Just Thinking

abuse of power

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I have been following with interest the current review into safeguarding practices in the Anglican church.  Many of the findings resonate very loudly with me because of my own experiences about 12 years ago trying to get some help from the C of E.
Some years ago I reported the very disturbing behaviour of a local church youth leader to the Vicar in charge.
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The youth leader had asked me to help him out with some summer activities through the school holidays. The club consisted of around twenty teenagers, mostly 13 -16 year olds. Most of the girls were 13 and 14, most of the boys 15 and 16.
During those weeks  I saw him frequently and deliberately break many child protection rules, some minor, some major. These included him
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  • relating to other leaders how he allowed a 13 year old girl to kiss him when they were alone in his bedroom on a church trip:
  • telling a 15 year old girl he would accompany her to the doctors against her parents wishes
  • frequently taking individual teenaged girls into a private room ‘for a chat’ without any other adult being present.
  • making public references to a 15 year old girl’s breasts:
  • refusing to officially pass on any report about a girl who claimed to have taken an overdose
  • instructing the whole youth club to refuse to speak to one boy who he felt had stepped out of line:
  • trying to persuade a teenaged girl alleging historical rape to ditch the counselling provided by the school pastoral team in favour of one-to-one sessions with him.
  • using a knife to puncture a football in temper:
  • ripping the plug off a CD player that he felt was too loud:
  • constant swearing and lewd comments:
  • telling club members who they could and couldn’t text;

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There were many other instances involving other teenagers. There was a level of violence, threat and inappropriate behaviour and language which ran throughout the whole culture of the youth club and he had  a dominant and domineering relationship with most of the youth club members which totally usurped the position of parents in their children’s lives.

In most of his dealings with the youth club he operated alone, and any attempts at monitoring by one of the vicars were strongly resisted.There was a suggestion that another youth leader should be employed to work alongside him and he threatened to resign and set up the youth club elsewhere.

