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Carried on The Sea of Forgetting

17 April 2015

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 as ruins.

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 week.

*Minister and Clergy Sexual Abuse Survivors: www.macsas.org.uk

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