THERE is a real lack of understanding and empathy in the Church,
and in society as a whole, for those children and vulnerable adults
who have been emotionally damaged by the perpetrators of abuse.
Survivors of abuse are often described as the walking wounded, who
are in need of an "enlightened witness" to their journey through
the dark night of the soul. This is what I do, as a psychotherapist
working with survivors. This is what the Church must do, if it is
to help the victim to thrive, not just to survive.
This is also what the Church must do if it is to help survivors
of abuse by the clergy and by othersin a religious setting to
engage withthe therapeutic process, a painful journey into a tunnel
that, I hope, one day, will lead to healing.
Survivors will not forget, and will bear the burden of their
emotional lesions for ever. Some survivors may forgive the Church
and the perpetrator, while others will lose their faith. As one of
them put it: "I'll never darken the doorstep of a bloody church
again. They bloody hurt me and rejected me when I needed help. How
can I trust them? They didn't believe me. You know, mate, the
priest fucked me and so did the bloody Church."
As the barrister Anne Lawrence has suggested, the Church is
"seeking to fix a problem before they know what the problem is. . .
If they want to stop breaking people, they probably want to look at
the fundamental problems within the institution that enables that
to happen" (News,
So, to address questions of safeguarding and risk-assessment,
the Church needs to know whom it is safeguarding, and why.
Of course, church authorities should place at the top of their
to-do list the need to safeguard vulnerable people. Of course, the
Church should guard the boundary and reduce unnecessary risk
wherever it can - but it consistently falls short because it fails
to understand the nature of abuse and how to help survivors.
Like a rabbit caught in the headlights, the Church promises to
make amends, to do better, to listen, to safeguard vulnerable
people; but, when push comes to shove, it does not have the
pastoral structures to deal with the consequences of abuse, to put
right a wrong, or to engage in the healing process. What survivors
need is dedicated therapy, whether provided in-house, or through
specialist agencies, or by individual counsellors who understand
AS A society, we celebrate people of power. We worship their
success in politics, business, sport, show business, and church
life. But we fail to recognise that, in some cases, we are
celebrating people with a narcissistic personality disorder.
Such people are very much "into themselves", having no empathy
or conscience, and showing no remorse. They are cunning,
manipulative, aggressive people, obsessed with power and blaming
others. They are to be found in many institutions, and even in the
We hear on the news that yet another celebrity, or a member of
the clergy, has been tried by the courts and found wanting. He or
she was caught out, but not before the damage had been done; not
before the denials had added to the victim's misery; not before the
institution had stated that it had not seen it coming. So the
Church says: "Oh, surely not him, he was such a saintly man. He
could have become a bishop."
With high office comes power. And the Church of England has a
problem with power, as have all Christian denominations. This is
because of the power invested in its hierarchical structures. In
some churches, the clergy exert a heavy-handed, authoritarian
control over the congregation. While many of these leaders are
well-meaning, frequently authoritarianism is rooted in a hunger for
control. These clerics rationalise such behaviour under the guise
My experience working with perpetrators of abuse is that the
personality-disordered mind seeks out the object of its desire by
employing elaborate manoeuvres, a hidden grooming process that can
fool most of the people, most of the time - for decades, and even
beyond the grave, as in the case of Jimmy Savile.
Having seduced the victim, the perpetrator applies such
psychological pressure as may be necessary to ensure that the
survivor keeps their little secret for all time. It is an abuse of
power, and there are those in the Church who masquerade as the
trusted priest while grooming the next victim.
HISTORICALLY, the Christian Church has joined in a conspiracy of
silence, and has gone out of its way to protect its own people from
those who would question its professional ethics. These dynamics
must change. The Church must be more transparent and more
accountable, and the institutions must deal with the issue of
Well executed apologies from church leaders convince no one,
except their own brigade, and only the passage of time and the
evidence of good practice will determine whether their words are to
For change to happen, bishops, clergy, safeguarding officers,
and others must receive the necessary support and training that
will provide them with a better understanding of all forms of
abusefrom various perspectives, especially that of the
victim-survivor. They also need to understand why abusers do what
they do, and how their behaviour damages children and vulnerable
If clergy are to be effective pastors, they must be given the
right training to enable them to provide compassionate
"first-contact support"; to be competent empathic listeners to
narrative; and, having formed a trusting first-contact
relationship, to be able to help the survivor to connect properly
with the appropriate counselling and other legal and support
The ability to facilitate the right onward referral is crucial
to building trust and enabling survivors to feel held, and, from
that secure base, to have the confidence to edge their way forward.
Sadly, for many survivors, the Church is not a secure base, and
legislation alone cannot change that fact.
Safeguarding is, to some extent, a policy written on the hoof,
and comes after the horse has bolted. But safeguarding is too
important a set of moral codes and practical measures to be left
solely in the hands of those who, historically, have deliberately
hidden from scrutiny the Church's shadow-self - its need to protect
its own shadow, the perpetrators, those who abuse children and
vulnerable adults - and, to add insult to injury, have failed in
their duty of care for the survivor. We need to concentrate on the
needs of the survivor.