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I tried to raise the issues I had seen for myself with the youth leader in early September 2005 but got nowhere and I withdrew from helping.
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I followed the guidelines set out in the C of E’s own safeguarding manual and reported him to the appointed church safeguarding officer who advised me to report the issues to the vicar in charge of the team of churches, (there were two churches in the team but the youth club was only based at one of them, the one run by the “second-in-command”)
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These two ministers, against all procedure, gave the youth leader my name. From that day forward myself and my children were subjected to a vicious campaign of bullying and harassment from the entire youth membership, orchestrated by the leadership.
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I was told by an adult in the church that there was a lot of hatred directed towards me and we got phone calls, emails, web postings, internet abuse, and my children were bullied at school. (Most of the youth club members attended the same high school as my children) We even had a death threat!
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There was also bullying in the street and at school, both verbally and physically.
Lies and rumours were spread about myself and my children at church and my children’s schools.
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Staff at the schools were shocked and disgusted at the way the youth club members acted.
.One Head said he had never seen anything like it in 20+  years of teaching and placed the blame firmly with the youth club leader, who he described as having a very unhealthy control of a lot of impressionable young minds.
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I began to learn about some of the lies told about us, in particular at a meeting the minister and youth leader held with the youth club which stirred up some of the worst aggression and hatred to come our way.
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No-one was told the details of the incidents I had reported- had they done so, the rest of the youth club and church would have known I was speaking the truth because many of these incidents were witnessed by others.
Instead they were just told I had “said something about the youth leader which had upset him”.
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The youth leader told the teenagers in the club that they could only remain in the youth club if they promised to have nothing to do with my children.  He said the members couldn’t be trusted in the youth club if they didn’t shun my children. They had to prove their loyalty to the youth leader by breaking friends with my children.
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The leader’s son went to the same school in the same year as my son and kept watch to see that no-one stayed friends with my children. He reported anyone who spoke to my son to his father. This boy’s presence in the school meant that even out of club hours, the youth club members were monitored by the leader’s son who then reported back to his father.
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Everyone outside the church who knew about it could see the problem and danger inherent in the situation and were extremely supportive, but within the church there was a wilful blindness to the things I was flagging up as disturbing.
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I knew from my own training and profession that his behaviour was disturbing, and well outside the normal guidelines of good practice, but it was as if absolutely no-one inside the diocese cared at all, and there was definitely a sense that when I told them about the way my family were being treated that it was my own fault for speaking out.
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I also know that several other church members and parents had their doubts about the inappropriate behaviour of the youth leader but felt they couldn’t come forward after what happened to us as a result.
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I appealed on many occasions to the Diocese, including emailing the Bishop direct, but his secretary consistently stonewalled all attempts for help, saying the Bishop was busy, had meetings, or was away, and would not respond.
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I consulted a local solicitor about the defamation to my and my family’s character that was a constant feature of our lives at that time, and he wrote to the Bishop on my behalf, asking for him for a meeting. They just ignored his letter.
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I spoke to many people during those months as I tried to get someone to defend my children against the bullying and threatening actions of the church “leadership”, which by now included not just the vicar and youth leader, but also several members of the PCC, who had been lied to by the vicar.
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Absolutely no-one within the church structure would help.
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One of the people I spoke to was Janet Hind, wife of the then Bishop of Chichester, who featured prominently in the recent review.
I was in a different diocese, not  Chichester, but she was the overall head of Child Protection in the Anglican church at the time, and it was felt she could help, if not with the original concerns, then at least with the way my own Diocese were behaving towards my children.
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I told her in detail of the original concerns about the youth worker’s behaviour and in even greater detail about the subsequent actions of the team vicar and his second in command which resulted in the campaign of defamation and abuse of me and my family.
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She kept talking about the C of E Child Protection policy and procedure, and said that I had definitely done the right thing in reporting what I had seen and that I had gone the right way about it.
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I asked her what procedures and policies there were to deal with the aftermath for people who raised concerns and she said there were none, but that they were “working on it”.
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This was in 2006, yet from reading the summaries of the current review, it would seem that she and her department in the C of E already knew plenty about the consequences of reporting concerns about bad practice.
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They completely failed to protect my children from a deliberate campaign of bullying and emotional abuse orchestrated by the church youth leader and with the full knowledge of the vicars.
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This despite me appealing to them, right up to to bishop level, for them to step in and take action to help us.
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I totally agree with the findings of the review that the C of E often blamed the victim rather than the abuser.
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I certainly found that the policies, such as they were and as far as they went, were only as good as the people implementing them, and the people responsible for protecting children actually had a  default setting which was to protect the institution rather than the victim.
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The finding of the review that victims were very often blamed for the abuse was very real to us. In fact, at one point when I was trying to get someone within the church to protect us I asked the vicar why he felt he couldn’t intervene and his reply was “Well what did you expect? You spoke against the youth leader”!
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One other attitude that seemed prevalent was that the youth leader’s word was more believable than mine simply because he was in a paid position. I was told they believed his denials without investigation because “he was a paid youth worker”
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In all this I appealed countless times to the church authorities at Diocesan level for them to intervene and protect my children but was met with indifference.
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In particular it was my experience that their immediate reaction to a complaint was to protect the institution rather than the victim, and to follow that up with a deliberate campaign of threat and villification in order to protect their own positions.
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The youth leader remained in post for another ten years, though the youth club dissolved within about twelve months. Several leaders left citing concerns, and some members also left, including some withdrawn by parents.
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The vicar retired a few years later and during the interregnum the youth leader established himself even more strongly, controlling pretty much the whole church. There were still no young people, but there were further issues, this time regarding the bullying treatment of some of the more elderly members of the church which had such a bad effect on one lady that her health suffered quite catastrophically. This seemed to shake the church authorities up and at last there was some intervention from the higher echelons of the diocese.
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A new vicar arrived and with the support of the Archdeacon tried to wrest back control of the church. The youth leader left under a cloud after a lot of shouting and rowing, taking a large proportion of the congregation with him. The church split.
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Quite why the church authorities chose to respond to the concerns about his treatment of adults and not children is anyone’s guess, though it may be that it’s easier to quantify abuse and its effects on adults, who can relate and put into context what has happened.
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With children, it takes time for them to process what has happened, and then articulate the details and the effects. I think that’s why so many of these abuse cases are historic- the passage of time helps the victims to acquire the necessary vocabulary and comprehension.
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Hopefully, in our case, as the youth club members reach maturity they will realise just how disturbing and inappropriate the man’s behaviour was. Maybe they will even speak out and report him themselves.
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I always imagined that the church would spring to the defence of children under attack, but instead the behaviour of the church authorities compounded the problem.
Long-established relationships broke down and many friendships were lost irretrievably.
These were the direct consequences of mishandling and malevolence.
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I must state, though, that behaviour such as that wasn’t God, it was His representatives.
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I wish the review team every success in trying to get to the bottom of this, and feel very sorry for anyone else who has tried to blow the whistle in support of vulnerable people and have ended up victims themselves.
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