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What survivors deserve from the Church

02 May 2014

People who have been abused need specialist care, not just safeguarding policies, says Peter Stell


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, 28 June).

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 their needs.

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 Church.

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 of shepherding.

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 abusive power.

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 be believed.

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 adults.

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 systems.

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 personality disorder.

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 perpetrator-survivors.

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 emotional pain.

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 valuable.

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 2013).

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 readers@churchtimes.co.uk. Material will be forwarded to him in confidence.

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