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First, the abuse — then the betrayal  

24 May 2024

A survivor writes about the emotionally exhausting process of making a CDM complaint out of time — only for it to be refused


I REMEMBER one spring day, one moment frozen in time. It was around noon, and the vicarage letterbox clunked as the post dropped on the mat. Amid the circulars and statements, one plain white envelope.

Inside, a short letter: “Dear Mrs Y. Your application for permission to make a complaint out of time against X has been dismissed. You cannot now make a complaint. Yours sincerely. . .”

Three lines. No right of reply or appeal. My legs crumpled, and I knelt on the carpet.

I looked again in the envelope, and there was a two-page report explaining the reasons: The incident is denied. . . I should have brought the complaint before. . . I was not vulnerable at the time. . .

Even though I had experienced inappropriate behaviour by a trusted clergyman.

Even though a witness saw me distressed and shaken straight after the incident.

Even though all statutory safeguarding protocols assert that the behaviour I’d experienced was and is abuse and should be reported.

Even though victims frequently feel unable to report abuse until much later.

Even though, as I’d subsequently found out, I wasn’t the first to bring such a complaint against X. . .

THE incident referred to in the letter had happened 11 years before, hence “out of time” under the Clergy Discipline Measure (CDM) rules.

It happened as I was exploring my vocation to ordained ministry. A clergyman, whom I’d not met before, took me aside at an event to offer a one-to-one “prayer session”. Perhaps I was naïve, but it never occurred to me that this could be unsafe. He wore a clerical collar, was in a position of trust, and I was a newbie to Anglican ministry, grateful for any help to discern the way forward.

Meeting in his office, I began to feel uncomfortable by his predatory behaviour. I was cornered. While he gave me “assurances” that he could speak to those in the discernment process to help smooth my path, I was alarmed by his inappropriate physical contact. I felt tainted, invaded, scared, threatened.

A friend saw me emerge from his office. I was too upset to go into much detail, but she could see me shaking and distressed about something that had clearly just happened. She assured me that she would not leave me alone with him again, and was with me over lunchtime, when X came up and offered another “prayer session”. I declined.

That friend later sought guidance on my behalf, but was advised that telling others could jeopardise my vocation in the Church. It would be a shame if this affected my journey to priesthood. Besides, who would believe me over him?

I SPENT years praying to forgive X and erase the memory, and, most of the time, I managed fairly well.

I was subsequently selected and ordained, but, as a curate, I felt too vulnerable to share my story. I’d believed the false narrative that I was powerless and voiceless — just as the rise of the #MeToo movement was giving women a voice to call out historical abuse in many other professions. I regularly checked the Church Times to see if his name appeared relating to anything untoward. That could have been my cue to speak out: “Me too!” But I saw nothing.

I tried to put it all behind me, yet started experiencing symptoms of PTSD: shaking, nausea, flashbacks. I felt a failure to have been so affected. I felt belittled by my secret, carrying an invisible burden.

Years passed, and, in due course, I found a new spiritual director. I decided that it was time to “pray this away” once and for all. Draw a line in the sand. I hadn’t got very far into my story, though, when she, quite rightly, advised me that I was making a safeguarding disclosure.

It was a pivotal moment: shut up or speak up? Safeguarding training had helped me to spot concerns with others; but, when you’re the one stuck in the mire, someone else has to name the obvious.

Finally, it felt safe to share my story. I was heard, believed. I was referred to the local diocesan safeguarding team, who offered wise counsel and support. I’d kept saying that I didn’t want to make “a mountain out of a molehill”. I had believed my own coping narrative: that I “should get over it . . . it could have been worse”. Yet, at the same time, the conviction grew: what happened was morally, spiritually, and sexually abusive. It was wrong.

TO DEAL with my disclosure, I was required to bring a complaint out of time within the Clergy Discipline Measure. Guided by safeguarding and legal professionals, this meant communicating through Church House in London, writing and receiving statements and counter-statements. I became “the complainant”; X “the respondent”. The process incurred huge amounts of time, heartache, anger, and incredulity at both the responses I received and the procedures themselves.

I tried to keep rooted in God’s grace and love; to remember that, as this was deeply personal to me, so it was for the respondent, and potentially his family. The process was laborious, and emotionally and mentally draining.

