimension. Matthew was molested by the priest who inspired him to become a Christian. Mr Mason says: "A clergyman is a spiritual father, which makes the abuse feel like incest."

Also, because a church leader in some sense represents God, the victim's experience of God can become distorted. People often leave the Church completely. The Church of England does not appear to acknowledge this spiritual abuse.

ANOTHER spiritual aspect is that illicit relationships rely on lying to conceal them. Sexual harassment and assault are usually denied. A married vicar propositioned Chloё; her boyfriend threatened to report him to his bishop. The vicar said that he would deny it, and the bishop would believe him.

Being on the receiving end of a church predator is a violation, and degrading and confusing. But, unlike secular workplaces, churches have no procedures when it happens. Jane Chevous is a tutor at Ridley Hall, Cambridge, and chairs a voluntary organisation for survivors of abuse, S:VOX. In From Silence to Sanctuary: A guide to understanding, preventing and responding to abuse (spck, 2004), she says: "Telling is so traumatic you have to be desperate to go through with it."

For victims who manage to speak out, it is their word against that of someone who has a need to lie convincingly, and more power. What almost invariably happens is that the victims are not believed, and are blamed - often simultaneously.

Ms Chevous asks: "In what other context do we promote the assumption that people are more likely to be deliberately lying?" It might be put down to misogyny, if men did not meet the same dismissiveness. And it is no better in churches with women in positions of authority.

Verity was told by a female curate that she "shouldn't be looking at the behaviour of these male leaders". And the wife of a London vicar excused a prominent churchman's womanising behaviour with: "He's sensitive to beauty: he likes lots of pretty girls around him" - a perspective that manages to be both risible and alarming. This dismissal, from more people who are representing God, can feel worse than the original abuse.

THE MACSAS survey reports that, even when abusers have had multiple allegations against them, "little if any effective action was taken against them to ensure other women and men were not placed at further risk of harm".

Like paedophiles, abusers are usually repeat offenders, whose behaviour is part of a pattern of addiction, and who, therefore, not only have the same responsibility to get help as an alcoholic or any other addict, but also have superiors with a moral responsibility to stop them.

As the MACSAS survey shows, however, this is not happening. And there are no procedures for providing support, even to acknowledged victims. MACSAS receives money from the Roman Catholic Bishops' Conference of England and Wales, but nothing from the Church of England.

What little protection there is for adults comes not from the Church, but from the 2006 Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act, which requires churches not only to carry out CRB checks, but to have policies and procedures for adults who are legally recognised as vulnerable, such as disabled people.

The Church of England's policy for safeguarding adults, Promoting a Safe Church (2006), has an introduction by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, stating: "The time has now come to ensure that the Church can be as safe a place for adults as for children."

It gives a theological perspective, and extends the concept of vulnerability beyond the legal to the human, recognising that "everyone is vulnerable at points in their lives."

SOME dioceses have adopted Promoting a Safe Church; others have produced their own policies and procedures - albeit very tardily in more than a few cases, and seemingly without any monitoring of implementation.

Most dioceses have adult-safeguarding information on their websites, although some do not. These days, a website is often the first place that people try, and there should at least be a phone number. Some diocesan websites show that safeguarding vulnerable adults is taken very seriously: Durham, St Albans, and Salisbury stand out.

In London, however, when I enquired in 2010, a member of staff told me that the diocese was "working on the new [sic] requirements". It finally acquired a policy and procedures at the end of 2012 - the last diocese in the country to do so.

Until recently, on the diocesan website, the Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Richard Chartres, was quoted as criticising "the elaboration of defensive bureaucracy based on a culture of suspicion", with reference to measures to safeguard vulnerable adults.

For six years, when there should have been protective procedures, anyone trying to report the abuse of a vulnerable adult in London was likely to be met with, at best, uncertainty about what to do. One child-protection officer, for ex-ample, did not know whether she was also responsible for adults.

The diocese of London said that parishes could use Promoting a Safe Church, but Bishop Chartres said that it was "for them to pursue". The Churches' Agency for Safeguarding, however, says that "there is a clear duty of care, which means that, should leaders and officers not respond promptly to abuse, or to a persistent disregard for safeguarding, then the organisation could be held legally responsible and negligent."

CHILDREN are now safer in churches because of formal procedures. Although the legal definition of a vulnerable adult changed last year, and the adjustments that need to be made are still being clarified, the fact remains that, for more than six years, the law has demanded that those whom it deems vulnerable have procedural protection in church.

And although Promoting a Safe Church states that all adults should be protected from abuse at church, without formal procedures, they are not. MACSAS has recommended codes of conduct for leaders, sexual harassment policies, and complaints procedures.

So far, these recommendations have been largely ignored. Are there really leaders in the Church of England who think that Jesus would have said: "Boys will be boys"?

Some names have been changed to protect people's identities.


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