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Putting my name to my story    

by
16 February 2024

Church officials failed to act when Janet Fife told them how Brandon Jackson treated her

Alamy

The Very Revd Brandon Jackson in 1997, shortly before the announcement of his resignation as Dean of Lincoln

The Very Revd Brandon Jackson in 1997, shortly before the announcement of his resignation as Dean of Lincoln

IT IS one year since the Very Revd Brandon Jackson died (Obituary, 24 February 2023). That was the first time in 36 years that I had not felt afraid of him.

Jackson was Provost of Bradford Cathedral when I first met him. He was visiting the theological college where I was in my final year, and he was a trustee. He was charming, and I warmed to his vision of a cathedral for working people. I was ordained there on 5 July 1987, to serve a curacy as congregational chaplain. The first warning that something darker lay behind the charm came early, when Brandon said to me, “People here will go for the jugular, and you’ve got to get in first.”

I told an anonymised version of my curacy at Bradford Cathedral in Letters to a Broken Church (Books, 16 August 2019): the chapter titled “The Deacon’s Tale”. That was an account of the sexual harassment and indecent assaults that I endured. I did not then feel safe to identify myself, the offender, or the place.

Nor was I alone in my fear of retribution from Brandon. I have spoken to people who were experienced clergy when they knew Brandon, had not seen him for 30 years, and were still terrified of him. “He is a dangerous man,” one told me. I knew that. In my two years at Bradford, I watched Brandon set out to destroy one person after another, with no scruple about the methods that he employed. Some were pursued on false criminal charges. Some never recovered, either professionally or psychologically.

Nor was I the only woman to receive unwelcome sexual advances from him. He was blatant about it, and his reputation was well known. A young woman, a recent convert, had a wardrobe malfunction at a cathedral meeting. She said that Brandon peered down her cleavage and said: “You look a million dollars.” Another told me that Brandon had asked her intimate questions about her sex life. The wives of civic dignitaries seated next to Brandon at functions would find his hand on their thigh. Speaking to the cathedral youth group, Brandon referred to an elderly man with Parkinson’s as having “w*****’s hands”.

When I went to the Bishop to ask him to move me, therefore, I did not expect any difficulty. But Bishop Roy [Williamson] heard me out, then said: “I’m not going to move you. And I’ll tell Brandon you’ve been to see me.”

 

AFTER that, an already intolerable situation became impossible. Brandon instructed the cathedral treasurer not to refund my expenses, and the bullying grew worse. If York diocese had not stepped in to offer me a post, I think I might have had a complete breakdown, and would probably have left Anglican ministry permanently.

Bishop Roy strongly objected to my move: “If you leave now, the scent of failure will follow you throughout your career.” He told me that he had written to the Archbishop of York, the Bishop of Selby, and my new incumbent to complain. I was already badly damaged by two years of extreme bullying and sexual harassment, and that did not make it easier to start in a new ministry.

Brandon moved, too, to become Dean of Lincoln, and immediately became embroiled in what became known as “the Lincoln Wars”. The conflict between him, the Sub-Dean, and the cathedral chapter was headline news; an internet search will find some of the coverage. It was tragic for all concerned, and for the reputation of the Church; but I no longer had to worry that people would think I had failed in not being able to work for Brandon.

In 1995, a young female verger, Verity Freestone, claimed to have had an affair with Brandon. He was tried in a consistory (church) court on a charge of “conduct unbecoming a clerk in holy orders”. It was a cumbersome but sensational procedure, which dominated headlines not only in the UK but also abroad. (It was this case, and the whole Lincoln Wars saga, that prompted a review of clergy disciplinary procedures and eventually resulted in the passing of the Clergy Discipline Measure by the General Synod.) Brandon was found “Not guilty” — a verdict that surprised most of those who had followed the case. Verity had been traduced, made out to be a fantasist and a liar.

I was immediately stricken with guilt. I had felt that I ought to come forward to give evidence of Brandon’s highly sexualised behaviour, but I could not bring myself to do it. I was still very much afraid of Brandon, and the thought of describing his indecent assaults in that adversarial public forum appalled me.

