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‘It has felt like a house under siege’

01 June 2018

Abigail Frymann Rouch speaks to clergy victims of stalking, and asks whether enough is being done to support them


Graham Sawyer

Graham Sawyer

IT WAS trauma that brought the Revd Graham Sawyer into closer contact with one of his female parishioners: she witnessed her husband killing himself, in front of their children.

“I then exercised the pastoral care that would be expected of any priest,” he recalls. “Unfortunately, she became very dependent on me, and it became a sort of infatuated obsession. . . Her demands on me became impossible for me to meet, which gave her a pseudo-legitimacy to turn her obsession into hate.”

Mr Sawyer, the Vicar of St James’s, Briercliffe, in the diocese of Blackburn, says that the woman sent him about 500 emails, and phoned him “at all hours”. She spread false rumours about him in the parish, and his congregation almost halved. He went to the police, but was passed from one officer to another, despite being told that officers would issue a harassment warning. One officer suggested that he could be prosecuted for wasting police time.

He was signed off for six weeks with stress, and another priest took over the woman’s pastoral care.

Meanwhile, the woman asked to see the Bishop. Mr Sawyer continues: “My diocesan bishop was genuinely trying — as much as I was — to do the right thing for all concerned, although, like me, this was very new territory for him.” He goes on: “Most others in the diocesan hierarchy, however, were considerably less charitable.”

When the police issued the woman with a harassment warning in December 2015, 13 months after they had said they would, her behaviour stopped.


THE charity Protection Against Stalking describes stalking as a life-changing experience. Statistics suggest that it is a growing problem: government figures for 2017 suggest that cases of stalking and harassment recorded by police in England and Wales rose by 36 per cent more than in the previous year, to just under 250,000.

Clergy, as visible figures in the community, enjoying a degree of authority and with a ministry that involves offering pastoral support to the vulnerable, find themselves at increased risk.

A Church Times survey of all dioceses, carried out in 1998, uncovered incidents of “obsessive attention”, and suggested that the situation had been “compounded by the increased number of mentally ill people who are now supposedly cared for in the community” (News, 19 June 1998). It uncovered stories of dioceses that failed to take reported cases seriously.

Most of those interviewed for this latest piece agreed to comment on condition that they remained anonymous. Some were married, and most were male.

“It has felt like a house under siege,” says the wife of one priest. Her husband is being stalked online. “The toll it takes on you is cumulative,” a female priest says: she has been stalked several times, she says. A Welsh priest who was twice attacked by a stalker with paranoid schizophrenia and psychosis reports: “I go everywhere in the car now.” A young priest who has now left his Newcastle parish with burnout says that the experience of being stalked “contributed to my having a nervous breakdown”.

Without the right support, being stalked can damage a priest’s sense of safety, and trust in his or her bishop and police. It can be time-consuming for the priest, and leave him or her feeling guilty or angry and bitter.

Stalking is broadly defined as behaviour that is repeated, obsessive, and unwanted by the victim, and causes the victim alarm or distress. It could be emailing, phoning, visits that are excessive or at odd times, sitting for hours outside the victim’s house, or spreading rumours about the victim. Such actions can become grounds for arrest if the perpetrator continues after a police warning.

One young priest said that he was aware of jokey “nicknames for women of a certain age who fixate on clergy . . . ‘cassock-chasers’ or ‘cloth-moths’”. When he spoke to his archdeacon about his female stalker, he was told: “This happens so often.” Yet even mild attention of this sort can be stressful, and requires careful handling.


HOW much attention is too much? One priest who is being stalked did not go to the police for several years, because he hoped that he could manage the situation himself, and was reluctant to escalate it. Only two incidents need to occur before someone can go to the police, but the Suzy Lamplugh Trust, which runs the National Stalking Helpline, says that 73 per cent of stalking victims experience 100 incidents before reporting them.

