An abuse survivor’s tale

11 December 2015

In a frank article, Julie Macfarlane describes her abuse by a C of E priest, and her ongoing struggle for compensation and justice

I WAS a member of the youth group at my local C of E church. As an idealistic teenager, I was an enthusiastic Evangelical. These were the days of Billy Graham, speaking in tongues, and a growing Christian youth movement.

In 1975, at the age of 16, I worried that my faith was fading. I sought out the Rector in his church office for spiritual counselling. He told me that God wanted me to kneel and perform oral sex on him.

This was the start of more than 12 months of constant sexual abuse by the priest. He continued to make me perform fellatio on him, and masturbated on me, in multiple locations. He waited for me in dark alleyways as I walked home from the restaurant where I worked as a dishwasher in the evenings.

I told no one. I thought that no one would believe me. But more than this, I had no idea how I could tell anyone what was happening to me, what I could possibly say. I had zero sexual experience. I knew only that it felt dirty, disgusting, surreal, and terrifying.

Yet the priest — whom I regarded as my spiritual mentor, a man of God whom everyone else in my church treated as authoritative on spiritual matters — told me that God wanted me to do this.

I got away only by leaving for university (one the furthest distance from my home that I could find). Still I told no one. I tried to forget.

 

I FIRST told someone about this — that I had been molested by my church minister, giving no details — almost a decade later. This was as much of the still-vivid memories that I was ready to confront.

But my conscience would not let me forget. I agonised over whether the priest was repeating his behaviour with other victims. I knew that in order to come forward with any type of complaint, I would have to write a detailed statement about what took place in 1975-76.

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The problem was not that I couldn’t remember the details of what had taken place — the problem was that I could. And remembering was very painful.

Finally, in 1999, I brought a complaint to the Sexual Misconduct Clergy Committee of the overseas diocese in which the priest was now located. After an investigation, the committee determined that there should be a full hearing under the Clergy Discipline Statute.

Once this decision was conveyed to him, the priest resigned immediately. The Archbishop of the province wrote to me, and explained that his file would be marked “Not for employment”, to prevent his working in ministry in the future. (I have recently discovered that he is continuing to minister for a different, non-Anglican church.)

At that time, I believed that I had achieved my goal of removing him from access, as a trusted member of the clergy, to other young women on whom he could continue to prey. I still feel terribly guilty that I did not find the courage to do this sooner.

 

YET I could not forget. I continued to think about ways that my experience could encourage others who were similarly victimised to step forward and find support.

With this as my goal, I eventually agreed to bring a civil suit against the diocese, seeking compensation for the harm done to me then, and its continuing impact on my life (including the toll of bringing this lawsuit).

For it is now almost two years since I made this difficult decision. Both the diocese, and the lawyers who represent its insurers, know everything that I have written here — and much more.

I am a law professor, internationally known for my work on legal practice and the legal profession. I have a wonderful family, and a happy, fulfilled life. I have no need to go back to this nightmare.

I am doing this because I feel I am now ready to hold the Church to account — and because the Church says publicly that it wants to take responsibility for the system that allowed members of the clergy to abuse girls and boys — men such as the priest who abused me.

Crucially, I also understand extremely well how litigation works. As an academic, I have researched, written, and spoken about adversarial litigation tactics and strategies for many years.

I am writing now to describe the litigation games that are being played in the name of the Church, which further traumatise survivors like me — even as the Church claims publicly to be sorry for these crimes. This is a breathtaking hypocrisy.

 

THE Archbishop of Canterbury told the General Synod in November 2014, when speaking of abuse cases: “We are not doing all this, we are not seeking to say how devastatingly, appallingly, atrociously sorry we are for the great failure there has been, for our own sakes, for our own flourishings, for the protection of the Church. We are doing it because we are called to live in the justice of God, and we will each answer to him for our failings in these areas.”

My case is as clear, fully documented, and credible as any sexual-abuse claim could possibly be. The details that I have provided in my statements, my personal credibility and reputation, the absence of any other possible motive, the corroboration of those whom I told 30 years ago, and the testing of these facts in the investigation overseas — all point to the truth and accuracy of my story.

The facts are not, apparently, disputed by the diocese. A representative told my solicitor informally, shortly after I began my lawsuit, that they would like to pay for my ongoing therapy.

In a letter to me on 17 December 2014, the Archbishop’s solicitors wrote to my solicitor: “Please could you convey to your client the Archbishop’s concern and apology on behalf of the whole Church of England for the distressing and shameful events mentioned in your letter. . . Please assure your client that . . . the follow-up to historic abuse are high up in the Archbishop’s priorities.”

The “whole Church of England”, however, does not appear to include the litigators at the law firm retained by the insurers for the diocese, which is also acting for several more dioceses to defend sex-abuse claims. (These are not the diocese’s regular solicitors.)

 

THERE are three important ways in which this litigation strategy dramatically undermines and contradicts the public statements of the Church.

 

1. The Church and its insurer’s representatives perpetuate discredited and offensive myths about sexual assault.

The insurer’s formal statement of defence, dated 27 August 2015, to my lawsuit contends that the Rector is unwell, and repeats the response made in 1999 that: “[T]he alleged perpetrator . . . denied the Claimant’s substantive allegations of sexual contact, whilst admitting that . . . there might have been inappropriate, but not unwelcome ‘touching’ on occasions” [para 1(iii), my italics].

