Survivors of child abuse need more than just understanding

Child PovertySo, Justin Welby is back blogging again after half a year. It looks as though a meeting with a survivor of abuse has made a significant impact upon him. He writes:

It is well known that one of the issues we are facing across our society and, most shamefully, in the churches, is the abuse of children and vulnerable adults. I tend to see some of the worst examples of what we have done as a Church over the years. Every time it is as awful and appalling and shameful.

Abuse within the Church is worse than a festering sore that leaches out the foulest smelling puss. It has the power to destroy lives, and also faith and hope in those who are caught up in the consequences. How can the Church as an organisation be trusted with the role of being God’s witness if some of its members deliberately seek to harm others? Why would anyone want to approach God with open arms if their views of Him are influenced by the seemingly endless stories of Church leaders taking advantage of others who have put their trust in them?

A while back I was out on the streets of my local town with some friends from nearby churches offering to pray for people. During the course of the morning a man came up to me. He was genuinely angry: “You Christians are hypocrites and you disgust me,” he said. “All of your priests are paedophiles.”

I attempted to calm things down and offered to talk to him about his concerns, but he was having none of it. In his mind Christians and their clergy were low-life scum. If I’d tried to talk about the joys of knowing Jesus, he’d probably have hit me.

I never did get a chance to discover what had caused him to react in that way, but, whatever his personal experiences, he’s not the only one to see churches as hotbeds of abuse. Even though his views bore little resemblance to reality, having to agree with him that churches’ records have been far from clean on this matter was humiliatingly painful. Knowing that churches have turned a blind eye or failed to act when cases of abuse have come to light makes defending the Church as an institution near impossible.

I have a number of friends who have experienced abuse in their past and some of these have taken place within the church. Some have been able to deal with those experiences better than others, but all have been scarred and carry their wounds wherever they go. When you hear just a fraction of their stories, it’s impossible not to feel angry at the way others who have had authority over them treated them with contempt for the sake of their own perverted personal gratification.

The fact that so many of these friends have a Christian faith despite everything may appear to be a miracle in itself. There may still be questions about how God allowed such things to happen, but far more powerful than these is a healing that comes through God’s Spirit that gives them the strength to keep going and be released from the bondage of their past.

God is good, but churches have plenty more to do to prove that this is the case as far as these matters go. Justin Welby reveals through his post that there are still incidents in church communities where victims are not taken seriously and even accused of being the ones to blame. This is a heinous disgrace that actively needs addressing. It is, though, not one faced exclusively by churches:

As a society we have to get to the point where we realise that abuse is above all an issue of power, the perversion of power not to do good but to do grievous harm, and to meet some terrible need within the abuser. It is never the fault of the person abused, the survivor. They will bear the damage; theirs will be often a sense of guilt which they have to work through with counselling and psychological support for years, sometimes for the rest of their lives. It affects them in all sorts of ways too terrible to describe.

Justin Welby is right. At least for the majority of my friends who have experienced abuse, they have family, friends and their churches to act as a support network. When those sources of security are not even available, what hope is there?

That is why the cases of abuse in Rotherham reported over the summer, have been so utterly shocking.

These girls (and some boys) have been let down by the system to a point beyond belief. They have been ridiculed and ignored when they have been brave enough to go to the police. Social services, the police, the council and the care homes that many of them have lived in have spectacularly failed them. Those whose jobs it was to protect them have suppressed the evidence to cover their own backs and allowed the abusers to carry on their exploitation with impunity. Even when the scale of abuse came to light, too many have refused to take responsibility and have put more energy into covering their own backs.

These children are the most vulnerable members of our society. They are in care because they have parents who have been incapable of giving them an upbringing any child deserves. They come from broken backgrounds where family breakdown, addictions and violence are all too common. They are placed in homes affectionately known as “dumping grounds” by Tracy Beaker. When they reach 18, they will be expected to fend for themselves in the big bad world. It’s little wonder that a third of them leave school with no GCSEs. A third of homeless people have been in care, as has 40 per cent of the prison population aged under 21. And a quarter of girls will leave care either pregnant or already mothers.

What has been demonstrated in Rotherham is that adults had no love for them; they were of no value. They were the dregs who weren’t worth protecting. If they were abused, that was their problem.

