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What to do about adult abuse

09 October 2020

Change is needed to ensure that victims are taken seriously. Report by Sarah Lothian

THESE past few days may have been an exception, but usually the news about safeguarding involves yet another failure by the Church or a Christian organisation. Behind each headline or thread is story of trauma, broken lives, and shattered communities.

Important questions have been raised, and are still to be answered. Who is vulnerable? How can the experience of survivors who report abuse be improved? Can the Church and Christian organisations ever identify potential abusive behaviour and prevent it?

This week, the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) published its final report on the Anglican Church. The Charity Commission is due to report on its inquiries into allegedly abusive behaviour at two Christian organisations: the British Pakistani Christian Association and the London church SPAC Nation. The Church of England itself is sitting in the Commission’s in-tray.

Two separate lessons-learnt reviews are also ongoing: the Makin review, commissioned by the Church of England, of its response to abuse committed by the late John Smyth; and an independent report concerning Jonathan Fletcher, requested by the Charity Commission.

All these investigations concern the alleged abuse of power involving adults, not children. They relate, among other things, to spiritual and financial abuse, bullying, and violence.

Earlier this year, Meg Munn, who chairs the National Safeguarding Panel (NSP), the independent body set up in 2018 to provide scrutiny and challenge to the Church of England, wrote: “Much of the conversation around safeguarding focuses on children, yet we know from the work of Diocesan Safeguarding Advisers [DSAs] that, in the Church, adults are a very significant part of the workload.” In 2017, she wrote, there were 1257 reports to relating to children, and 2030 concerning adults.

The definitions that apply to safeguarding adults have changed in the past decade. The Church of England guidelines Responding Well to Domestic Abuse, published by the House of Bishops in 2017, use the term “vulnerable adults”, but this is dropping out of use in secular contexts. At the February meeting of the NSP, a formal recommendation was made to drop the term.

The helpline service manager at the Christian safeguarding charity thirtyone:eight, Cathy Johnson, explains: “Over recent years, ‘vulnerable adult’ has been replaced with the term ‘adult at risk of harm’.

“In part, this is an acknowledgement that all adults can be more or less vulnerable at different times of their lives. This shift in terminology also clarifies that the abuse of adults is linked to their circumstances rather than their characteristics.”

“All adults can be vulnerable,” Ms Munn wrote in a blog post about the meeting, “and the likelihood of adults’ being at risk is increased within the church context as it invites people to bring their vulnerabilities.”

The “vulnerable-adult” recommendation has not yet been adopted. In July, the Bishop of Huddersfield, Dr Jonathan Gibbs, the lead safeguarding bishop, responded to a General Synod question about the differing terms, saying that there was likely to be little practical difference between a “vulnerable adult” and an “adult at risk”.

Campaigners insist that the distinction is important. Andrew Graystone, an author and spokesman for victims of the serial abuser John Smyth, says: “The concept of vulnerable adults suggests there is a particular category, and you can identify who they are and then worry about them.

Yvonne Michele

“If you have Down’s syndrome, for example, or a learning disability, you will be classed as a vulnerable adult. But you might be in a very protective and supportive context, so you’re not at risk of abuse.

“You might say that undergraduates at Oxford and Cambridge are unlikely to be regarded as vulnerable because they are smart, well-resourced, and motivated. But if these undergraduates fall into a cultic organisation, or brush up against people who have abusive intentions towards them, they will be at risk.

“One of the reasons why I think that the Church is reluctant to move on this definition, is that the core thing that puts people at risk is an imbalance of power. And, if you start saying people who are heavily influenced by powerful religious leaders are at risk, you’re getting close to saying anybody in the Church. And they don’t want to say that. They want to say there’s only a particular class of people who are vulnerable.”

“Ellen”, who was sexually assaulted by a senior colleague at the Christian organisation she worked for, did not receive the support she needed, she believes, because she did not fit the stereotype of a vulnerable victim.

“The assumption seemed to be that adults can’t be groomed, and I wasn’t a vulnerable adult or a child; so it wasn’t a safeguarding issue. We have to understand that you are vulnerable because you are faced with a predator’s actions, not because of some innate vulnerability.”


IF ALL adults are potentially at risk, how can we recognise the signs of abuse — and protect church communities? Many commentators say that an understanding of grooming is crucial.

An abuse survivor and spokeswoman for Minister and Clergy Sexual Abuse Survivors (MACSAS), Jo Kind, says that we should be “naturally vigilant” rather than actively looking for signs of abuse, and willing to respond decisively.

