Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Where Abuse is Shielded by Love

You may remember me writing some time ago about my life in the Diocese of Chichester, where I was a worshipping child during the heady days of the 1980s and 90s in Eastbourne. You will also know that Eastbourne has been exposed as something of the epicentre of abuse by priests, a number of whom have been charged and prosecuted for the sexual abuse of the children in their pastoral care. Names like Roy Cotton, Robert Coles and Gordon Ridoubt are names in the public domain and are the names of people known to me throughout my own childhood. Other names will eventually become known and I know them too. 

I was reminded yesterday something of the dangers that exist in church life as this matter and the wider debate was discussed at a meeting I attended. It is the case, for all sorts of laudable reasons that for many Christians this is to be dealt with in a pastoral way. By that I mean that in receiving the testimony of an abuse victim, who may or may not wish to disclose that abuse to the statutory authorities, a priest has not passed on the knowledge of either recent or historic abuse allegations to anyone else. This is matched by a fervent desire to walk with the victim and not to add further pressure to them by making a disclosure. 

Sadly, such love is devastatingly dangerous. It is true to say that sex offenders act compulsively and often habitually and a statistic was cited by an expert yesterday that an offender, when caught, is likely to have offended in excess of a hundred times, and that unless stopped, is likely to re-offend in the future. The implication, therefore, of taking a pastoral view with a victim is that the abuser is spared legal process, kept away from therapy, and is allowed by lack of prevention and the secrecy engendered by the shame of sexual abuse to continue. It seems that this is symptomatic of the way such matters were dealt with in Eastbourne and wider afield. Greater love hath no (wo)man than to prevent abuse. 

Questions such as the seal of confession also play into this debate that is now acute. The abuser and victim of sexual abuse experience shame and for opposite reasons seek to hide the fact of their abuse (given or taken) from others. Indeed, it is also the case that the average time from abuse to disclosure is 23 years! 

Until recently, I will confess that I wondered why people left it so long to disclose abuse. Cases like Jimmy Savile have created a new culture of honesty and bravery among historical victims, and so it is that many clergy will start to receive disclosures from victims, often wrapped up in terms of not wanting their secret disclosed. As soon as the disclosure is silenced in love, the abuser walks free from justice or indeed from help. If you are a clergy person (or anyone else) who is approached by an abuse victim, please tell someone as soon as you can. Better to betray the wish of a victim couched in their sense of shame than to discover that in so doing, another victim was created. 


  1. I understand your point of view on this ultra-sensitive subject but I hope I do not understand you to say that if the victim of abuse were to choose to open up to you the details of the abuse, you would then betray his/her confidence by passing this information on.
    It must take immense courage to summon up the nerve to tell another person what has happened to them, and the choice of a priest could only be in the safe and secure knowledge that their confidence would not be misplaced.
    I do not pretend to have any great insight into this sort of secret, but I do know from experience that something one has kept hidden for a long time, slowly inhibits normal responses to many facets of life, and to finally take the huge terrifying step of confiding in someone is the first step on the return to normality.
    Personally, I would listen to every word offered up in trust and the most I would do would be to suggest that having told me everything, they should now choose who to tell next, because the more often a secret is disclosed and the daylight let in to a dark place the quicker the healing can begin.

  2. Thank you for your comment, Ray. I ought to qualify an aspect of this to offer you and others that I wouldn't just betray a confidence out of turn (for that is also inappropriate). Typically (and having been in this position already) there is something of a prelude to the disclosure itself - often with the abused person telling me something of the flavour of what is about to be said. At that point I would tell them that I am bound by my own obligation to communicate such information if I believe that a crime may have been committed, and that if wish to continue their story, that they do so in that context.
    My personal approach is not to "report and run", either but to hear the account from the abused person and accompany them in what might follow.
    This is an area that is far from black and white, but I truly believe that no advantage is served by concealing even the most difficult of truths for fear that an offender might still continue offending. I also have to remember that as a Vicar I am a public figure and something of a community leader. Very difficult territory indeed.

  3. Thanks for the qualification David, and I do understand your position.
    If there is agreement/acknowledgement from the victim that you may have to pass on the information then that is fair enough.
    I too would never protect an abuser in this situation, but, with the caveat that the victim be no further hurt.

  4. In training we receive as teachers, we are told we have to stop anyone who is disclosing and tell them that we can't guarantee confidentiality. This is because, if we have reason to believe that there is a child at risk, we have a legal responsibility to disclose. This "can't guarantee confidentiality" was also explained to me when, aged 23 years, I sought counselling for abuse I had suffered by my grandfather. In my case I thought he would no longer be a danger as he was over 80, but he did have continued access to my cousins aged between 8 and 16 and my counsellor advised me to inform their parents (my aunt and uncle.) I did so and they then told me he had abused all their children throughout their childhood just as he had abused me. They had found out six months before I started my counselling and had cut off contact but did not want to put their children through a court case. I wish I had faced up to the fact that he was a risk to them and that I had spoken out sooner.



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