“OH! SUCH a relief!” Lucy (not her real name) was near tears. She had been speaking to the vicar — a complete stranger — of a church which had once employed the Revd Jonathan Fletcher, having rung to say that her husband had been abused by him, decades previously.
What had she expected? Shock, possibly. Businesslike brusqueness, at best. Before she had stammered out her first halting sentence, he had interrupted her with his warmth and kindness, his immediate and compassionate concern. Could he write to her husband to offer his regret and sorrow? Would this be acceptable? It must be so dreadful for them both. . .
Perhaps not surprisingly, given that I’ve known Jonathan Fletcher since early adolescence, I have discovered to my dismay, over the past year or two, a number of friends — a few quite close — who were abused by him for years, or even decades.
One, heartbreakingly, always assumed that he was the only one. Several could not recognise their degrading, humiliating treatment for what it was, they were so under his thrall.
Much has been written about Jonathan: no doubt much more is to come. A fresh insight for me came from the comment that abusers don’t just groom individuals, but whole churches. Often, no one sees what is in plain sight. After all, everyone knew he had a controlling and domineering personality. . .
Of course, immediate victims suffer most: careers compromised, health wrecked. One has had five breakdowns since his teens. Pain rippling out to wives and children; years of upbringing stained with sorrow.
But congregations, too. Emmanuel Church, Jonathan’s last living, is still in shock. Members of the congregation talk of feeling tainted. Some are having to reprocess their very conversions under his ministry.
SO, HOW well do the Church and individual Christians respond when they hear of ill-treatment? Do they show loving concern? Or silent apathy, or worse?
In the 1990s, my family went through a number of challenges: health worries; concerns about our children. Our non-Christian friends and neighbours seemed embarrassed, didn’t mention our difficulties, and, while perfectly civil, were, frankly, not much help.
Members of the congregation at our church were far more open and supportive. At the time, I thought this significant: an endorsement of my faith. Christianity works!
Since then, I have had to revise this opinion. People in the Church can be just as insensitive. And, yes, sometimes worse.
Fifteen years ago, my clergyman-husband took a “dream” post which rapidly turned into a nightmare. After a brief spell in rented accommodation, we were turfed on to the street and made literally homeless, our family of seven split up and hundreds of miles apart for the best part of a year. It was traumatic beyond belief, for every one of us.
A few members of my husband’s employing church were outstandingly generous. One family moved their children so some of us could have somewhere to sleep; another bought a storage container for some of our possessions.
A few, I’m sorry to say, were as cruel as these were kind. The vast majority did nothing — partly, I’m sure, because they simply didn’t know. Also, though, they couldn’t believe what they did know. One came home from a PCC meeting and told her husband what had happened.
“But where are the Atkinses to live?” he asked. “I don’t know,” she said, bewildered. It was too awful to take in.
Perhaps it is too challenging to face what your own church or minister could have done. One couple actually said that they owed their vicar loyalty, so they didn’t want to know. What kind of loyalty is it that can turn a blind eye to evil, I wonder?
I SEE direct parallels between our experience and those harmed by Jonathan Fletcher. A longstanding protégé of Jonathan’s speaks of his amazement at how little contact has been made by Christian friends.
“Everyone knew I was close to him,” he says. And yet almost no one has picked up the telephone to ask if he is all right. One wrote a kind letter. Another rang. The rest? Silence, for over a year. Have they really not joined the dots?
One victim was on the phone about something else to an old friend. The friend said: “I’ve been thinking of you, with all this about Jonathan coming out.” Thinking of him? But not bothering to get in touch.
Occasionally, a response can be worse even than ignorance or disbelief. I was at a party (remember those?) in late July 2019, and someone I didn’t know well (but liked greatly) opened the batting abruptly: “What do you make of all this Jonathan Fletcher stuff?”
“What do you?” I asked carefully.
“I’ve been told it’s a fuss about nothing. A misunderstanding of public-school culture and horseplay.”
Aghast, I said: “I have friends who have made allegations.” It didn’t even seem to register.
AS WITH any difficult challenge, perhaps we need repeated training: all of us, not just staff. If we were frequently drilled in a few simple principles, perhaps we might make fewer mistakes. How about:
- Always be open to believing. This can apply equally to victims of allegations just as well as victims of abuse.
- Never underestimate the damage. It is impossible to know how extensive this can be unless we have experienced it ourselves.
- Be humble. There is bound to be much that we don’t know, and no easy solution.
- Above all, find time to listen. I got the impression that the other churches that Lucy rang might not all have been quite so readily responsive. Sometimes, vicars can’t be reached directly or confidentially. One said that he had to rush to a meeting, and never rang back.
I once heard the gentle and lovely theologian John Sweet, Dean of Selwyn College, Cambridge, make a comment about evangelism: “Attend to people.” It’s hard to improve on that.
‘I am profoundly sorry’
THE Revd Jonathan Fletcher was Minister of Emmanuel Ridgway Proprietary Chapel, in Wimbledon, from 1982 to 2012, when he retired.
In mid-2019, the safeguarding officer at Emmanuel, Sarah Hall, published on the church website: “In early 2017, the current vicar [the Revd Robin Weekes, a former curate of the church, who took up the post in March 2013] and the safeguarding officer became aware from two separate sources that unnamed individuals had made allegations about the Revd Jonathan Fletcher. . . An immediate safeguarding report was made to the diocese. . . We are appalled and saddened by what has been disclosed.”
Later that year, Mr Fletcher’s Permission to Officiate was removed by the diocese of Southwark (News, 28 June 2019). Although there was “no criminal case to answer”, a spokeswoman said, and no evidence of a significant sexual or physical risk to children, “there was a risk of him behaving towards vulnerable adults who may be seeking his spiritual guidance in a manner which may be harmful.”
Since the allegations have been made public, Mr Fletcher has declined to answer them directly, but issued a statement through the Bishop of Maidstone, the Rt Revd Rod Thomas (News, 28 June 2019), which said, in part: “As part of a long-standing prayer group, I have in the past been involved in a system of mutual encouragement whereby we set ourselves targets in healthy and holy living and then imposed what I thought of as light-hearted forfeits if we failed.
“These included going without chocolate, cold baths and school-type gym shoe punishments. Although at the time we definitely did not think we were doing anything wrong, I’ve seen since that it could have caused much harm both to individuals and to the reputation of conservative Evangelicalism for which I am profoundly sorry. Needless to say, this activity has now stopped.”
Victim groups have accused him of making light of the allegations (News, 27 September 2019).
Since then, The Daily Telegraph (26 December 2019) has carried accounts from five victims, repeating the allegations and describing Mr Fletcher as like a “benign dictator” who ruled with a “thumbs up-thumbs down Caesar-like power”.