Dr Sara Henley, a consultant clinical and forensic psychologist and head of therapies at the National Stalking Clinic in north London, says that, while almost half the reported cases involve a former partner, the rest can be grouped in three scenarios: “intimacy-seeking”, often projected on to someone of status such as an MP, a GP, or a priest; someone with learning difficulties; or someone with a grievance.

Clergy fall squarely into the first category, she says, because “the Church provides support for, and attracts, people who are very vulnerable, and is very tolerant of behaviour that other parts of society might not be.” The clergy make one-to-one pastoral visits, may live in remote vicarages, and interact at times of need with people who may be inclined to ignore boundaries.

The Church of England has no centralised system for safeguarding the clergy from stalking, however, and no one keeping count of how many of the clergy have been stalked. A spokesman said: “We take the welfare of our clergy very seriously, and would obviously advise anyone being stalked to report it, and would ensure pastoral support.”

Dioceses provide the clergy with training and guidance on security, and this varies from one diocese to the next. Some dioceses have “lone working” policies, which outline steps that the clergy can take to protect themselves, and encourages keeping records of any encounters of concern.

A study of a sample of ten such diocesan policies found that none stated when clergy who were concerned for their safety should go to the police, although some added a footnote directing the reader to the advice of the Suzy Lamplugh Trust.

While they encourage the clergy to mitigate their vulnerability, the policies focus on preventing difficulties during one-off situations rather than stopping repeated behaviour. Meanwhile, Nick Tolson, who founded National Churchwatch, and who was asked for advice after the murder of Mr Bennett (News, 5 October 2007), reports that the Suzy Lamplugh Trust, for whom he acts as a trainer, is “not experienced in dealing with clergy”.


iSTOCKiSTOCKVIGILANCE is greatest where there have been a severe attack on a cleric. The Church in Wales has tightened up its clergy safeguarding since the murder of the Revd Paul Bennett by a man with paranoid schizophrenia in 2007 (News, 19 October 2007).The Representative Body of the Church in Wales contacted the Suzy Lamplugh Trust, and provides ordinands with their materials. The Welsh priest quoted above, who was almost killed by his stalker, advises ordinands at St Padarn’s Institute.

In addition, boundary-setting is covered in clergy’s continuing ministerial development. The diocese of Gloucester, where Fr John Suddards was murdered in a random attack in 2012 (News, 17 February 2012), offered clergy security training immediately afterwards, and provides all clergy with Suzy Lamplugh leaflets.

A spokesman for Liverpool diocese says that its clergy pushed for their lone-working document because the 1996 murder of the 32-year-old Revd Christopher Gray by a former prisoner was lodged in the diocese’s “folklore memory” (News, 22 November 1996). The document goes out to new clergy, and is available through the website.

Stalking events now take place on social media, where anyone can post criticisms or make unfounded allegations anonymously. Yet no lone-working documents seen by the Church Times mention cyber-crime.

No diocese wants to brush off an allegation, however, especially at a time when the Independent Inquiry into Child Sex Abuse continues to seek out genuine cases of abuse, and correct historic failures to investigate them.

The Church in Wales last year asked South Wales Police to take down a traditionalist blog it accused of “cyber-trolling” senior clergy; a church spokeswoman says that the police asked many times, but “were unable to get the co-operation of the host server, Google, in order to track the IP addresses”.

THE police have not always responded well. Reflecting on his experience, Mr Sawyer says: “If the police had issued the harassment warning 13 months earlier, when they said they would, it would have saved my stalker as much as me.” He believes that the woman was not aware of the effect she was having on him; he understands that she is now happily remarried.

Lancashire Constabulary has apologised to Mr Sawyer, and says that it now employs dedicated stalking and harassment detectives to review cases and advise officers as required. And Mr Sawyer reports that his diocese now has an “excellent” safeguarding adviser in place.

