THE Church of England has a blindspot when it comes to the sexual abuse, assault, or harassment of women, a growing group of women are saying.
Increasing numbers, clergy and lay, are coming forward to tell of their experiences after the Harvey Weinstein scandal and the #MeToo campaign, which encourages women to tell their stories of abuse.
Several have warned that adult women who are abused in this way are slipping through the cracks in the safeguarding procedures of the Church, which focus largely on protecting children and adults deemed to be “vulnerable”.
Jo Kind, who works with Minister and Clergy Sexual Abuse Survivors (MACSAS), the clerical-abuse survivors network, said this week that about half of all those who approached MACSAS were reporting abuse that had taken place while they were adults, not children.
She reported that her organisation received between three and eight new enquiries each week relating to the sexual abuse or harassment of women.
“The parish churches need to make it safe for women to report harassment and abuse without fear of alienation or blame, and to be assured that they do not have to protect the reputation of the Church,” she said.
She noted that research by the founder of MACSAS, Dr Margaret Kennedy, suggested that adult women were “three times more likely to be sexually exploited by male clergy than children”, and yet suggested that all the Church’s attention was focused on child abuse.
Some did not report abuse to safeguarding advisers because they did not feel they came under the category of “vulnerable adults”, Ms Kind said, but any parishioner was by definition “vulnerable” because of the power imbalance with a priest.
The C of E’s official guidelines on the professional conduct of the clergy, which were last updated in 2015, make it clear that priests have a position of trust and power over those in their care.
“[Clergy] should not seek sexual advantage, emotionally or physically, in the exercise of their ministry,” the guidelines state. “It is essential in pastoral care to acknowledge appropriate physical, sexual, emotional, and psychological boundaries. Inappropriate touching or gestures of affection are to be avoided.
“The clergy should resist all temptation to exercise power inappropriately. This power needs to be used to sustain others and harness their strengths, and not to abuse, bully, manipulate, or denigrate.”
Jayne Ozanne, a member of the General Synod and an LGBTI campaigner, has written to The Guardian and both the Archbishops calling the Church to bring in an external body, run by women, to deal with the growing number of allegations of sexual assault and harassment.
In a Channel 4 interview last week, she disclosed that she had been raped by a priest several decades ago. Conflicted by guilt and shame, and fearing the consequences of reporting the crime, Ms Ozanne said that she had kept it to herself for years.
When she had decided to contact a safeguarding officer, and later bishops, about the attack, she said she had been brushed off and told to “let it go”.
“It’s widespread. I’ve heard stories of women who have been harassed by bishops down to curates. People in positions of power. When you see that nearly every friend of yours has taken part in the #MeToo campaign, it makes you realise that it is, sadly, probably far more prevalent than we realise.”
One of the most contentious issues, Ms Ozanne said, was that the Church oversaw its own safeguarding. “We have to outsource it to a third party everyone can have confidence in. Silence has been what’s kept the problem alive, and we have to start speaking out.”
She has also called for a debate at the next meeting of the Synod on sexual harassment and abuse.
The Bishop of Gloucester, the Rt Revd Rachel Treweek, said that it was a mistake to believe that the Church was free from the scourge of sexual assault. “I think it’s an issue in society, and therefore we would be naïve 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,” she told The Guardian.
“We need to ensure we have conversations to ensure people can come forward and will be taken seriously.”
An anonymous female cleric, who wishes to be known as “Helen”, has also written on the ViaMedia blog, saying that the Church is full of “Harvey Weinsteins”.
“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,” she writes. “Clergy who flirt and make inappropriate remarks to women. Clergy who touch women without their consent — no matter how ‘innocently’ — who make sexual advances, who sexually assault and even rape.”
Many victims, filled with misplaced shame and afraid of being dismissed as “cassock-chasers”, of turfing a priest’s wife and family out of their home, and of not being believed, never come forward, Helen writes.
“It seems to me that we need to develop a zero-tolerance attitude in our churches for inappropriate sexualised behaviour of any kind, however ‘low level’ it may seem. If people are to encounter God, they need to be in an environment that feels safe.”
Canon Rosie Harper, Chaplain to the Bishop of Buckingham, wrote in a blog that sexual assault within the Church was doubly abhorrent, because it spiritualised the oppression of women. “If controlling, abusive, and violent things are done in the name of God, because the Bible tells these men that is how you treat women, then the very place that should be the safest becomes the most dangerous.”
She, too, said that the Church’s response to allegations had to change, and that there should be an independent safeguarding authority. “Survivors who have the courage to disclose their abuse routinely experience lack of compassion and a culture of silence. We must never love the institution more than we love God or the children of God.”
The Bishop of Crediton, the Rt Revd Sarah Mullally, agreed, writing in her own blog: “We have to change our underlying environment so it is clear that sexual abuse, harassment, and such comments are simply not acceptable.”
Bishop Mullally, who has played a leading part in implementing reforms to the Church’s safeguarding procedures (News, 8 April 2016), said that, while progress was being made, “we need to ask ourselves what more should we do.”
Keeping safeguarding in-house was preferable, as it ensured that the whole C of E “owned” a culture of safety; but she also said that it might be helpful to establish more “independent monitoring”.
A spokeswoman for the C of E’s national safeguarding team said that they were in touch with Ms Ozanne after her disclosure.
“Any allegations of sexual assault are 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 and advice, as in this case.
“While we would not comment on any specific details, we are absolutely committed to making the Church a safer place for all, and will always act on any new information relating to allegations.
“We will always consider any proposals that could help improve our practices, and are currently consulting on the Clergy Discipline Measure and how it relates to safeguarding, and all bishops are now committed to undergoing disclosure training.”