“In my case,” she says, “the reviewer said that alarm bells should have rung with people in the church. It’s about getting away from the mind-set that the cleric must be safe because they have a clean DBS check and they are ordained, and therefore to be trusted.”

“The Church needs to make it easy and safe to report concerns without fear of being vilified for being a ‘whistleblower’, or of a heavy CDM hammer coming down on the clergy person without full investigation. The independent investigation layer/stage is very weak in the Church of England at the moment.”

Yvonne Michele is an abuse survivor, businesswoman, and communicator who has worked extensively with women and girls who have been abused. “My perspective comes from a Pentecostal community,” she says, “but I believe there is a hierarchy in most churches, and people put leadership — and that can be anyone from the pastor, priest, all the way to the choir director — on a pedestal. These people then become great in the eyes of their congregation, and so it’s very easy for abuse to go unnoticed.”

As for recognising victims, she says: “They may display traits of having low self-esteem and lack confidence or need support; victims can become withdrawn, aggressive, tearful; and, if you are living near to a victim, they can also lose their appetite or suffer from insomnia. These are classic signs, but not necessarily clear signs.

“In terms of what I’ve seen or witnessed in the Church, unless you’re looking for it you won’t necessarily find it until it’s gone on for a long period of time, and that’s because of this hierarchy. If somebody did say: ‘The priest or the pastor or the deacon has touched me in an inappropriate way,’ in most scenarios, in my experience, the complainant would be fobbed off with ‘Oh, you’ve made a mistake: they wouldn’t do that, that’s a man of God.’”

One of the notable features of church safeguarding failures in recent years is the fact that rumours of abuse have been discussed quietly among communities and the church hierarchy, sometimes for many years.

SPAC Nation is a black-majority London-based church that has been praised in the mainstream media for its apparent success in dealing with the complex issue of knife crime, despite claims of allegedly abusive behaviour that had been circulating on social media for some time.

A journalist for the Huffington Post, Nadine White, whose articles led to the current investigation, wrote: “As the controversy around SPAC Nation came to a head, I noticed one question repeatedly being asked: ‘Did the police, government, and media, seemingly lulled into believing the hype around SPAC Nation, not see what was happening — or did they decide to turn a blind eye?”


“CHRISTOPHER” is a former staff member at Emmanuel Church, Wimbledon, and says that, in the case of Jonathan Fletcher, cultural and hierarchical power dynamics were in play, enabling Fletcher to retain his position of authority in the Church, despite complaints dating back several years. An independent, lessons-learnt review is currently being carried out by the safeguarding charity Thirtyone:eight.

Another reason that adult-safeguarding issues are not taken forward is a lack of belief that the perpetrator could be responsible. Natalie Collins, a gender-justice specialist, says: “Once someone is identified as abusive, we have a couple of options: we can either accept it, which means we then have to reassign what community is to us; if there’s an abuser in this community, it means we’re not safe.

“So we can either do the hard work of recalibrating how I understand church, and myself in relation to church, or what’s easy to do is to say: ‘It can’t be as bad as what she’s saying. He can’t really be abusive.’

“It’s much harder to do that work of saying ‘He’s really abusive and I can’t tell.’ Because, if I couldn’t tell that he was abusive, who else is there in this community who is abusive, and how am I going to protect my family? I want to believe that, when people say they are Christians, they are.

“When it’s a church leader, or somebody with a responsibility, it becomes more difficult, because, in those contexts, we have already decided that they are safe: we’ve given them responsibility, and how do we come back from that?

“We then have to go through all our processes where we decide who is and isn’t safe, and that doesn’t feel like something that many of us wants to spend our time doing.”

When they do find the strength to come forward, adult victims can find that Christian culture and questionable theology exacerbate the impact of the original abuse.

Mrs Collins believes that one of the hurdles for women reporting adult abuse is being believed in the first place. The idea that women are temptresses who are always complicit in whatever is done to them has a theological underpinning that applies in wider society, but, in any context, women get blamed.

“There is not that level of disbelief for men. Women are assumed to be lying, or to have had some part to play. When a man is abused in the church, he is being abused, but, when a woman is being abused, it’s seen as ‘an affair’.

“Theology can validate something in a way that is an extra element to what you get in wider society, rather than being totally different to what you see there.”