If you want to know how just our society is, look no further than how we treat our children, especially those who are the most helpless and exposed and have had their lives disfigured by the selfish inhumanity of some adults.

Justin Welby finishes his blog by saying:

I long for the day when not only in the institutions of the Church, but also among every Christian, we show that we understand that those who have things done to them are never the ones to be blamed.

For once, though, I don’t think he goes far enough. Understanding is a start, but if the Church wants to demonstrate God’s love, not only does it need to make sure that abuse is never allowed to happen within its walls, but that it seeks to nurture and care for those who have been abused and exploited, and works to give them hope when so many others have looked the other way.

Jesus calls us to be good Samaritans, tending to those lying on the road, battered and in pain.

He wasn’t joking.


This article was originally published at Archbishop Cranmer. God and Politics is in the process of merging with Cranmer. Articles by Gillan will continue to be cross-posted on both sites for a short while during the transition phase.

Categories: Archbishop of Canterbury, Children & families, Church, Justice, Morals & ethics

Tags: , , , , ,

2 replies

  1. I’m afraid this leaves me cold. I feel I should be blisteringly angry, but actually, I’m just cold.

    Let’s leave aside the attempt by church leaders to take abuse within the church seriously, because the reality is, that is not ever going to happen. While it clearly does some people good to get this kind of thing off their chest, it really is almost completely beside the point. Welby is right, these are issues of power, and power inequalities are never going to go away. There are basic mechanisms that mean that people turn a blind eye; those mechanisms operate in every area of life, they are why people turn a blind eye to colleagues’ and managers’ and leaders’ lies, greed, hypocrisy .. people are just too afraid to speak out.

    People don’t blow whistles because they know what happens to whistleblowers.

    So let’s leave that aside for a moment, and let’s ask this ..

    What happens in a church, when you say that you were abused as a child? Let’s say, it was done by people far away from the congregation where you speak about your past, that the perpertrators are dead, that it happened decades ago ..

    First of all, you find that while people will accept that, overall, yes, the statistics say that one in ten children is abused .. that therefore it happens to tens of thousands of people .. as soon as they encounter an individual story, even one in which there is no question of their own responsibility .. they recoil. They say ‘that can’t be true ..’

    So your word is doubted.

    Second, you wil find that suddenly you somehow see a lot less of people. Especially, you see a lot less of their families. You see the inside of their homes less often. You see less of them when you’re at church events. You find yourself on your own more often.

    Third, you find people talking about ‘the cycle of abuse’ .. as I have heard it said, to my face, by people who know something of my past .. I think in all honestly said out of sheer mindless, thoughtless, parrotting of social convention .. ‘of course, we know that people who are abused go on to be abusers’.

    Some do. Just like some people who weren’t abused go on to be abusers. People who were abused are damaged. Many learn to live with it, even to have ‘successful’ lives. Many don’t. Many who outwardly cope well, are inwardly a mess. We all know that., Keeping your distance from such people is rational. Not exposing your family to contact with damaged people is sensible. That is not going to stop happening.

    If you were abused, and you’re a Christian, the one place you should not talk about your past is the church. Over decades I (and I know I speak for others) have found the one group of people most inclined to treat you as a pariah for having been a victim of abuse, are church people.

    When it becomes safe for victims of abuse, whoever they were abused by, to speak in church as safely as they can speak in the world beyond it .. then, and not one minute before that, dare you speak as you have written here. And yes, now I’m angry. How DARE you write this stuff. I have a great deal of respect for Justin Welby, but frankly, what he has said, though doubtless true and well-meaning, will cut no ice with victims. Most of us were not abused by priests or ministers. Get your gaze off your own navels and start facing how the church .. the ordinary members of ordinary congregations .. treat victims of abuse. Start there and spare us the handwringing.

    And now I’ve read what you’ve written again, after the above poured out. And I feel physically sickened by what you’ve written.

  2. How many of us have any experience of hearing, face-to-face, about abuse? My limited experience has been of someone I know well, and do not doubt. It hasn’t stopped me welcoming, or being hospitable. What it did do, however, was to make me realise how incomplete any response was to such a story. Shock, and the re-ordering of everything previously known, robbed me of words; what was said was quite inadequate, but I can only continue to hope that my love shone through.

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