Long-Term Effects of Church Abuse

By | September 25, 2019

Reprinted with permission. Stephen Parsons, a retired Anglican priest, publishes Survivingchurch.org, a blog dedicated to church abuse of every sort.


After church on Sunday I took part in two conversations over coffee which indirectly touched on the church abuse issue.  Neither mentioned in any way spiritual/sexual abuse, but each of them reminded me how much and for how long a single abusive act may affect a victim.  The first conversation in many ways was a repeat of others I have had before.  It was the story of a woman, now a widow in her late 80s, who had married a soldier returning from service in the Second World War.  As was typical for men of that generation, war experiences were not ever shared with the family.  A blanking out of terrible memories was the norm.  The effective sealing off and repression of all the bad experiences meant that the wife, and later the family, had no understanding what the father had been through.  Our understanding of psychology today suggests that this kind of repression of memories takes a toll on the body in a variety of ways.  It requires considerable energy to keep such memories under wraps and stop them erupting into consciousness.  The widow seemed aware of the way that suppression had affected her husband’s happiness and indeed the health of their relationship.  This was of course only hinted at but the conversation was a testament to the way that a war which ended 74 years ago still casts a shadow over the happiness of people living today. 

The second conversation was with a young man whose parents-in-law live in Belfast.  I asked him if he was familiar with some recent research that has traced the long-term psychological effects of the Troubles to affect people, particularly children.  The dynamics of past violence have so impacted themselves on some individuals that their relationships years later are affected and damaged.  The continuous stress of living in areas afflicted by violence has made its mark on these Belfast residents so that in some cases families still bear serious psychological scars.  The violence of the past has effectively damaged a later generation.  Many current victims had not even been born at the time when the Troubles took place.

In reflecting on these two short conversations, I became aware of the way that our Church is also living in a post-trauma situation.  The particular experiences of trauma I am thinking about are the recent revelations of violence, sexual abuse and bullying in the church.  Although such abusive episodes in the Church have been going on unseen over decades, recent reviews, reports and enquiries have made us far more aware of them than ever before.  One positive aspect of living in this century is that we are possibly better equipped to help people recover with the tools of psychotherapy and other psychological methods.  We recognise more easily the symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and there are now some effective ways on offer for tackling its baneful effects.  Some of the church abuse sufferers do emerge from their victim status to become stronger, regarding themselves as survivors of trauma.  Sadly, away from the therapeutic interventions, church authority, in its dealings with survivors, is often experienced as inept or even malevolent.  Among the worse examples I have heard of are meetings with church lawyers who insist that some bad experience in childhood had somehow predisposed a victim to an abusive encounter.  Obviously, there are going to be a variety of outcomes in the stories of abuse that we hear, but one thing is normally true; the effect of an experience of abuse will be long-lasting and will often affect the families of the victim.  Here we have a situation where it is not the sins of the fathers being visited on the next generation, but abusive actions against individuals in one generation being carried over to damage partners and the children as yet unborn.

Many people are reportedly tired of hearing about abuse cases from the past.  The attitude that is around and repeated by many people is that all these cases happened a long time ago and we should all be over it by now.  It is true that the practical efforts that have gone into safeguarding are impressive.  Children and vulnerable adults are probably safer now than they ever have been.  But that is not the only problem.  There is always the legacy of the past that continues to haunt the present Church.  As long as survivors/victims continue to feel ignored and side-lined by the Church, the poison of the past will continue to wreak enormous damage to the Church’s current health and thus its future flourishing.

What is a healing way of dealing with the past? The two words that represent a modern approach to the issue are Truth and Reconciliation.  Both these words involve an enormous cost to those taking part.  But, without that cost being met there seems little real hope for the Church’s future.  A future that is dominated by the opposite, embodying secrecy, lies and reputation management, is a future built on sand.  The more that the issue of past abuses is obscured by such secrecy and denials, the greater the sense of scandal and betrayal is when truth comes tumbling out.  As a commentator on the abuse scene, I sense a reluctance by the leaders at the very top of our Church to face up openly to the past unless enormous pressure is applied.  The Anglican Communion is meeting some significant challenges over sexuality and teaching which are being confronted at Lambeth 2020.  These challenges, however, seem to pale into insignificance when laid alongside these other issues of past abuses that have been revealed by IICSA and all the other reviews and reports.   There is also the issue of trust within the Church.   When bishops are accused of lying to preserve personal and institutional reputations, something disastrous is taking place.  The next ten years could see the role of bishop completely undermined to the point that no one wants to take on the job.  At present there are vacant parishes up and down the country but I can see a situation where there will be vacant sees.  Priests of integrity will not allow themselves to be sucked into such a potentially toxic role.

The resources of the Church should be poured into ensuring that parishes can be safe places and centres where there can be true healing of past hurts.  The healing model from the past, which practised laying on of hands for physical illness, could be changed to place an emphasis on the overcoming of stress and unresolved trauma that many people carry from the past.  The Church might become a place where people can talk openly about brokenness, whatever its origin, that they carry from past trauma and relationships.  The survivor of church sexual abuse, of bullying or any other kind of trauma could also find there a proper welcome and the chance of healing.  Even though the severity of what survivors have suffered at the hands of the church may have been exceptionally hard to bear, their experience is alongside the pain experienced by others.  Facing the truth about our individual brokenness can help all of us to move to the second part of the equation – reconciliation.  Reconciliation in every sense is perhaps another word for divine healing.  It brings back together what has been broken.  We all need this divine healing work accomplished in us, whether we are Archbishop or humblest member of a congregation.  Perhaps the abuse crisis can have one positive outcome, which is to teach all of that we are all not only sinners but we all share to some degree the brokenness of abuse survivors.  Like them we all have need for both truth and reconciliation.

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