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'The sea of forgetting': Survivor speaks of Church of England abuse

One survivor, who does not wish to be named, speaks to Penny Marshall. Credit: ITV News

As an ITV News investigation discovers dozens of new historical allegations of child sexual abuse within the Church of England have been made in the last few months, one survivor speaks out.

I was groomed and sadistically abused by a senior establishment figure in the Church of England as a teenager in the mid-1970s.

I didn't only reach out for help - but reached up for it by telling quite senior people in the church - including bishops. None of whom apparently kept any record.

I told in the region of 40 Church of England priests across nearly four decades - and finally got help to report it to the police and the Bishop of Durham last summer.

In the current hierarchy there are a handful of senior figures, including two bishops and others - who knew my story at one time, but seem to have all walked away and forgotten.

This raises a crucial question - isn't it likely that many current senior figures heard similar stories earlier in their careers and did not know what to do?

The church provided no training for this. So even while my abuser was alive and in position of some power, the response was tea and sympathy. Perhaps relief when the story was no longer in front of them. They could move on - and quickly forget.

The whole institution was riven with inertia from top to bottom. Ninety per cent of the people I told were kindly people in an inert structure - but kindly words were never going to be enough in the face of a crime/justice issue.

They perceived this as a pastoral issue and drifted along in the same boat along with everyone else. Perhaps many hundreds of stories were cast into the sea of forgetting. That’s my name for this. Sea of forgetting.

But there was a more sinister inertia at times. One bishop in 1987 told me he’d not heard of my abuser. He had never come across his name, which I reckoned unlikely.

I’ve been told recently that every Church of England bishop should have known his name immediately. So definitely a malign inertia at play as well. I believe my story was covered up.

Survivors seem to be the ones taking courageous steps. Taking all the risks. It would be good to see the church match that courage. Imagine a bishop saying publically something like, “I walked away in the past when I could have done more. I know now, but did not realise then, how much I was part of the inertia”.

Perhaps a dozen clergy might find the courage to say this together. I think many priests heard survivor stories and were complicit in this institutional big sleep. It would be powerful if a movement in the church spoke with courageous honesty.

I think that’s almost what needs to happen to break the logjam - shift the energy in a new direction. If the church is only "responding" piecemeal to survivors then the focus will remain on containing us as a problem.

The survivor said he though about camping outside Lambeth Palace. Credit: Philip Toscano/PA Wire

A more pro-active church will be a courageous and more honest one. I’m sure this courage exists somewhere in the church. The CoE will need those voices to help it transition through what may be coming ahead.

With the national inquiry around the corner, many survivors might come forward. It could be a tough time for the CoE. It’s missed so many opportunities to get ahead of the curve.

I've asked the Bishop of Durham, Paul Butler, and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, to bring survivors together. Those who’d like to explore ideas for a dedicated cathedral space.

Sometimes words alone are not enough - people need symbol and action. If the church brings this out of shadow and marks it in a cathedral, their response will shift in the process. All who haven’t survived need remembering too - who knows how many didn’t.

Like thousands of others my own life has been marred by mental health illness - many things I still work hard to overcome – school failure, (past drug abuse, emotional abuse of others, angry outbursts, bi-polar disorder).

Sadly many lives have passed with far worse stories left untold. They need a candle lit for always. Those of us alive can find strength in no longer being alone.

It finally feels like the church is acknowledging some of the challenging questions my case raises. I've had to plug away at it for six months. I imagine many would have given up by now.

In my angriest month I nearly took a sleeping bag to make Lambeth Palace gate my home. But it was bitterly cold and I didn’t have enough bottle. Isolated and confused, I was unsure of whether the church was giving support or not. I still am unsure.

I’m not a spokesperson. Every survivor has their own views on what needs to happen. These are just the perspectives of one anonymous survivor.

Read the response from Paul Butler, Bishop of Durham, here

If you have been affected by this story, please visit macsas.org

These views do not necessarily represent those of ITV News

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