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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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