It was only a year after I and other women had been priested, in a blaze of publicity and after a bitter conflict in the Church. In Manchester diocese, where I was then working, the battle had been particularly fierce. The DDO admitted giving us women a hard time “in order to placate your opponents”. To cap it all, my married parish colleague had been outed by The News of the World after advertising for sex. I had seen what the tabloids could do, and I did not want it to happen to me.

I phoned the Bishop of Lincoln, Bob Hardy, speaking first to his chaplain. They were kind, and I felt that I had been taken seriously; both told me that they had been contacted by other women with similar stories.

A few months later, the Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, announced an Archbishop’s Inquiry into the situation at Lincoln Cathedral. Bishop Bob rang to ask if I would put my complaint against Brandon into writing, to be submitted to the Inquiry. I did so, at considerable psychological cost — but only after arranging with a prioress that any of her order’s houses would take me in without notice, in the event that my letter leaked and I was doorstepped by the press. Thankfully, that did not happen.

When the Inquiry concluded, Archbishop Carey found both Brandon and the Sub-Dean to be at fault, and asked them both to resign. That was the limit of his powers. The Sub-Dean stayed in post; Brandon hung on for two more years, and retired early only after negotiating a large payout.

I felt that my evidence had made a small contribution to the Inquiry’s findings, and some of my guilt for not having spoken out earlier was assuaged. I also had considerable respect for Bob Hardy and George Carey, the only two in authority who had the guts to stand up to Brandon. Verity’s reputation, however, had not been restored, and she had not been vindicated. I felt partly responsible for that.

 

IN NOVEMBER 2017, Gilo and Jayne Ozanne wrote to Archbishops Welby and Sentamu regarding sexual abuse in the Church of England and poor treatment of complainants. I wrote to support them, mentioning my own experience.

Neither of the Archbishops replied. Instead, I was phoned by a member of the National Safeguarding Team (NST) at Lambeth Palace. Thus began a saga familiar to survivors, and justly termed “re-abuse”. I actually find it more difficult to write about this than the two years of sexual harassment, indecent assault, and bullying which I endured from Brandon — excruciating though that was.

In a series of phone calls with the NST in late 2017 and early 2018, I was:

  • asked to describe the indecent assaults (always a harrowing experience);
  • informed that my written complaint of 1995 was not in the files of the archbishop’s Inquiry, nor in any other files at Lambeth Palace;
  • told that I was right in saying that “everyone knew Brandon couldn’t keep his hands off women.”

There was no more contact after that. It seemed that my case had been dropped. But I was now in touch with other survivors and with survivor-advocates. That was a great help.

When it became clear that I was going to get no further with the NST, I sent data-subject access requests (SARs) to every C of E body that should hold data on me and my case against Brandon: Bradford Cathedral; the office of the Bishop of Bradford; York diocese; Lincoln diocese; Lincoln Cathedral; and the office of the Bishop of Lincoln.

Bradford Cathedral charged me a search fee, but then said that they had no information on me in their records. That was odd, since I had worked there for two years, and had attended or chaired numerous meetings of which there must have been minutes. I had also, of course, signed the service register a number of times. The Bishop of Bradford’s office said that they had nothing in their files, either. York diocese sent me my entire clergy file. That turned up a few surprises, both good and bad (the lies that are told!) — but nothing on my complaint re Brandon. I had no reply from Lincoln.

Eventually, I followed up on the Lincoln SAR, and finally began to get somewhere. But it was not easy. The Lincoln DSA (diocesan safeguarding adviser) was good — empathetic and conscientious. She left. I was referred back to the NST, while continuing to be in contact with Lincoln.

I was advised to make my complaint to the police, and did so. A bobby in a marked police car came round to interview me, prompting questions from my neighbours. I was having to deal simultaneously with two officials from Lincoln, several from the NST, and the police — and having to recount the story of my abuse with each of them.

