“The human heart is too small to bear it”
Gertrude the Great
Today I celebrate my 60th year. But that is not why this year is a milestone for me. This year I was powerfully reminded that my heart is too small to bear the bitter-sweetness of life on my own. I need to draw close to kindred hearts to share the sweetness and diminish the burden.
This year it was time to turn the bitterness of carrying a shameful secret for 20 years into the sweetness of justice.
Forty years ago I was raped and abused by two Anglican priests. Twenty years ago I tried to report it to two bishops. It didn’t go well.
This year I decided to report again, to the church and to the police. Justice-seeking is a lonely and bittersweet journey, and you need companions. I invite you to join me, to be a kindred heart.
If you are a survivor, I hope my story will sustain you on your journey. If you are supporting a survivor, I hope it will help you to travel alongside us as heart-full companions. If you deal with reports of abuse, or work with survivors in recovery, I hope this encourages you to continue to be trauma-informed, compassionate partners as we navigate the tricky waters of justice and healing together.
Collaboration not conflict is the root of restorative justice and my intention in sharing my journey is to help us all explore how we can best work together to let justice roll.
NB: This is not a rant or a sob story. The process is hard, but individuals have been incredibly supportive. I wish I had known more about what it would be like before I started, so offer my tale to help others to be prepared. Then as someone who also has a professional background in safeguarding and is a peer worker with survivors, it’s a strength-based reflection on what works well and some suggestions about how we can improve.
I will not be identifying anyone, this blog is not part of my justice-seeking, simply a reflection on the process. Please respect my and others’ privacy by not prying or commenting on personal details. I may paraphrase others’ words to keep confidentiality, the quotes from my daily journal are as I wrote them at the time.
Every journey from victim to survivor begins in silence; the silence of fear, of shame, of ignorance, of control. It is the silence of suffering and distress that we don’t have words to describe.
This terrible silence may first be met by an empathetic silence of sitting alongside in shared speechlessness and of listening, a deep listening that accepts and waits. You cannot force the telling. For some of us the process of revealing and reporting may not be for many years, on average 12 years (Survivors in Transition research). Only around 15% of rape victims tell the police (Government figures, on Rape Crisis website).
7 Reasons why victims of abuse and rape don’t tell
- I didn’t realise it was abusive because it’s always happened
- They threatened to hurt me (or someone else) if I tell
- They groomed me so I think it was my fault
- No-one will believe me
- I feel ashamed
- No-one will do anything
- I don’t want to get them into trouble.
This summer the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) held hearings into the Anglican Church. As I listened to the dreadful accounts of resistance and re-abuse in past responses to disclosure, I was drawn back to the wounds of my own attempt, and the familiar feelings of hurt, anger and shame. I was like a moth to a flame, horrified and fascinated, I knew the danger of getting burned but this was about the raw injustice of what happened to me. I thought of the two bishops who I desperately tried to get to listen to me, and the re-traumatisation of their refusal to respond, gaslighting me and victim-blaming.
What drew me in was hope. The Inquiry team skillfully revealed the truth, and the light of truth is the most powerful catalyst of change. With tremendous bravery, survivors were reliving their traumatic experiences to bring that truth to light. And there appeared to be genuine remorse, horror at past injustice and a new willingness to learn and improve.
It feels different from when I first supported women and girls to report rape back in the 70s and 80s. Maybe now, especially after #metoo, we are starting to create a culture of listening, where survivors might be met with understanding and compassion and the right response.
“Hope has two beautiful daughters: Anger and Courage. Anger at the way things are, and Courage to see they do not remain as they are.”
Reflecting on my feelings now, some months later, I realise that the wounded and unhealed part of me had been carrying three strong and conflicting emotions, which the inquiry re-triggered. These are very common emotions that other survivors will recognise:
Because I didn’t stop them, because I froze, because I thought they were good men so there must be something wrong with me, because I wanted their friendship, because I know it was wrong…every survivor knows the agony of shame and disgust at who I have been, internalises into “I am bad”. And because they were priests, the lingering belief that I was sinful, the toxic spoiling of my relationship with God (if a priest says this is what God wants, then it must be so).
That first attempt to report I had summoned all my courage, when I was really quite unwell with CPTSD, I had tried so hard to get justice, bashing my head against the brick wall for months, and just had battle scars to show for it. ‘Why wasn’t I at that inquiry, speaking my truth to power?’ my inner child raged. ‘Why didn’t you keep fighting to get justice for me?’ And more importantly, what if there were others? There never was a proper investigation, as I had asked for…
But I still held on to hope, that the Church could be transformed, and become a safe and healing place for survivors, that maybe I could contribute to that happening by telling my truth and holding people to account. It was time to gather my courage.
“One who craves sweetness must not flee away from things that are bitter”
Birgitta the Inspired
From my September Journal:
In a phone call to a member of Church of England staff about the work of Survivors Voices (the survivor-led organisation I co-founded), I unthinkingly let slip that I had been abused by a priest. It was not intentional but who knows what was going on subconsciously? She was on to it straight away, but in a gentle and inviting way that didn’t immediately make me clam up. I tell her I thought about reporting my case again, but the poor reaction last time meant I had no faith in the response. She expressed regret for that, said it would be taken seriously now, that she could help me to talk to the right person; no pressure.
