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Caring is needed, not just caution

17 April 2015

The Church must do more to help heal victims of abuse, says Peter Stell

"WHAT I need is a good listening to! For years that's what I wanted from the Church. Instead, my cries fell on deaf ears.

"They all turned their backs on me. No one wanted to know. No one cared. They said the right things, but did nothing to help me. I felt rejected and humiliated."

These words were spoken to me by a survivor, who came to talk about the abuse he had suffered at the hands of his vicar 25 years earlier. He had been a naïve teenager when his vicar befriended him and gave him special attention, which made up for the love that was missing in his home life.

"He became like a brother to me. He showered me with gifts, and even took me away on holiday with him. It was while we were in Devon that I was made to pay my way with sexual favours. This continued for two years. My life was a living hell. He broke me, and told me to keep quiet or else." The clergyman eventually died, but the survivor still suffers the consequences.

From my experience of working with victims, I well understand why survivors get frustrated at the Church for not listening, not believing, not understanding, and being overtly self-protectionist - for apparently not caring.

The Church believes that it is doing the right thing by providing mandatory safeguarding training, and issuing an abundance of revised policy documents; but safeguarding is only half the story.

What survivors need, if they are to become thrivers, is proper counselling, provided by the Church. The suffering was perpetrated by church "insiders" - even if those perpetrators were also abusing their positions in the institution - and the Church must provide the means to help survivors heal their wounds.

Survivors who turn to the Church, whether as children or vulnerable adults, are in urgent need of competent, informed support from clergy, not fudge or grudge - First Call support that includes a level of competent pastoral care rather than a quizzical look at safeguarding.

The dioceses resist the idea of providing additional counselling training for clergy and appropriate others, instead preferring to make an onward referral to a listener or some external resource. As my survivor said, "The Church caused the problem; so it should provide the solution."

In my 25 years as a priest-psychotherapist, my dual role has not got in the way of providing good enough counselling support; and there are survivors who need their faith to be nurtured through a church-based counselling scheme. To miss this opportunity risks alienating another wounded soul.

The Church's cause is not helped by the fact that its policymakers in matters of safeguarding and working with survivors are archbishops, bishops, and senior clergy who, in the mind of many survivors, are part of the problem: they represent the all-powerful and secretive authority figures who were themselves responsible for the abuse, or played their part in the great clergy cover-up.

The solution is not to pass the buck, but to provide support by local Christian and secular therapists; a decent level of First Call counsellor training and supervision for clergy; and quality support for those clergy who are themselves survivors of abuse.

The Revd Dr Peter Stell is Lead Chaplain in Spiritual Care at Sue Ryder, Thorpe Hall Hospice, Peterborough, and a senior BACP accredited and registered psychotherapist.

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