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Good news for survivors, at last

09 October 2020

The Safe Spaces project is a step in the right direction, say David and Sue Atkinson


Safe Spaces is to include a national helpline for abuse survivors

Safe Spaces is to include a national helpline for abuse survivors

WE WERE invited to support friends who are survivors of abuse by signing the recent joint letter to the Charity Commission, which urged it to intervene to improve the Church of England’s response to survivors of abuse (News, 14 August).

We agreed to sign the letter because we have serious concerns that some of the Church’s systems and structures are not working for many survivors. Some say that they do not feel listened to, or part of the processes that concern them. Some of the ways of working lack clarity about decision-making, and the process is often too long. This does not add up to a good response to victims and survivors.

So, it is very good news that a new agency, Safe Spaces, is getting under way to address this (News, 2 October). Safe Spaces is a collaboration between the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of England specifically to provide advocacy and support for victims and survivors of abuse.

Too often, the Church’s (important) safeguarding processes (core groups, strategy meetings) have necessarily focused on risk management, alleged perpetrators, statutory agencies, and legalities. They have not been primarily concerned with the needs of survivors.

Of course, safeguarding needs protocols and careful processes. Preventing abuse is a vital task. But pastoral care of survivors is something different. Instead of bureaucracy, survivors need to be listened to in a safe context that speaks of grace, compassion, attention, healing, justice, and restoration. We are very grateful that the lead bishop on safeguarding, the Bishop of Huddersfield, Dr Jonathan Gibbs, and others in the National Safeguarding Team share these concerns and are working hard for improvement. Something has to change. It has not always been clear who holds the power within the system to change the system. Is it the Archbishops’ Council? The insurers? The General Synod?


ONE of us, Sue, is a survivor of childhood abuse, and, over the years, she — and, to a lesser extent, the other, David — have worked with a large group of survivors, often through Survivors’ Voices, a survivor-led organisation.

One dimension to Sue’s story, after childhood abuse, is that some memories came back when she was in her forties, triggering traumatic reactions. This explained the life-long struggle with depression and suicidal thinking. After many years of counselling, a huge step forward was provided two years ago by trauma therapy, through the Rape and Sexual Assault Centre (RASAC). But, 70 years after the abuse, there are still triggering events that make life difficult, making her vulnerable in some circumstances.

It is this life-long struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that often dictates the quality of life for a survivor, leading to an overwhelming persistent need to feel safe. But, for many survivors, the Church is not a safe space — especially when people respond inappropriately to those struggling with PTSD, as has been the case with many survivors we know.

All survivors experience things differently. Sue is in touch with some survivor friends who cannot hold down a job; some — because of the effects of trauma and other mental-health issues — are homeless. Many live in poverty, and yet they see the church worker who abused them living a comfortable life. This deepens the sense of injustice and magnifies the abuse. The core-group structure cannot deal with this.


WE HAVE long wondered whether the Church could, in due course, sponsor an independent agency to provide longer-term therapy (like that provided by RASAC), support, and a place of safety for survivors, perhaps in a healing or retreat centre. Safe Spaces could be a very welcome first step. The name “Safe Spaces” was suggested by some survivors, and is exactly right — even though the phrase has been criticised and used for a variety of other things, especially in some subcultures in the United States.

In March 2018, funding was secured for a two-year grant. In consultation with survivors on the service design, a management board has been established. The plan is for a national central Safe Spaces helpline, a website, and several community-based survivor-led therapeutic support groups for adult victims of church-related abuse. (Church-related may include abuse by a church officer, or abuse that is linked to participating in a church-led activity or group.)

It is independent of the sponsoring churches, and a two-year pilot scheme, which started late last month, will be provided by a new charity, Safe Spaces England and Wales (SSEW), which will contract with Victim Support, with the plan to scale it up in future. There will be independent evaluation, but already some have queried whether the money set aside for SSEW will be enough, given the number of survivors who need help.

Victim Support was set up more than 40 years ago, and receives more than one million referrals a year concerning victims of crime. It seeks to give immediate and ongoing support and, through SSEW, to provide help and support to anyone who has been a victim of church-related abuse in the C of E and the RC Church of England and Wales.

“Safe Spaces” has been talked about for some years, and it is very good news that it is now getting under way. It is a most welcome step on the road towards better practice. As Jane Chevous, co-founder of Survivors’ Voices, wrote: “This is a welcome start to ensuring all survivors get good trauma-informed care.”


The Rt Revd David Atkinson is an Hon. Assistant Bishop in the diocese of Southwark. Dr Sue Atkinson is a former teacher and education lecturer, who is now a writer.


Read more on this topic in this week’s Features:

What to do about adult abuse 

The moment my heart stopped fainting

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