The police dropped my case because too much time had passed. Lincoln could find no trace of my written complaint from 1995, nor of any other complaints against Brandon. The NST told me that they could not progress my case. Then they took it up again, setting up a core group. I was not represented on the core group, but was asked to submit all my evidence over again. A staff member assigned to support me phoned with what I thought was a pastoral conversation — only to tell me, after half an hour, that she was gathering information for the core group.

I was told that it was not their role to investigate cases; then, I was told that they were investigating. When, after some months, I had not heard the result of the core group, I chased it up — only to be told that they had dropped it again, without letting me know. Safeguarding staff would set up a telephone appointment, then fail to ring, leaving me waiting by the phone in distress. None of these people were bad, but they were too often incompetent and seemingly unaware of the trauma that they were causing me.

 

DESPAIRING of making progress with the C of E, I decided to pursue a civil case. I was lucky to get Richard Scorer, a highly competent abuse lawyer, to act for me. Richard is Vice-President of the National Secular Society, but I found in him a compassion, integrity, and passion for justice I had sought in vain from the Church. Going to law is a gruelling procedure, but, after several years, I at last obtained a result. The case was settled out of court.

Now, at last, I thought, I might obtain from the Church of England an admission that I had been mistreated by Brandon, and an apology. I had proved my case was credible, providing evidence to back up my account, and, since the case had been settled, the Church was at no risk of incurring further liabilities. Accordingly, I wrote to Bradford Cathedral asking for an apology. There was a delay, partly owing to there being no Dean in post at the time; but eventually I did receive a reasonably satisfactory apology.

Stephen Parsons kindly wrote to Archbishop Cottrell, asking him to apologise on the Church’s behalf for the original abuse and the Church’s mishandling of my case over more than 30 years. I did not get a response from Archbishop Stephen, who is my diocesan and in whose province the original abuse occurred. Instead, I had a phone call from a member of the NST in a different city.

The Archbishop’s reaction had not been a pastoral one; nor had he kept the request confidential. It had been discussed by a number of safeguarding personnel, and presumably also by diocesan lawyers and communications advisers. After some months, and a number of further contacts, I received a letter from Archbishop Cottrell which was not a real apology at all. I stopped considering myself a member of the Church of England.

In one respect at least, I had some limited success. Private Eye and the Church Times ran short items reporting that an unnamed female cleric had received a settlement for sexual assault and harassment by Brandon Jackson while serving as his curate (News, 3 September 2021). It was on the record that he had indecently assaulted a woman; that was some vindication of Verity, whose reputation I had been belatedly trying to restore.

Press coverage was limited, however. Brandon had been out of the news for too long for the media to be interested. (As an aside, I have noted that the cases of women sexually abused in the C of E seem to gain less attention than those of the men. Is that a reflection of the Church’s deeply ingrained misogyny, I wonder. Or do some people feel, as my father did, that abuse is “worse for boys than it is for girls”?)

 

THE coda to my story came in the aftermath of Brandon’s death on 29 January 2023 (News, 10 February 2023). A journalist researching for Brandon’s obituary was told that Bishop Hardy, on retiring in 2001, had committed his entire file on Brandon Jackson to the Lincoln County Archive, and had placed a 25-year embargo on it.

I duly passed this information to the Lincoln safeguarding team, who worked on recovering the file. It took several months of legal manoeuvres and bureaucracy, but, eventually, they succeeded. And there, sequestered out of sight and out of knowledge, was the complaint that it had cost me so much to write 28 years before. It had never been submitted to the Archbishop’s Inquiry.

How do I feel now? I am thankful for the real fellowship among survivors, many of whom no longer call themselves Christians. I am deeply grateful for those survivor-advocates who, at considerable cost to themselves, continue to fight our cause. I thank God for a good lawyer.

But I regret giving 27 of my best years to the ministry of a Church that I now recognise to be institutionally corrupt, and whose leaders are without compassion or even a mild concern for justice.

 

The Revd Janet Fife is a retired priest who has permission to officiate in the diocese of York.

This is an edited version of an article that was first published at survivingchurch.org and is reproduced with the author’s permission.

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