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‘As a survivor, I believe that by talking out, I may be able to help others’

17 January 2020

A survivor of clergy abuse, Angharad Woolcott, reflects on the BBC2 documentary Exposed: The Church’s darkest secret, on the serial sex-offender and former bishop Peter Ball

The Truth Project

Angharad Woolcott as a child

Angharad Woolcott as a child

THE powerful testimonies of survivors were at the heart of the BBC2 programme about the disgraced former bishop Peter Ball. The two-part documentary Exposed: The Church’s darkest secret, centred on the accounts of his victims, shining a light on the battle for justice and the lifelong impact that abuse can have.

This is something that I can relate to all too well. Like the victims of Peter Ball, I was sexually abused by a Church of England priest.

There is barely a single part of my life that has not been affected by the abuse I experienced as a child: from the small things, such as the rules my abuser enforced about eating with my mouth closed, to the big things, such as questioning my ability to take care of my children, or putting trust in those around me. The impact of his actions has changed the way I look at the world.

My abuser was not a figure of national prominence, but he was a pillar of our rural community. He was a family friend, and his wife was a primary-school teacher. His social status allowed him to abuse with impunity.

Seeing this happen to others brought back feelings of anguish and disbelief. A priest is someone whom we should be able to trust — a person involved in marriages and christenings, ceremonies steeped in hope and love. If we can’t put our faith in them, who can we?

Neil Todd was one of Peter Ball’s victims, who, sadly, took his own life. The powerful words of his sister resonated with me, and echoed the frustration that I felt. “When you try to speak out, and you go to the people that should be there to protect you, and they call you liars and mischief-makers, and make out that you’re the one that’s stirring up a load of rubbish, you have to go through the ordeal all over again.”

To this day, I still admire the Church as a symbol of strength and peace. But it’s important to remember that faith should be who you are — not a justification for abuse. Like the victims of Ball, the priest who abused me said that what I was doing was for God. He used religion as a mask to hide behind. It is vital that this is not allowed to happen again.

As a survivor, I believe that, by speaking out, I may be able to help others in a similar situation. In the documentary, survivors spoke about the harrowing experience of engaging with the authorities multiple times before action was taken: first in 1993, and again in 2004, with their accounts minimised, disbelieved, or ignored.

Last May, the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) concluded that the Church of England’s response to allegations of abuse involving Ball was marked by secrecy, prevarication, and an avoidance of reporting alleged crimes. It found the apology given by the Church unconvincing. I do not remember ever receiving an apology from the Church, but, if I had, I would have felt the same.

The inquiry’s investigation into the diocese of Chichester has now closed. Legal investigations, however, are not the only way in which survivors can contribute to its work. I have told my story to the Truth Project, and put forward recommendations for change. At the Truth Project, I was able to talk in confidence, and without judgement. It was almost like being granted freedom, to talk openly to people without being criticised, judged, or facing unnecessary questions.

To tell your experience to the Truth Project, visit www.iicsa.org.uk/victims-and-survivors, or email contact@iicsa.org.uk.

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