Breaking the silence day 1.
I ponder for a few days and reply that I would like to speak to someone to explore in total confidence what the process would be if I do report. I ask that no attempt be made to identify me unless and until I decide to proceed. I give some minimal information to enable her to identify who to report to. This feels huge but I keep telling myself it is just research, I don’t have to do anything. Anyway we will go back to our boat soon, I can just sail away.
It’s a very supportive response. She says “I appreciate it must be incredibly difficult to consider reporting this, particularly after your experience of this in the past.” She explains I could talk or meet confidentially with a caseworker to find out about the process, with the usual safeguarding caveat, that there may be a referral to statutory services.
She ends ” I hope this is helpful and gives you a possible way forward…I do strongly believe that it is highly important that the church learns from the past in order to improve our practice in the future. I am also incredibly sorry that this happened and that you had a negative experience coming forward previously.”
This comes across as genuine and caring. It’s also validating. I start to feel hopeful that things might be different now. The impulse to open the lid again, to retell my story, begins to be stronger than the instinct to run away and hide, to lock the lid and bury the box deep in the sand.
I talk it through with my husband. He helps me to think about what I want from doing this, and whether I have the time, energy and strength to do so. He is grumpily and justifiably cynical about the Church’s ability to respond well (he supported me through the previous attempt and was insulted by the bishop.) He will support me now whatever I decide. He is my rock.
“Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.”
Leonard Cohen ‘Anthem’
I am afraid of what will happen, but I want to do this. I carry my shame on my back, it hides and burdens me. I want to throw off the cloak of shame, crack open the shell of secrecy and shine the light of truth. I want to be heard. I want justice. I want to be part of making things better for others.
The light through the crack
Trauma experts like Judith Herman talk about recovery from trauma being the process of telling your story, having a witness to your story, then retelling your story with agency and hope. Tragically many of us find that when we attempt to do that, no-one wants to listen and our agency and hope are smashed. The recent All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) research on reporting child sexual abuse reveal systems that can be unsympathetic, inadequate and re-traumatising. So understand this is going to be a mission, and be prepared. But be resolute too. You only need to open a crack for the light to shine in.
How to prepare to break the silence.
1. Listen to yourself. How important is it to you to have a voice? Know that you deserve to be heard. You have a story that needs to be told. You have a truth that needs to shine. But only you can decide if you are ready and willing to tell it. You will need to find courage and hold on to hope.
2. Don’t walk alone. This will be an incredibly tough journey and you may not get the outcome you want. You need a trusted supporter to walk with you. If it is unsafe or impossible to look to your family or close friends for support, reach out to one of the specialist agencies that can help, like Rape Crisis, NAPAC, Victim Support, Survivors Trust, Safe Lives. Be persistent. Services are overstretched, and you might need to knock on a few doors to find the support you need. It’s a good test. You’ll need to be very persistent to get justice.
3. Be prepared. Part of having agency is understanding what is going to happen, what should happen, and advocating for yourself if it isn’t happening as it should, or people are ignoring your needs. Research the procedures that should be followed in your situation. The agencies mentioned above all have good information and some can refer you to specialist advocates to give you advice and support.
Prepare yourself too, imagine some of the emotions you might feel, what you will find hardest, and think about what you need to cope with that. Many of use find it helpful to connect with other survivors, who really get what we are going through. See the website links below to find support.
4. Test the waters. Most of us find it too hard to disclose everything at once. It helps to try telling a little bit, to one trusted person, to understand how it will be to tell and how we might feel about a typical response. It is wise to be cautious about the telling, research the ground. That first meeting with the case worker, I didn’t give enough information to identify anyone, and I mentioned certain key issues to see how she would respond. If she had seemed judgmental, or minimising, or unconcerned, I would have stopped straight away.
5. Be kind to yourself. You are the most important person in all this. I am so sorry you experienced rape or abuse and my heart aches for the pain and trauma you have suffered. I stand alongside your courage to face up to this and continue your life. I see your wounds and I hear your distress. I am listening. I believe you. You did not deserve this. You have nothing to be ashamed of. You do not need to carry this alone in silence. You can have a voice, you can speak the truth, and the more of us that speak our truths the more that justice will be done.
For a list of agencies and contacts that can help and support, please visit our website, www.survivorsvoices.org, and click on Support for Survivors.
Thank you for reading the start of my story. I will be posting regularly as the process unfolds, with links and resources to help survivors and anyone involved in justice and healing from abuse. If you have found this helpful, please share to spread the light, and I hope you will visit again.
Please be in touch with your reflections, and thoughts on what works well and how things could be better, so we can all learn and work together to be the change. You can write a comment below or use the contact page to email me directly. Please note as I live on a sailing yacht and don’t have internet every day, it may take a little while to respond .