The journey of restoration from child abuse

This is a guest post by Robert Lightowler from Courageous Exchange

I cried when I watched the documentary.

The BBC recently aired two documentaries about the sexual exploitation of young men by a bishop and by other priests called “Exposed: The Churches Darkest Secret

I cried because the abuse was unstoppable, because it cost the life of one man (Neil Todd), because victims were not believed, because the perpetrators and their defenders were so blind, and because it impacted so many people (e.g. Neil Todd’s sister and father).

I guess I also cried because I could identify with all of it. The victims spoke of how they were made to feel special, how they could not speak to their parents, that they highly admired their abusers, and were made to feel they owed them something. The bravery of the victims in going to the police and then facing accusations from their church leaders was admirable. It took me 40 years to break the silence.

Martin Luther King famously spoke of a dream. It was a dream for racial equality. My dream and my prayer is that one day I will speak with bishops and clergy. Not to complain or to accuse but to provide and prevent. My concern is that too much of our focus is on the abusers’ reputation, status, and not on the damage to the life of the abused. This came across powerfully in the documentary. My dream is that one day survivors will not merely be acknowledged or taken seriously but be genuinely treated as equals to any community leaders so that this new class divide is broken.

The documentary is a gruelling watch.  But we need to move beyond the discomfort and disgust to take on board the invaluable lessons it teaches us all. I believe these are some of the issues it raises.

Child sexual abuse (CSA) is widespread

One commentator said exactly what I was thinking… “This is just the tip of the iceberg”.

It has been wisely said that this is not just a Christian thing or a Muslim thing or linked to any one religion, culture, charity or organisation. Any institution could have in its ranks individuals who abuse children. Most appear to be kind, compassionate, charismatic, warm and believable. Of course, any leader is capable of abusing others and in a variety of ways. Sexual abuse ranks high but it is as much about power and control as it is sexual gratification. It is an addiction as powerful as any other addiction. The misuse of power to control others is widespread and so is CSA.

Attitudes to CSA are distorted and criminal

The aversion of those in authority to take the abuse seriously, to minimise it or balance it against all the good the individual had done for the church is a deliberate distortion of reality. This serves to perpetuate abuse. Added to that, evidence was withheld from the police. Is this not aiding and abetting or being an accessory to that crime?

What was shocking was that, in the documentary, this was the attitude and response of bishops to multiple cases of child abuse (CSA). Do we really want to be known as an institution who perpetuates the damaging of lives?  Who defends the blatant sin of high ranking shepherds and, by so doing, withholds their redemption and encourages them to cause further damage to their lambs.

The ways to stop CSA need to be pursued and not prevented

If this is just the tip of the iceberg surely we need to ask tough questions and take difficult actions.

Is the Church of England or any institution too defensive to face the unthinkable? Is our faith or our culture too fragile to stand by survivors? Are we too proud to admit that parts of our community who are overcome by their selfish desires are destroying others? Are we too afraid to acknowledge we might be blind to the truth? Are we content to delay the inevitable?  Where is the call for courage, true compassion and inspired action that rebuilds lives and effectively defends future victims?

We need to move beyond talking about cases of CSA into training so that we are adequately equipped to respond constructively. It appeared that the cover-up by bishops continued because they could not believe nor accept the actions of the abusers even when faced with clear and substantial evidence. Could this be ignorance, unbelief or denial? Was it simply an overwhelming desire to protect the organisation? Avoiding the discomfort of acknowledging the actions of a perpetrator denies an opportunity for victims to heal. Silence condemns survivors to continue suffering. Breaking the silence and mobilising our communities establishes the context for significant change. These are some of the constructive ways forward.

  • Teachers, social workers and parents training days
  • School children’s and youth works awareness sessions
  • Survivors forums and support groups
  • Counselling and therapy for survivors
  • Professional risk assessments and written agreements for clergy and leaders
  • Seminars for our communities to understand the damage and the opportunities for growth
  • Safeguarding is now in place and with it the skills to welcome and embrace disclosures. But this cannot be taken for granted. Should we assess its effectiveness?

The extent of the damage is horrific; the journey is transformative

Present research in this field clearly portrays the extent of this damage as neurological, chemical, psychological and social. There is also increasing evidence for the constructive ways forward into post traumatic growth (PTG). Should we not be doing everything we can to facilitate a journey of transformation?

Survivors battle with the widespread ignorance around them. They get used to shallow responses and polite platitudes. This is a lack of understanding of what PTSD is and what PTSD does – impacting the mind, body chemistry, genetics and personal relationships often for life. They also battle with meeting an aversion to know, which, of course, is natural.  But ignorance and aversion must be overcome if we are to sit alongside survivors and facilitate what they truly need – a journey of restoration.

The victim’s quality of life is sacrificed on the altar of an abuser’s momentary pleasure. My aim, for the remaining days I have on this planet, is to facilitate encouragement, hope and growth for survivors. Much of this effective work can be done in the context of communities which rebuild social relationships. It is also to do all I can to prevent child sexual abuse happening. This is why I promote the valuable work that FACES is doing.

PLEASE Church of England (and any other organisation looking for significant change), PLEASE do not stop short of delivering a whole and comprehensive response for victims and survivors to progress to being thrivers. Deep injuries require deep responses and not token gestures. Until we give opportunities to develop post traumatic growth, we sell them short.

“Breaking the Silence on Child Abuse – One man’s journey from abuse to whole life transformation’ – Robert Stevens, DayOne Publishers, 2018

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