Church of England urged to tackle sexual abuse within its ranks
By Harriet Sherwood
November 1, 2017
| ‘Yes, we are trying to be followers of Jesus Christ and therefore we should be aspiring to living our lives differently. But actually we are all human beings.’|
Prominent women in church say it should acknowledge prevalence of sexual harassment and establish independent process for raising concerns
The Church of England should take a lead in tackling sexual harassment by acknowledging its prevalence within its ranks and by establishing an independent process for raising concerns, according to prominent women in the church.
As the ripple effect of the Harvey Weinstein revelations spreads across Westminster, the arts world and the media, one senior lay figure said sexual harassment and abuse within the C of E was “manifold” at almost every level of the hierarchy.
A number of female clergy and lay members of the church have used the #MeToo hashtag on Twitter, indicating that they have experienced sexual harassment or assault, including Jo Bailey Wells, the bishop of Dorking.
Rachel Treweek, the bishop of Gloucester and the first female bishop to sit in the House of Lords, said the past few weeks had shown how widespread sexual harassment was in society.
She said: “I think it’s an issue in society and therefore we would be naive if we thought it wasn’t also an issue in the church. The danger is when we imagine that the church is somehow an elite group of people. Yes, we are trying to be followers of Jesus Christ and therefore we should be aspiring to living our lives differently. But actually we are all human beings.
“The danger is if we begin to think it doesn’t exist in the C of E. Of course it does. We need to ensure we have conversations to ensure people can come forward and will be taken seriously.”
Some female clergy and lay members are now calling for an independent mediation service to deal with sexual harassment and abuse claims. They say the church’s instinct to protect its reputation should not outweigh the need for redress and a change in culture.
In a letter to the Guardian, Jayne Ozanne, a senior member of the C of E synod, or governing body, said: “Abuse of power, particularly in relation to sexual misdemeanours, will never be dealt with by those within the same said power structures. The urge to protect one’s reputation is too strong.”
She added: “Make no mistake, the instances of sexual abuse and harassment within the church are manifold – at virtually every level of the hierarchy.”
Speaking to the Guardian, Ozanne said: “It appears that an increasing number of women are now talking about how they have suffered unwanted harassment, from bishops down, but have never reported it.”
Ozanne said she was raped by a priest in the 1990s, and that later a bishop advised her not to report the attack.
“I trusted him because he was a priest,” she told Channel 4 News. “Shame and guilt is what kept me quiet and silent for so many years.”
She said she wondered whether the priest had gone on to sexually assault others. When she eventually told a bishop about the alleged rape, he “suggested I should let it go”.
The Rev Charlotte Bannister-Parker, of the University Church of St Mary the Virgin in Oxford, said unwanted sexual attention was a “considerable problem for the church, as it is for any other big institution. I’ve talked to many women who have tears in their eyes, who feel overpowered and disenfranchised. We’re talking about working relationships within the clergy.”
The church, as a moral standard-bearer in society, should take a lead in acknowledging and dealing with this, she added.
“Helen”, a newly ordained member of the clergy who declined to give her real name, told the Guardian she had experienced sexual harassment from two male priests, and she knew of a third clergyman who had “harassed a number of women over the years”.
She said: “I’m just one person who knows of several vicars who have done this, so how many more are there out there? The only way we can know is by lifting the lid.”
In a blog on the ViaMedia website, Helen wrote: “I know from personal experience and observation that we, the church, have people like Weinstein in our midst, even among the clergy. I speak of clergy who flirt and make inappropriate remarks to women, making it impossible for that woman to feel that they can safely access pastoral care from that priest.
“Clergy who touch women without their consent – no matter how ‘innocently’ – who make sexual advances, who sexually assault and even rape. We have clergy in our midst who prey upon women at vulnerable times in their life, luring them with their ‘best pastoral skills’ and then using the opportunity to emotionally and sexually abuse.”
There were “many men out there who have experienced similar situations” of sexual harassment and abuse in the church, she added.
Helen withheld her name “because I have seen at very close quarters how victims are treated and made to feel that they are the ones who have issues and need to ‘get over it’. We never ‘get over it’, but we learn to live with it.”
David Greenwood, a solicitor specialising in clerical sexual abuse, said he was working with “more and more women who find themselves in a vulnerable position and then are ‘groomed’ by a priest into sexual activity. It’s really quite disturbing.”
The church’s internal disciplinary measures were not suitable in dealing with such cases, he added.
A spokesperson for the C of E’s national safeguarding team said: “Any allegations of sexual assault, including unwanted sexual attention, will be treated with the utmost seriousness and both diocesan safeguarding advisers and the national safeguarding team will listen to any concerns in complete confidence, offering full support.
“While we would not comment on any individual cases we are absolutely committed to making the church a safer place for all and will always consider any suggestions that could help improve our practice. We would also advise that if a serious sexual assault has taken place, medical help must be immediately sought along with reporting to the police.”