by the Revd Janet Fife, a retired priest and a survivor of abuse
As a survivor of abuse and a spokesperson for others who have been abused, the Revd Janet Fife has been given a right of reply to the Revd Canon Simon Butler’s piece “A Via Media in Safeguarding“
Imagine a chain of fish restaurants, the Good Fish Co., with an unreliable supply of shellfish. Now and again customers become ill from eating them – and the branch managers respond in various ways. Some respond immediately to complaints, investigating and then discarding the suspect batch. The sick customers are kept informed, and compensated for their bad meal. Other branch managers react differently. They refuse to respond to complaints or investigate, so more customers get poisoned. Environmental Health officers visit and make recommendations, but the managers fail to implement them. Complaining customers find their phone calls and letters are unanswered, and they’re out of pocket for their meal and any missed wages from being off sick.
Some disgruntled customers complain to head office. Good Fish Co. could listen to those customers, learn from what they say, and correct the problem. The issue would then be done with, and the company better for it. Instead, it too refuses to answer letters and phone calls from the customers who have been poisoned by their food. Far from offering compensation, it persistently loses files on these cases and is rude to the complainants.
The media and health authorities become interested in the Good Fish Co.’s problem, and the company adopts a new tactic. They classify their customers into 3 groups: Group A, customers who have never had food poisoning; Group B, customers who have been made ill but are happy with the way their complaint was handled; and Group C, those whose complaint was not dealt with well and are still not happy about it. Groups A and B have the company’s approval, and the Good Fish Co. are happy to talk about their experience with the company’s seafood. Group C, however, are labelled as troublemakers. They are ‘not representative’, they are ‘persistent complainers’, their complaints are ‘not constructive’. Good Fish Co. refuse to meet with those from Group C or with their representatives, or to deal with the issues they raise; nothing changes. What’s the result? The whole company suffers, of course. The bad managers remain in post serving bad shellfish to customers who then get ill. The public lose confidence about the restaurants being safe places to eat. Sales decline and the Good Fish Company’s position becomes shaky. But it’s not their fault – the problem is with Group C.
The Good Fish Co. is rather like the Church of England; it doesn’t want to hear bad news and won’t engage with its critics. Worse, when there is a genuine matter of complaint which is dealt with badly by the local branch, there seems no way of putting the matter right or gaining redress. The situation goes from bad to worse, and the reputation of the whole suffers.
Simon Butler, in his recent blog, spoke of the ‘polarisation’ between some survivors and the institutional Church. I welcome Simon as an ally, and concur with his assertion that the anger some survivors feel is justified. Some survivors of abuse within the Church have been treated shamefully – and despite attention being drawn to the issues there has been little or no effort to make things right. In my own case, the written complaints I made in 1995 and in 2017 appear to have gone missing from the files. This is not, regrettably, an isolated instance.
There are others, thank God, who have been heard and cared for, and steps taken to see the abuser does not harm anyone again. I rejoice with and for them, and for those who take seriously their responsibility to care for survivors. It’s good to know the Church can get this right. However, it would be easy to comfort ourselves with that fact, and not go on to do the hard and necessary work of learning from the cases we have got so wrong. If we do so we make the same mistake as the Good Fish Co.. The result is that bad practice will continue to flourish and the number of disgruntled ‘customers’ will multiply.
Nor is this just a matter of some survivors ‘feeling’ they have been rebuffed – they actually have been rebuffed and turned away. That’s an objective fact we need to deal with. It isn’t right to expect those survivors to ‘find a better way to engage’, or to ‘make supportive and constructive criticism of the institutional church’ (I quote Simon’s blog here, with the original italics). The Church has done the damage, both in the original abuse and in the re-abuse of a damaging response or lack of response. It’s entirely the Church’s responsibility to put this right – to apologise, make restitution, and offer genuine care and concern. That’s where the process begins, before we expect anything at all from those we have harmed.
I have written on the Church’s treatment of the abused on several occasions recently – and each time I have heard from more survivors who have thanked me for speaking up. They say that so far their voices have not been heard and their concerns not taken seriously.
Soon General Synod will debate Safeguarding; a debate in which it isn’t planned for survivors to be heard. I understand that there will be a fringe meeting, however, at which Synod members can meet survivors and hear something of what they have to say. I hope that meeting will be very well attended – and that, finally, those ‘difficult’ voices will be heard.
Picture – Archbishop Justin Welby at the IICSA hearings on March 21st 2018