There is not a shred of evidence for this disgusting assertion. I was a child, being played with by a powerful adult. Moreover, “touching” is not how most people would describe forced fellatio.

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Historically, rape myths have claimed that young women and children “encourage” and even “seduce” men. The unsubstantiated and offensive claim of “not unwelcome” is a shocking (and for me personally distressing) example of a cynical effort to continue this myth.

The statement of defence continues: “It is admitted that X may have ‘touched’ the Claimant in a manner that was inappropriate, considering his position as a clergyman: however, it is denied that such ‘touching’ amounted to an assault and/or trespass to the person or that it gave rise to the alleged or any injury, loss, and damage.” [at para 9]

It is difficult to understand how the defence, written by lawyers for the Church’s insurers, can argue that the “inappropriate touching” (which they accept) was not harmful, or why it is necessary to argue about whether sexual assault over more than a year causes long-term harm.

Historical rape myths have minimised, and even dismissed, the long-term psychological harm suffered by victims of sexual abuse and assault. These are the very same myths that made it possible for the actions of this priest to remain hidden for so many years.

But this is 2015, and we know much better — and the Church has already said that it is sorry.

 

2. The Church and its insurer’s representatives hide behind archaic legal defences.

In an effort to strike out my widely accepted factual assertion of abuse, the lawyers representing the Church’s insurers are arguing that historical sexual-abuse claims made against its office-holders are barred by the statute of limitations. In their defence they state: The plaintiff “has or ought to have been aware, from an early stage, of her entitlement to pursue a claim in respect of the alleged abuse”. [para 1(viii)]

This assertion is based on their knowledge that I became a law student immediately after I was assaulted. According to this reasoning, once I had learned about torts law and limitation periods at law school, I should have just got on with suing the Church.

At this time, remember, I had still told no one at all about my experiences, and was awash with denial, confusion, and trauma.

The purpose of limitation periods in civil law is to head off unsubstantiated claims that relate to long-ago events that the parties can no longer recall. The rationale is to prevent a great deal of time being spent on a claim that ultimately cannot be safely or fairly adjudicated.

Lawyers in England and Wales, including my own solicitor, have drawn on evidence assembled by psychologists, trauma specialists, and other professionals, and successfully argued against this technicality in historic sexual-abuse cases, where the details are not in doubt but it has taken many years for the complainant to find the courage and will to come forward.

For these reasons, in my home province of Ontario, the government introduced legislation last month to eliminate limitation bars in cases of historical sexual assault and rape. More than a dozen US states have adopted similar reforms (despite lobbying against these reforms by the Roman Catholic Church in these states). Other jurisdictions are expected to follow suit.

In these jurisdictions, the evidence in each case will be assessed on its merits, just as in any other claim, and not barred by a limitation defence.

But still the lawyers, instructed by the Church’s insurers, are placing these barriers to survivor claims. Plaintiff lawyers must expect to spend significant client resources dealing with these arguments, and plaintiffs like myself are obliged to repeat over and over the very events that first traumatised us. This is not “the justice of God” that Archbishop Welby described to the General Synod.

 

3. The Church claims that it cannot control how legal claims brought against it are handled.

In their letter to my solicitor in December 2014, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s solicitors say: “You will be very aware of the constraints under which we in the profession have to work in dealing with these miserable matters. The scope for personal and sensitive engagement is very limited.”

This statement suggests helplessness and passivity in the face of survivor trauma. It also points to a complete disconnection between the public sentiments of the Archbishop, on whose behalf the letter is written, and the actions of the litigators acting for the Church’s insurers.

In reality, an institutional client like the Church negotiates a policy and claims protocol with its insurer, and can ultimately control the management of claims and disputes.

The problem is that the Church appears to have signed away all responsibility for relations with survivors when it agreed to the terms of its insurance policy.

The pretence that things are otherwise is perhaps the most shockingly hypocritical aspect of the Church’s strategy towards abuse victims. By permitting the lawyers, instructed by their insurers, to play games on their behalf, the Church is complicit in both their behaviour and its impact.

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THE Church remains morally responsible for the aggressive and technical contestation of legal liability by its insurers, effected through the tactics of the insurer’s lawyers.

While it is, of course, important to ensure that claims brought against the Church are legitimate, this neither requires nor justifies church complicity in an aggressively adversarial process that they must recognise both re-traumatises survivors like myself, and discourages others from coming forward.

Neither can the Church credibly hide behind its insurers and their lawyers. Its publicly expressed goal of atonement is incompatible with the goal of limiting financial responsibility using any tactic, however low, and regardless of the impact on complainants.

What is needed, instead, is a respectful and credible dispute-resolution process that encourages survivors to step forward out of the shadows, confident that they will be treated humanely.

 

FINALLY, I have been strongly discouraged — to put it mildly — from publishing this article. It has been difficult to sustain my commitment to speak openly about these issues in the face of pressure from many quarters to say nothing, and just focus on my own case.

I recognise that this publication may make settlement of my own matter even more difficult. But my higher goal here is to expose the chasm between the public statements of the Church and their complicity in this immoral approach to sex-abuse litigation. If this article achieves that goal, it will have been well worth it.

 

Dr Julie Macfarlane is Professor of Law and Distinguished University Professor at the University of Windsor, Ontario, Canada. She is represented by David Greenwood of Switalskis Solicitors.

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