At first, the Christian leaders to whom Ellen reported her sexual assault were supportive, but, a few days later, their reaction changed: “I could tell that someone else had become involved: an HR adviser, lawyer, or the chair of the board, I don’t know.”

From that moment on, Ellen felt that she was treated as a threat to the organisation. She says: “I think that, for Christian leaders, there’s often the temptation — the very worldly temptation — to employ crisis management control; there’s a fallacy that if you try and cover these things up, somehow the Church will look better in the eyes of the world.”

Lawyers have led the organisation’s response ever since. “There’s no human contact any more: it’s completely shut down. They forward anything I say to their solicitor, who writes a two-line cold response. There’s a complete breakdown in their relationship, and, if the gospel is nothing else, it’s the restoration of relationships and reconciliation.”

During the ensuing investigation process at the Christian organisation, Ellen was led to believe that she was somehow responsible for the assault, and could have prevented it from happening.

“A year later, I turned up at my doctor’s, suicidal. If all this chaos and drama boiled down to the fact that the perpetrator had been tempted by my behaviour, if that all lies with me, then I cannot bear myself: that’s the shame they put on me.”


THE Church, too, has been accused of causing victims to suffer further. Mr Graystone says: “Many of the victims I have spoken to have described the process of dealing with the Church as really abusive.

“And many of them speak about it as being as bad or worse than the original abuse. Because, by dealing with it in an adversarial way, what the Church is saying is not: ‘You have a problem and we help you,’ but ‘You are a problem.’

“If you’ve been on the receiving end of an abusive relationship, and all you’re told is that you’re making life difficult, that’s going to leave you fairly isolated and wondering where to go. It’s literally soul destroying.”

A Church of England-backed support service for survivors of church-related abuse across the C of E and the Roman Catholic Church in England, the Safe Spaces project, has taken six years to get off the ground, and is only now just beginning a two-years pilot project. The delay has frustrated survivor groups.

“When you report abuse,” Ms Kind says, “you’re at your most vulnerable, and support should kick in then, at the moment when you’re in most need. People’s livelihoods are so much in the balance, and there’s often a need for therapeutic help, and there’s still no way of accessing that at the moment.

“MACSAS will help with that, and we’ll advocate with the diocese for people to provide money for that, but there needs to be some kind of contingency or emergency fund for people who find themselves in dire straits. And whether that’s some kind of hardship fund, or enough money to pay for ten therapy sessions, it needs to be made available immediately.”

Ms Munn wrote in her April blog report that the NSP had looked at different ways in which training was being provided. “For those being trained for roles within the Church, understanding the abuse of power is crucial.”

For survivors and campaigners, this may not be enough. Many are now calling for independent scrutiny.

Mr Graystone says: “The leadership of the Church has failed to appreciate the way that its own power structures and privileges can make it abusive. I think that the leadership of the Church needs to acknowledge that it doesn’t have all the answers within itself. It can’t act as its own regulator.”




a former staff member at Emmanuel Church, Wimbledon

VICTIMS have been criticising not just what happened at Emmanuel and the behaviour of Jonathan Fletcher, but the way that that was enabled by such a close circle of friends from such a narrow, class-orientated background.

At one level, I don’t care what people’s churchmanship is, or what school they went to; but when you end up with such a lack of diversity, it does mean that these things can be handled in-house in a very unhelpful way, either with bad motives or good motives.

We need to have the oxygen of other people who are unrelated, who aren’t our friends, in the same way you would have in the business world — based on ability and character. Then you have all sorts of diversity, and that means we’re hearing different voices with different perspectives, and we can’t get away with certain things because we’re “one of the chaps”.

There’s been that lack of diversity within that particular constituency of Christianity, which I think enabled what went on. We’re not having a go at people who have more money, or who are from a certain class, but, when it becomes a bit of a ghetto, however good your theology is there are some real dangers associated with that.

And other people, other leaders were complicit in this, and part of the remit of the Thirtyone:eight inquiry is supposedly to discover who knew what and when. Many people will think they will have failed completely if they don’t make that clear.
With the senior staff, you had people whose thinking was that they were in an “Ivy League” church, and in an enviable position.

The last thing they wanted to do was rock the boat — and they would openly tell you that. That’s unacceptable. Our loyalty is to be to Jesus and his sheep rather than to worldly leaders and our ministry careers, or we are disqualified as pastors.
It’s all about power.

Senior leaders were aware, and discerning people left the Church; people were making complaints year after year, and nothing was done.

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