So, what needs to be done? Some initiatives are already under way. With £5000 of government funding, Royal Holloway University of London is to carry out a survey in the coming weeks into crimes against Anglican clergy, which should give both church and state authorities a clearer picture of the problem and where help might be needed.

A Private Member’s Bill, introduced by Sarah Wollaston, the Conservative MP for Totnes, has reached committee stage. It would stiffen penalties for stalking someone other than a former or current partner, and for breaching stalking protection orders.

In London, the Metropolitan Police have launched a stalking unit with the Suzy Lamplugh Trust, in conjunction with mental-health officials. But forces’ harassment officers need to ensure that best practice arising from such a collaboration is shared, and, since stalking was classified in 2014 as separate from harassment, officers need to make sure that they correctly categorise crimes.


AS FOR the C of E, Ann Moulds, of Action Against Stalking, who supported Mr Sawyer, says that the Church has to take greater responsibility for victims, especially if stalking occurs to them in relation to their professional capacity. “Do they have a stalking policy? If not, why not?”

She advises that such a policy should state: “Do not have any further contact with your stalker; record any contact from them; and — contrary to some Christian instincts — never go into mediation with them.” Dioceses also need to know how they would support a priest who is being stalked.

Clergy who were interviewed said that dealing with stalking behaviour should be covered at theological college or during curacy training. Westcott House says that stalking is mentioned in parts of its formational programme; and the Principal of St Stephen’s House, Canon Robin Ward, reports that ordinands who are stalked are advised to go the police, and given pastoral support.

“We try to inculcate a pastoral intelligence in all our candidates,” he says, “but, in reality, this is an issue that sits more appropriately for training purposes in the curacy portion of initial ministerial training.” At a pastoral level, one priest who was stalked learned that “you can’t save everyone”; and the Welsh priest who was almost killed says that he learned not to feel guilty “about saying no to someone”.

Mr Sawyer advises drawing on the expertise of other organisations: “I hope the Church doesn’t feel it has to have all the answers.”

Prevention is clearly better than cure, and early intervention can put a stop to some behaviour before too much damage is done. But C of E dioceses’ individualised approaches to clergy safeguarding mean that a coherent and effective response to stalking may be devised only when a crisis erupts locally. A little knowledge goes a long way, and clergy safeguarding training needs to include policies on stalking and cyber-stalking, devised with expert input, to reduce the number of casualties.

Mr Sawyer is adamant that it is worth devising robust safeguards for the clergy, as the Church has done for children: “It’s a bit like Easter: you have to go via the cross.”


Box-outs (Source: National Stalking Helpline)

How can the law help?

Stalking is illegal. If you are being stalked, you can complain to the police or apply for an injunction and damages through a civil court. To get in contact with the police, either go to your local police station, or call the non emergency number and make an appointment. It might help to write down what has happened to you and take that with you as well as any questions you may have so that you don’t forget anything you want to include. If you are ever in immediate danger phone the police on 999.


It’s important to try and gather evidence and document what is happening. Evidence can include phone records, copies of text messages and emails, screenshots of web pages or IM conversations, letters or gifts. It’s also very helpful to keep a diary of all incidents connected to the stalking


  • Do not engage with your stalker in any way
  • Talk to neighbours, colleagues or your manager about the harassment if you feel comfortable doing so. They may be able to help by collecting further evidence on your behalf or by putting protective measures in place
  • Be aware of how much of your personal information is in the public domain and take steps to protect your data
  • Complete the Stalking Risk Checklist by going to www.suzylamplugh.org/Pages/FAQs, and take it with you if you go to the police
  • Above everything, trust your instincts

Sources of support:

The National Stalking Helpline is run by Suzy Lamplugh Trust: 0808 802 0300

Network for Surviving Stalking: www.scaredofsomeone.org

Protection Against Stalking www.protectionagainststalking.org

Paladin (assists high risk victims) paladinservice.co.uk; 020 3866 4107

Action Against Stalking www.actionagainststalking.org

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