What was particularly exhausting was trying to keep it compartmentalised, and stay quiet and positive, to work as hard as every parish priest does, yet with so much that was going on behind closed doors.

Whenever I wanted to give up, scared and bruised, I believed in the power of forgiveness and redemption. I believed in bringing into the light all that hides in the darkness. I had the opportunity and support to speak out. Others might not have that. Someone else might need to hear my story to empower them to say: “Me, too.”

What I hadn’t realised was that personal details would be shared. This meant that X, or his family, might arrive at my doorstep, should they choose. My home and community no longer felt safe. I found myself watching over my shoulder.

THE next stage, if my application to bring a case out of time was successful (although this felt a strange definition of “success”), would be an official tribunal.

I was warned that the respondent’s legal team would attempt to discredit me, my character and memory, to undermine the veracity of my claim. It could be messy, hurtful, and personal. I lay awake night after night, checking that I remembered correctly, that I’d never added anything for “creative effect”.

I wasn’t seeking retribution, but wanted X to understand how damaging his actions had been; and, most of all, to ensure that no one else experienced anything similar. At last, I mailed the final application, and waited as the team in Church House processed the complaint.

I remember, after I’d submitted the paperwork, the moment when I learnt I was not the first person to have a similar experience with X. A senior colleague, presuming that I already knew the details (I didn’t), mentioned something in the public domain which was pertinent to my experience. That gave me renewed determination to see this through.

I was so grateful to my support team who had believed and helped me, yet had never disclosed that I wasn’t the first to experience such an encounter, in case this prejudiced my statements or responses.

WHEN that final decision letter arrived, refusing my application, it felt a betrayal: not only of me, but of the diocesan team, and all my years of safeguarding training. It belied everything I’d been taught and trusted, and reinforced the imbalance that exists between abuser and abused.

Of course, X “denied the incident”. Of course,he didn’t remember me”. Of course, it took me years to have the courage to disclose the incident. How can those have been factors in the decision not to advance the case? I had been vulnerable, both as an ordinand and a curate. Can anybody really argue that, had I made an accusation at the time, denied presumably by X, it would not have scuppered my chance of being chosen for ordination, or sullied my character? I thought not.

As the letter said, I had no right of appeal. Case closed. Life went on, but not as before. The distress of the original incident was superseded by a sense of betrayal by the system. My “Mother Church” was supposed to cherish and protect me. She hadn’t.

In the end, it took just too much energy to keep being OK. My blood pressure went up, my sleep patterns broke down, and my health failed under so many conflicting emotions. God’s promise is for life in all its fullness, and my life and ministry now felt tainted and diminished. I wanted to move away from the places, the memories, from the secrecy and silence. To be able to walk and not look over my shoulder, or worry who might come to my door.

I chose to move right away, and to step down from parish ministry. I chose to trust God to open new doors, to provide financial support, to lead us to a new home where I could serve him and thrive.

I still hear media reports of historic abuse or injustice in so many other professions. I want to yell and say that it happens in the Church, too. But I don’t, because I don’t want to give even one person another reason to distrust the Church, and, by association, Jesus.

I was later invited to participate in the Past Cases Review 2, which was released in October 2022 (News, 7 October 2022). Time will tell whether those who need to learn from that report will do so. Will they understand how the CDM process was, for me certainly, more painful than the abuse? Will the new system, currently creeping through the General Synod, address these problems any better?

Meanwhile, because of diocesan-funded therapy, I’m beginning to understand why it hurt so much, and how to manage that. That it was not my fault. That I am not a victim. But I am a survivor. I will not attempt another complaint. What’s past is past.

Today, I continue to serve Jesus, marvelling that what he is doing in me and through me is beyond anything I might have imagined. What X did, and how the Church has responded, although painful, hasn’t damaged my faith in God.

I live wrapped in God’s grace, peace, and healing. I, we, are commissioned to share the gospel at all times and to build up the Body of Christ.

But it has damaged my faith in “the System”, “the Institution”. I understand that we all make mistakes. Some things, however, some systems, are too important to get so badly wrong.

Editor’s note: X no longer works in licensed ministry and diocesan authorities say that he is unlikely ever to be granted permission to officiate.

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