FOR TWO DECADES, I have worked in a number of prison settings, and
I recognise that discipline must be balanced with the notion that
prisoners can change their lives when the principles of restorative
justice and psychotherapy are applied.
How else can the perpetrators, who are themselves victims of
insecure attachments and maltreatment, heal personal pain, and
extinguish the anger that doubtless fostered their criminal
activity? This is the type of personal history that contributes to
perpetrators' mental illness and, in some cases, dangerous
We need to exercise extreme caution when convicted sex-offenders
are released back into society. In operating a rigid safeguarding
policy, however, the Church is in danger of ostracising the
vulnerable victim within the perpetrator. We could be creating a
sub-culture of outcasts who have little chance of being integrated
into society and into church life.
Difficult as it may be to talk about perpetrators, when seeking
to protect survivors and potential victims, the Church must
understand that it cannot avoid the victim within the perpetrator;
for doing so causes many former prisoners to feel disenfranchised
and abandoned, as many of them felt when they were children.
This emotive subject leaves the Church stuck between a rock and
hard place - and this is exactly the place where you will find the
prison chaplain, when ministering to the perpetrator, the
victim-perpetrator, and the victim-survivor. The Church cannot sit
on the fence.
THE Church of England's policies for safeguarding children and
vulnerable adults speak with authority when using choice phrases
such as"We will . . ." and "We are . . .", but get stuck in a rut
when it comes to explaining what follows such well-meaning words.
Safeguarding policy appears to run out of pastoral steam, efficacy,
and conscience, after it has done all it can to say "sorry", and to
reduce the prospect of negative publicity and litigation.
It does this by following the principles found in "legislation,
guidance and recognised good practice". Following policy to the
letter, however, does not negate the need for the Church to go the
extra mile, which is to offer professional pastoral care and
counselling to survivors of all types of abuse.
So, safeguarding policy is only half the story. The other half
must be born out of a deep listening to need; of understanding the
placeof survivor groups and support agencies, and of
psychotherapists and psychologists, prison chaplains and other
carers who work with survivors, including
Survivors are sometimes labelled "damaged goods". For them to
embark on a therapeutic journey can be abusive, because they have
to engage in a process where their personal story brings with it
memories of guilt and pain. The process of personal disclosure can
increase the risk of depression and anxiety, dissociation,
self-harm, and suicide.
As a psychotherapist, I believe that the clergy and all who
minister in churches must be trained to understand and work with
survivors of abuse. They need training not only in safeguarding
their parishioners, but also in understanding what is meant by
being an "enlightened witness".
Here, such an enlightened witness can be a trusted therapist,
pastor, social worker, teacher, friend, or family member: someone
who will walk alongside the survivor; someone who is a
non-judgemental, empathic witness to the survivor's experience and
READING this, a bishop may feel that he is watching his
counselling budget disappear before his eyes. He may wonder who on
earth will pay for all this specialist work. Well, the price has
already been paid by those children and vulnerable adults who have
been abused by the clergy and others working in the Church - those
who have not been protected. The good-enough "Parent" Church has a
duty of care to for all victims, and that care goes well beyond the
small print in a safeguarding policy.
So, what is a bishop to do? The answer is to pray, naturally,
but in practice to design, fund, and deliver a recognised training
programme on working with the survivors of abuse. It needs to
include local workshops on pastoral care and counselling for all
clergy and lay ministers.
In addition, each diocese needs to recruit specially trained
counsellors or psychotherapists who will provide survivors of abuse
with the necessary counselling support. They could also offer wise
advice on questions of abuse, as well as on safeguarding and
pastoral matters, and they could help the bishop better inform his
diocese about the needs of the survivor.
Furthermore, they could provide the clergy with all necessary
pastoral support, supervision, and training. Only then can we
begin, from within, to change our church culture and behaviour.
Only then can we believe that survivors of abuse are valued and
THE Archbishop of Canterbury has said that there needs to be "a
complete change of culture and behaviour in the Church. We cannot
in 20 years be finding ourselves having this same debate and
saying: 'Well, we didn't quite understand then.'
"In addition, there is a profound theological point. We are not
doing all this - we are not seeking to say how devastatingly,
appallingly, atrociously sorry we are for the great failures there
have been - for our own sakes, for our own flourishing, for the
protection of the Church. We are doing this because we are called
to live in the justice of God, and we will each answer to him for
our failures in this area" (General Synod, 7 July
These are wise words. My sense is that the world is looking to
the Church of England and her sister Churches to put their houses
in order. Safeguarding vulnerable children and adults in Church and
society must be balanced with a better understanding of the issues
that survivors face, and a real commitment to the healing process.
Only then will a doubting world believe.
The Revd Dr Peter Stell is a counsellor, group therapist,
and senior BACP accredited and registered psychotherapist.
He is a former Co-ordinating Chaplain in HM Prison Service,
and is now Lead Hospice Chaplain for Spiritual Care with Sue Ryder
Care at Thorpe Hall in Peterborough.
Anyone who would like to contact Dr Stell in response to
this can do so by emailing email@example.com. Material will
be forwarded to him in confidence.