Woman was sexually abused by clergyman while she was training to be a vicar, report says

Leicester Mercury [Leicester, England]

October 7, 2022

By Andrew Garrett

The Bishop of Leicester has apologised for the church’s handling of abuse cases

A woman was sexually abused by a clergyman while she was training to become a vicar within the Diocese of Leicester. To compound her pain, she says she was ignored when she reported the assault to church officials several years later.

The woman, who has asked to remain anonymous, says the abuse left her feeling “violated” and that officials within the Church of England dismissed her complaint and offered no support. At one point, she was told speaking out about her experiences would harm her career within the church.

She was one of nine people who took part in a local part of a national review of the Anglican Church’s past handling of abuse claims. Leading figures in the church, including the Bishop of Leicester, the Right Reverend Martyn Snow, have apologised for the church’s “out-dated system of policies and procedures” for handling safeguarding complaints.

In a statement to the local review team, the woman said she did not directly blame Leicester officials for her treatment after she raised her complaint, instead criticising church bureaucracy surrounding it. She was especially critical of those who dismissed her claims outright.

She said: “When I was training to be a vicar, several years ago, I experienced inappropriate sexual advances by an influential clergyman. These were under the guide of helping me to ‘pray and discern my vocation’ and were neither welcomed nor invited. At the time I was very shaken and felt violated both physically and spiritually.”

“A friend was with me at the same event. She didn’t witness the incident but saw the effect it had on me and supported my subsequent disclosure, and then my application to bring a complaint.

“I was wrongly advised at the time it might impact my career as a priest if I said anything. I was just starting out – my whole vocation might be questioned if I reported it. Later, when I was a curate, I didn’t want to be labelled a troublemaker.

“I learned to live with it and chose to forgive him and move on. I’d not been raped, it could have been worse – that’s how I rationalised it in my mind. However, the more safeguarding training I undertook the more I realised he had abused me and abused his position of power over me.

“I began to think ‘if he’s done it to me, chances are I won’t be the only one’. If he ever was in a church setting, I’d need to say something. I guess my ‘mum instinct’ kicked in I’d imagine if it was my daughter.

“That then made me put aside my own reticence and be professional and consider the need to safeguard other women. So, I disclosed what he had done.

“I had excellent support from the Diocese of Leicestershire safeguarding team, can’t fault them in any way. However, because it had happened so many years ago, and I had not felt able to report it before, I was advised that the first stage in dealing with it, was to bring a ‘complaint out of time’ under the Clergy Disciplinary Measure.

“I felt it important that that abusive priest be held to account so that he realised how wrong he’s been and to stop him doing anything like it again. I didn’t feel vindictive – I guess I thought he might not understand how toxic his behaviour had been. I know that abusers are often victims themselves.

“However, the bureaucracy I encountered was harder to deal with than the initial abuse I’d experienced. The process took many months and each stage was painful, drawn out and felt heartless. Again – I speak of the institutional process rather than the local diocesan support I had.

“At the end of it all, I received a letter one day in the post. I opened it not knowing what it was and in shock read that ‘my application to bring a complaint out of time had been denied. My application was dismissed and I was unable to make a complaint’.

“Three short lines in a letter that ended many years of grappling with the experience, and then attempting to do what I’d been trained to do – challenge abusive behaviour. That letter felt like a massive slap in the face. I was devastated. I was alone in my house when I read it.

“They justified this response in an accompanying report saying the man ‘simply denied the incident’ and that ‘I was not vulnerable at the time’ and ‘should have made a complaint before’. I should have been told in person by someone who could support me in that dreadful moment. And the reasons for dismissing it felt so ridiculous it was unreal.”

Subsequently, she had to return to the location where the abuse had taken place. She said: “Each time I experienced physical symptoms of trauma. I was later told by a counsellor that I had symptoms of PTSD – I believe they were largely relating to the church process as much as the initial abuse.

“I’d been supported to raise the case because we are trained to challenge abusive behaviour – however when I did it was the institutional machine of the Church of England that caused me more pain than the original abuse. The system when you report abuse felt more abusive than the actual incident that happened to me.

“The support I had locally from the Church of England in Leicestershire was very helpful, it’s the legal system the whole church has that’s wrong. The system they have for dealing with a complaint about safeguarding matters caused me more pain than anything that abusive priest did to me.

“I want the church’s processes to be modernised and changed so they are fit for purpose. I hope the Church of England will listen and act. I want to be part of the solution having seen the problem at first hand,” she said.

The local version of the review investigated a total of 1,870 files about church officers from all Diocese of Leicester church settings, including Leicester Cathedral. These looked over safeguarding failures in the past, with 17 historic files referred to the Lead Diocesan Safeguarding Adviser for further action.

However, none of the issues identified posed any immediate safeguarding risk. A series of actions and measures have now been imposed by the Diocese of Leicester. The bishop now believes major changes are necessary in the church’s processes.https://get-latest.convrse.media/?url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.leicestermercury.co.uk%2Fnews%2Flocal-news%2Fwoman-sexually-abused-senior-clergyman-7672481&cre=bottom&cip=27&view=web

He said: “We are indebted to people who have shared their experience of how church-related abuse was handled. I am determined to work towards better processes in the Church of England, as well as ensuring that our local action plan is delivered.

“The Church of England’s out-dated system of policies and procedures for handling safeguarding complaints must be quickly and radically improved to better support those who have been abused, when they bravely try to bring perpetrators to account. Safeguarding continues to be a fundamental part of our mission. It lies at the heart of all that we are and all that we seek to be in the church in this city and county.

“But the Church of England systems must be improved to overcome the shortcomings which have led to some of the additional suffering which victims and survivors have experienced when they come forward with a disclosure. I particularly want to thank the nine people who were willing to take part in this review and speak about their experience.

“Their courageous contributions have been costly to themselves but the sharing of their experience with independent experts has been invaluable in shedding light on what still needs to change right across the church. This is not drawing a line under past mistakes but an important part of making sure the church is handling safeguarding cases increasingly well, that we truly learn from the mistakes of the past, and action effective change. This is an ongoing journey to better serve victims but it is one of the utmost importance.”

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