Carried on The Sea of Forgetting
Posted: 17 Apr 2015 @ 00:26
A survivor hopes that, for victims of clerical sexual abuse, the
tide may at last be turning
ALL survivors have their own unique perspective, and this is
mine. As a teenager in the 1970s, I was groomed for more than a
year, and sadistically abused by a senior church figure. Over the
intervening four decades, I told my story to roughly 40 C of E
priests, and to senior people, including bishops, none of whom, I
now gather, kept any record of it. Last summer, I was helped to
report to the Metropolitan Police and the Bishop of Durham (who
chairs the Church's safeguarding committee), and it finally feels
as if the Church is acknowledging some challenging questions raised
by my case.
I've had to plug away at it; I imagine many would have given up
by now. In my angriest month, I nearly took a sleeping bag to make
my home in the doorway of Lambeth Palace; but it was cold, and I
didn't have enough bottle. I wasn't even sure whether the Church
was giving support or not (in the past six months, MACSAS* has
apparently received more than 100 similar complaints from survivors
about inadequate response from the Church of England).
THERE are, in the current hierarchy, a handful of senior figures
who once knew my story but have forgotten it. It's perhaps
unreasonable to expect someone to retain a conversation across many
years, but this raises a crucial question: isn't it likely that
many current senior clergy heard similar stories to mine
earlier in their careers, and did not know what to do?
The Church had no training for this; so, even while my abuser
was alive and in a position of some power, the response was tea and
sympathy and, mostly, awkwardness; perhaps an inward sigh of relief
when the story was no longer in front of them. Ninety per cent of
the people I told were essentially good people in a dysfunctional
institution riven with inertia. Kind words were never going to be
enough in the face of a crime/justice issue, but, because it was
perceived primarily as a pastoral issue, my hearers drifted along
in the same boat as everyone else - a boat that was carrying their
church careers reassuringly forward. Meanwhile, hundreds of stories
were cast into what I call The Sea of Forgetting.
Like others, however, I also experienced a more sinister inertia
- for example, a bishop I told in the 1980s claimed not even to
know the name of my abuser. Even at the time that seemed unlikely;
more recently, I've been told that every bishop would have known of
him immediately. Sensing my own story being covered up in front of
my eyes made me wary of trying to "report" officially in the
future. Even today the voice inside me says: "They won't believe
you, and you'll get into trouble."
SURVIVORS seem to be the ones taking all the risks, and it would
be good to see the Church match this courage. I suspect that a
substantial number of clergy heard survivor stories and were
complicit in this institutional big sleep. We need a groundswell of
momentum to enable those clergy to speak out; if a bishop led the
way, I think survivor groups would say, "Whatever you do, don't
resign - we need you. Work with us."
That sort of momentum could generate the energy to turn the
focus in a new direction. As long as the Church "responds"
piecemeal to each survivor who comes forward, the focus will remain
on containing the problem, and trying to pretend that it's business
as usual. A more courageous Church will be a much more proactive
one; and the C of E will need people of courage to help it through
what may lie ahead.
With the national inquiry looming, many survivors might come
forward; many are already doing so. The inquiry will almost
certainly reveal how institutions easily revert to fortress mode in
order to fend off difficult challenges. I know two things about
fortresses: I've never seen one go for a walk; and most of them end
Although the C of E has missed so many opportunities to get
ahead of the curve, there is an 11th-hour window right now. The
Church needs to risk a bigger response to this than it is currently
making, matching courage with courage. It needs to walk into the
heart of this thing with honesty and fearlessness. Putting aside
any desire to protect the institution will lead to better healing
for survivors, and greater integrity of the Church.
ONE place for survivors to begin to find help might be alongside
other survivors. The Church seems reluctant to facilitate this,
preferring to keep us compartmentalised; but I hope that the Church
might involve survivors in exploring the idea of a cathedral space
dedicated to the whole issue of abuse. Words alone are often not
enough: people need symbol, and action. Like thousands of others,
my life has been marred by mental-health problems giving rise to
issues that I still work to overcome: school failure; emotional
abuse of others; angry outbursts; medication; bipolar disorder.
Many lives have passed with far worse stories still untold, and
they need to be remembered. And those who do survive today can find
strength in no longer being alone.
The questions raised by survivors of abuse are the most
uncomfortable the Church has faced, and they have no easy answers -
perhaps no answers at all. But, by admitting the questions that
many of us have carried for decades, and showing itself willing to
buckle under the weight of them, the Church will enable the burden
to shift to where it belongs; and survivors will begin to feel
lighter. If, on the other hand, we get this wrong, the pain
continues for everyone, and will be disastrous for the Church.
I hope that other survivors will speak out with their thoughts
on what needs to happen. All of us have unique and different
viewpoints, and more of our stories are rising as the sea turns to
remembering - hundreds of them are coming to the surface. It's
possible the C of E will never be the same again . . . once the
tide has finished turning.
The author of this piece has asked to remain anonymous. A
shorter version of this article appeared on the ITV blog last
*Minister and Clergy Sexual Abuse Survivors: www.macsas.org.uk