Church abuse activist: ‘These ribbons are a cry for change’

By Phil Coleman
News & Star
October 10, 2020

ONLY victims can fully understand the lifelong impact of child sexual abuse.

But imagine that you were abused as a child and, after years of torment, your dreams haunted by unspeakable memories, you summon the courage to tell somebody.

In a sane world, that would be a first step on the road to justice and healing.

For Richard - a deep thinking Christian from north Cumbria, now in his fifties - it took 36 years to take that step. Abused as a child by Carlisle Cathedral Canon Ronald Johns, Richard wanted an apology.

It was 1993.

He reported Johns to the then Bishop of Carlisle, Ian Harland. Yet the Bishop did not report Johns to the police. Instead, he simply moved Johns to a church in Caldbeck.

Thirteen years later, in the summer of 2006, Richard tried again. This time he reported Johns to the police. After hearing about the abuse, the officer told him: “I’m really sorry to hear that - but there’s not a lot we can do.”

Johns was later prosecuted and jailed. But he was only one in a litany of Cumbrian clergymen convicted of child sex crimes. In February, a court heard about Catholic priest Peter Turner who, like Johns, admitted to his superior in the church that he was an abuser.

Yet his confession was also hidden. Turner was ‘banished’ to a parish in Workington where he abused another child. Depressingly, another former Carlisle clergyman was this week jailed for child abuse: 71-year-old Canon Robert Bailey, an honourary canon at Carlisle Cathedral until 2011.

Astonishingly, the current Bishop of Carlisle, James Newcome, wrote the court a ‘character reference’ for Bailey. The Bishop has now withdrawn this and apologised.

This came in the week when the The Independent Inquiry into Child Sex Abuse’s concluded that the Church of England has failed to protect children from sexual abuse, creating a culture where abusers “could hide”.

Alleged perpetrators were often given more support than victims, adds the report.

Recalling his 2006 visit from a police officer, Richard (not his real name) says: “At that point, for an individual going to the police, there was no chance of anything happening.

“It was deeply saddening. I hit the bottle for a couple of days.

“I also rang a local charity; the response was: ‘We hear a lot of this.’ It was only after Operation Yewtree [triggered by Jimmy Savile’s prolific abuse] that they examined the police and said they had to take these allegations seriously.

“These things have an influence right throughout your life. You can give up alcohol; you can give up gambling. What you can’t give up is sexual abuse. It’s always there.”

“I was reading the Bible yesterday: Christ said ‘Suffer the little children, and forbid them not to come unto me.

“He also then said ‘champion the cause of the widow, the orphan and the oppressed’. He did not say champion the cause of those who caused the problem - and that’s exactly what the Church of England has done. If you’re aware someone has committed a criminal offence against children you’re duty-bound to do something about it.”

Of the Bishop of Carlisle’s reference for Robert Bailey, Richard adds: “It sends completely the wrong message.

“There’s an an endemic culture of ‘We protect our own’. You cannot, with any degree of morality, look after people who have done something horrific.”

Some Cumbrian Christians are organising their own response to the crisis. Mum-of-three Antonia Soboki describes herself as a “Roman Catholic refugee”.

She is now a regular at St Peter’s Church, Kirkbampton, west of Carlisle. Dating from the 12th century, the sandstone church sits behind black wrought iron railings.

On November 3, Antonia plans to see those railings adorned with scores of ribbons, each a symbol of solidarity with clerical abuse victims everywhere. The event is known as a “loudfence”, and activists want the day to be known as “All Survivors’ Day”.

Antonia, 46, says: “There’s this veil of silence, especially in church, about even broaching the subject. The loudfence is a way of demonstrating your feelings.

“It says: We know you’re out there; that absolutely horrifying things happened to you and we want to show we really care.

“The church is the last place this should occur. As parishioners, this is our way of getting that message out there.”

Despite child abuse ‘horror stories’ from the Catholic Church, a priest recently accused Antonia of disloyalty for raising the issue. So she and her family found another church.

But the question of what to do about abuse remains. “The loudfence is our response,” she says. “We can’t undo the damage that’s happened to these poor people. But we can let them know we’re not okay with it.”

Of the Bishop of Carlisle’s character reference, she says: “You don’t need to be someone who studied divinity at university for years to know that writing a character reference for a paedophile is wrong. It means you’re part of the problem.

“People like the Bishop of Carlisle have to go.”

An activist for the End Clerical Abuse Global Justice Project, Antonia has spoken to survivors. “There was one man in his eighties who’d never told a soul. He said he felt like he’d been holding his breath for his whole life.

“After he’d told a complete stranger on the phone it gave him permission to tell his family without feeling it was disloyal.

I said this should never have happened .

“If the Christian Church is about anything it’s about sending compassion to people and support.

“I had to do something. But it’s difficult to get people to open up about this and that’s why the loudfence is so good. People can just turn up and tie their ribbon and have their own private feelings without telling someone they don’t know. They can demonstrate it. Every ribbon is cry for change.”

Bishop James said: “Robert Bailey was a vicar in the Diocese of Carlisle from 1999 until his retirement to Salisbury in 2011 and is someone I have known for 18 years.

“In April, at his request, I agreed to provide a character reference to go before the courts. On reflection I considered this an error of judgement and asked that the reference be withdrawn. I’m truly sorry that reference was submitted and understand the pain this will have caused those who suffered as a result of Robert Bailey’s crimes.

“I offer them my heartfelt apology.”



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