'I told so many bishops': survivor tells of system that protected priest
By Harriet Sherwood
March 15, 2016
|Joe with stones he has inscribed with messages to the archbishop of Canterbury.|
Photo by Adrian Sherratt
For almost 40 years, Joe has struggled to be heard by the Church of England over the sexual abuse that has blighted his life. The depression, anxiety and occasional suicidal thoughts that have dogged him since he was a teenager were, he says, as much the product of the church’s failure to listen to and act on his anguish as the original assault in 1976.
He speaks of a culture of inertia, obfuscation, denial and cover-up. “I raised core, critical issues with a very significant senior slice of the church down through the decades. I told an astonishing number of people.”
Even when, finally, he formally reported the abuse, he felt “blanked”. “It’s a very effective device for shutting down an issue. And you leave the issue, the burden, on the survivor’s shoulders – who feels cowed, intimidated by the weight of silence.”
Joe hopes that Tuesday’s publication of the C of E’s independent review of its handling of his case – with its recognition of the church’s failures, along with the apologies he has received from a handful of senior figures – will allow him to finally attain an inner equilibrium. But he is in a very small minority, he says. “As things stand, most survivors will probably not receive a personal apology or any real justice. I am one of the lucky few.”
His story begins when he was 15. Garth Moore, the chancellor of the dioceses of Southwark, Durham and Gloucester and the vicar of St Mary’s Abchurch in the City of London, was a family friend. According to Moore’s obituary, published in 1990 in the Ecclesiastical Law Journal, he was “the foremost canonist of his generation in the Church of England”.
Joe – not his real name – was asked to serve in St Mary’s Abchurch and, with his family’s blessing and encouragement, was invited to stay overnight occasionally in Moore’s flat in Gray’s Inn. He describes Moore as his “spiritual mentor, very solicitous. He treated me as special”.
With hindsight, Joe realises that Moore was grooming him. Moore took great interest in the boy, offering praise, adult conversation and alcohol during their evenings together. “He played very heavily on the fact of my adoption to undermine trust in my family,” says Joe. He was, in effect, “slowly detaching me from loyalty to my parents”.
One evening, when Joe was 16, he says that Moore suddenly turned aggressive and controlling, interrogating Joe and slamming his fist on the table. “Over two hours, he intensively stripped me psychologically. I could see something very sinister was happening, and I didn’t know what to do. It had never occurred to me until that moment that I could be in danger. I was like a frozen rabbit.”
Moore ordered Joe to undress and pinned him face down on his bed. He attempted to rape the terrified boy, in what the report describes as a sustained and sadistic sexual assault. The next morning, Joe served at St Mary’s Abchurch under Moore’s guidance.
He considered reporting the attack. “But I knew no one would believe me. Moore was a very senior figure in the establishment. My feeling was that I would get into trouble. Something bad had happened, and it would be worse if I told anyone.”
It was a couple of years before Joe was able to speak about the episode. The number of people he told – mostly C of E priests – steadily mounted up. Many listened sympathetically; some offered absolution. But none took action or advised Joe to do so.
One of the earliest was Michael Fisher, the highly regarded leader of the Society of St Francis and later the suffragan bishop of St Germans in Cornwall. Fisher, who was then in his 60s and died in 2003, was acquainted with Moore and was a close associate of Peter Ball, the former bishop of Lewes, who was jailed last October for sexual abuse.
According to Joe, then aged 18, Fisher “drew the full story out of me in confession. Immediately afterwards, he led me into an intensely romantic friendship with him” – kissing and caressing but no penetrative sex – which lasted 18 months. At no point did Fisher record or act on Joe’s disclosure of the earlier attempted rape.
“This was not the right response to a young man who was seeking help,” says Joe. It “added another layer to the complexity of abuse. At the time, it didn’t occur to me that this charismatic figure [Fisher] was abusing me spiritually and emotionally.”
Over the years, among the senior figures whom Joe told about the abuse were three bishops and a senior clergyman who was later appointed a bishop.
Joe finds it hard to accept that, while many people remember being told his story, not a single senior church figure has any recollection.
“It’s astonishing to me, looking back, to realise I told so many senior C of E priests and bishops. None came back and said: we need to help you get properly heard and you need a sense of real justice happening. No one ever came back to me. There was casual and systemic inertia all the way through. These were not bad people themselves – they were people working in a profoundly dysfunctional structure.”
One serving senior bishop wrote to Joe last month to offer a “heartfelt apology” for his lack of recollection of the disclosure. “I recognise that my not remembering set against your clear recollection may reinforce the perception of inaction that continues the hurt for you, and for other survivors. I am genuinely also sorry for this,” the email said.
It wasn’t until July 2014 that Joe, with the support and help of a local parish priest, formally reported Moore’s sexual assault to the Church of England’s safeguarding team and the police. After lengthy interviews, investigation and unseemly “horsetrading” between Joe’s solicitor and the church’s insurers last October – 39 years after the attempted rape and 25 years after Moore’s death – the C of E publicly apologised to Joe and paid £35,000 compensation. It also launched an independent review into its handling of the case.
But Joe remains astounded at the way it was dealt with. On receipt of his compensation claim, the church shut down communication with Joe on the instructions of its insurers, who wanted to avoid liability. The sudden total withdrawal deepened Joe’s anguish and sense of rejection – and halted vital professional help.
“Many of the key issues I raised dozens of times were effectively blanked. Questions concerning disclosures to senior figures were treated casually or dismissed. Astonishingly, the part of my story concerning Michael Fisher was completely overlooked, as though it wasn’t important,” he says.
Last month, Paul Butler, the bishop of Durham, who leads the C of E’s safeguarding work, privately apologised to Joe for the church’s response to his disclosures. He said he had no doubt that Joe had been abused by Moore, and there were likely to be other survivors who have not yet come forward. He ended his handwritten letter, seen by the Guardian, with: “I am … deeply sorry for the hurt I have caused you.”
But there has been no apology from Justin Welby, the archbishop of Canterbury, to whom Joe reports writing 18 letters after the church began examining his case. He had one reply, from a correspondence secretary, assuring him that “the archbishop would hold him in his prayers”.
After having a major breakdown in the early 1990s, Joe spent six years at an Anglican community for people in crisis. “It was a good place for me, but it took me a long time to claw back,” he says. “I don’t really remember a time when I have not had mental health difficulty.”
His solicitor, David Greenwood of Switalskis, who specialises in clerical sexual abuse cases, describes Joe as “highly credible”. Joe, he said, had the courage to press his case. “Most do not. Most harbour the psychological fallout in silence.”
Greenwood has requested “core participant status” for his client in the forthcoming independent inquiry into child sex abuse, led by Justice Lowell Goddard.
Joe has plenty to say to the inquiry. “What happened to me is not unique. The case might be unique, but the church’s shamefully slow response isn’t. It’s been a huge struggle. Never again. They must take real ownership of this issue. If I can help win that for other survivors, the fight will have been worth it.”