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The moment my heart stopped fainting

09 October 2020

Julie Macfarlane’s decision to pursue justice after sexual abuse exposed hypocrisy, she writes

Braunte Petric

Julie Macfarlane

Julie Macfarlane

AS A teenager during the 1970s, I was a member of an Anglican church congregation in the town of Chichester. At 13 and 14, looking for meaning, I got caught up in the Billy Graham Evangelical excitement and became a Jesus person. I joined an Anglican church and continued to practise as a Christian.

By 16, I began to have doubts about my faith. I went to my church minister for advice. He met with me in his private study, as his children (whom I sometimes babysat) played in an adjacent room. That day was the first of a series of repeated sexual assaults over the next year.

He said that this was what God wanted and it would help me resolve my doubts. He then harassed and stalked me in my home town until I left to go to university, almost 12 months later. He showed up regularly at my home, offering to take me out for driving lessons.

No matter how many excuses I came up with, my mother always insisted that I go with him (“So kind of the minister!”). He would lie in wait for me as I walked home from my Saturday job as a dishwasher in a restaurant — the short cut home went through a dark alleyway — and, grabbing me, he would roughly rub his body against me over my clothing.


WHEN David Greenwood, a lawyer involved in campaigning for a public inquiry into sex abuse and its cover up by the Anglican Church in England and Wales, first suggested to me, in July 2013, that I bring a lawsuit against the Anglican Church for historic sex abuse, I dismissed the idea.

From my professional work over the previous twenty years, I understood only too well the pitfalls of litigation, its capacity to distort feelings, recollections, and justice, and to keep people in trauma long after a more healing and healthy process could have enabled them to move on with their lives.

I had long advocated for humane, equitable, meaningful alternatives to litigation, as a researcher, educator, and mediator. I studied litigation and those caught up in it as lawyers or as parties. Why would I want to be a litigant myself?

Over the following months, my discussions with David, as well as with my oldest daughter and my husband, Bernie, persuaded me that the most effective way for me to do something was to add to the pressure of mounting numbers of lawsuits against the Church.


DAVID’S strategy in bringing these lawsuits — to draw attention to the Church’s responsibility for sex crimes committed by clerics — was one I recognised from my earlier work as an advocate on children’s-rights issues.

Having spent a lot of time in those years looking for the “right” plaintiff for test cases, I could see that I brought some important credibility as a litigant. As well, what I now knew about the systemic nature of child sex abuse and cover-up in my home town of Chichester changed the equation for me.

I realised that my story needed a different, more robust, and more public ending. It was not simply about stopping one particular minister from committing abuses. The scale of both the abuse and the long-term cover-up by the Church was mind-boggling.

David offered the Anglican Church an opportunity to settle with me before issuing proceedings, that is, before beginning a lawsuit against the diocese of Chichester for my repeated sexual assault by the minister (their employee) from 1975 to 1976.

Given that my case had already been considered by an Anglican diocesan committee in Perth, resulting in the minister’s resignation, I naïvely believed that the Church would probably settle before action — that is, accept some responsibility and via their insurer (which the Anglican Church, in the form of Allchurches Trust, owns) offer a settlement to avoid having to defend the case in court.

I was 100 per cent wrong.


WHILE the Church’s use of a limitations argument and the “consent” defence were their major legal arguments, their statement of defence contained further offensive material. The Church argued that it would be impossible to know if the minister’s abuse had actually had an impact on me, given the other difficult experiences of my life, and referenced my other experiences of sexual violence and that I had recently been diagnosed with breast cancer.

All this was upsetting, but a uniquely galvanising moment arrived in the form of a letter from the office of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, in November 2015.

David had written to Welby after raising my case with him personally when he met him at the General Synod. The written response to David included this line: “I should be grateful if you would convey to your client the Archbishop’s concern and apology on behalf of the whole Anglican Church for the shameful and distressing events mentioned in your earlier letter.”

And then the sentence that tipped me over the edge: “As a lawyer, you will be very aware of the constraints under which we in the profession have to work in dealing with these miserable matters. The scope for personal and sensitive engagement is very limited.”

It may seem peculiar that amid the many intrusive, dishonest, and hurtful statements made by the Church, this would be the final straw for me. But this assertion perfectly crystallised for me the Church’s wilful hypocrisy and the insincerity of their so-called apology.

It was unwise, to say the least, to try to persuade me that the Church had no control over its lawyers and simply had to do what they told them to do. In some ways, it was almost funny. I had written a well-known book about lawyer/client relationships in 2008, based on years of empirical research.

It was a useful cover for the Anglican Church to pretend that they had no choice about their adversarial strategy, and perhaps another person without my background might have swallowed this. But, given my background, I was not a good person to use this bogus argument on.

As any first-year law student will tell you, lawyers take instructions from their clients, not the other way around. Legal services are a simple transaction exchange —clients pay lawyers for their services and seek out their advice.

Some lawyers press their advice, but the final decision-maker must be the paying client. He who pays the piper calls the tune.

When an insurer subrogates (takes over) the legal interests of a client, there are conventions regarding the management of litigation strategy by the insurance representatives. Insurance companies would not turn a profit if they paid out every claim, and their clients are expected to accept this.

But it is obfuscation to claim that a large institutional repeat-client like the Anglican Church does not have the power to set standards and instruct their insurance representatives. If the Anglican Church wants its insurers’ lawyers to behave in a highly adversarial and aggressive manner on its behalf, they can so command.

If they wish them to pursue settlement in meritorious cases, avoid offensive and spurious defences, and respond to a lawsuit with empathy and a desire to see justice — they can do that, too. Moreover, as I was going to learn over the next few months, the relationship between the Anglican Church and Ecclesiastical Insurance Group is a corporate one.

The Anglican Church owns a majority share in EIG, its representatives sit on the EIG board making policy, and the Church directly benefits from EIG’s profits.

The letter from the Archbishop’s office was a blatant attempt to offer David the traditional lawyer’s “handshake” and make him complicit in the claim that there was nothing that could be done to rein in the insurer. I knew David would not be sucked in, but the tone and the dishonesty of this assertion infuriated me.

I went upstairs to my bedroom and crawled into bed, drawing the covers over my head. I could not believe what was happening. My world was upside down. What I knew to be true — not just personally, but as a matter of my professional work —was being denied. I felt shattered, drained. This was my lowest moment since we had started the lawsuit.

But, after wallowing in bed for an hour, I suddenly sat up. Now I was enraged.

I was going to call them out. I was going to show that the Church was being, at best, disingenuous and, at worst, deliberately obfuscating their relationship with the lawyers and insurers and claiming to be powerless. I was going to reveal that their protestations of remorse, as they continued to aggressively defend sexual abuse claims because the lawyers “made them”, were no more than crocodile tears.

I had a plan. I Googled the Church Times, which I knew to be the world newspaper of the Anglican Church, and found the email of a submissions editor named Rachel Boulding. In the course of the next two hours, I wrote about 2000 words about the hypocrisy of the Church’s claim that they had no choice but to do what their lawyers told them and fight survivors tooth and nail.

I emailed it to Rachel. I called it “Not for the Fainthearted”, a reference to the consequences of taking on the Church in litigation for historic sexual abuse. I heard back from Rachel first thing the next morning. The Church Times wanted to publish my article.


This is an edited extract from Going Public: A survivor’s journey from grief to action by Julie Macfarlane, published by Between the Lines Books at £15.95 (Church Times Bookshop £14.35); 978-1-771-1347-5-0.

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