Church of England

Survivors of child abuse need more than just understanding

So, 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.