The Trouble With Fish….

by the Revd Janet Fife, a retired priest and a survivor of abuse

IICSA - hearings

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

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This entry was posted in Church of England, Guest Contributors, IICSA, Sexual abuse. Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to The Trouble With Fish….

  1. Simon Butler says:

    Janet, thank you very much for this response to my article. At this stage I don’t want to respond at length – I am away on a break – but let me say that I have had a couple of private responses to my recent article. One would entire endorse your article and your view of the church’s institutional response to safeguarding in respect of survivors. I hope to take his concerns with the utmost seriousness.

    The other is as it happens from a General Synod member who is herself and a survivor (which in itself would go against your claim that survivors won’t be heard at Synod…not every survivor wants to be associated with survivors groups and I respect their choice). Her perspective is that of feeling silenced less by the church but by some survivors and their supporters; frankly she hasn’t felt able to speak in the past. Like the first correspondent she is not without criticism of the church, but is finding it hard to speak out when the prevailing tone is, in her experience, not helpful.

    In writing my article I wanted to ensure that we all work well to ensure that all voices are being heard. Both the church and survivors’ groups need to work together to take account of all the voices. I’m enormously grateful for the voices of survivors and want us to create a climate where we work together. I’d like to find a way we can clear the air and find a fresh sense of partnership at a national level.

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  2. Dear Simon. Thank you for engaging with this. I agree that there is a need to “clear the air and find a fresh sense of partnership.”

    I think there’s an assumption in your reply that there are “survivors groups” with an agenda to damage the church. I’m not aware of the existence of any survivors group in the Church of England. I don’t think you are referring to MACSAS, which is a support agency but in no sense a group. If the church starts to see abuse survivors as a faction, that will only make resolution more difficult. I have met with many survivors, and they are as diverse a bunch as you could imagine. If the (inadequate) statistics from the NST are to be believed there are many many more survivors than any of us have met in person. The ones you hear from regularly are those who have chosen to engage with the church in the hope of reform. They may be an irritant, but they are hardly a baying mob. The church should have nothing but gratitude towards these people, even if they speak truths that are difficult to hear. I hope you are not saying that survivors must address the church in ways that the church finds acceptable. The opposite is true. The church must learn to listen to what is being said to it, even if it comes in unpalatable ways.

    The Gosport Inquiry has telling lessons for us. The reason that it took three decades for gross institutional abuse to be uncovered was that, from top to bottom, there was a culture of protecting the institution from uncomfortable truth. We know that large institutions do this, and that’s exactly what the culture of the Church of England looks like in relation to abuse. From the Archbishop of Canterbury to my mother in her village church there is a stubborn unwillingness to face the facts. We know (from the February General Synod0 that there are at least 700 church officers about whom safeguarding concerns have been expressed. In any other organisation this would be a crisis that took priority over anything else. And yet the synod and the House of Bishops seem to have nodded this through, perhaps not willing to believe it, perhaps hoping it will go away, certainly unwilling to face the awful and fundamental consequences. We know (because every survivor says so) that the NST is broken. And yet the Bishops continue to use it as a convenient buffer to avoid taking responsibility.

    Abuse is about a gross imbalance of power. When an individual is pitched against the weight of a huge institution it is a genuine wonder that they are able to speak at all. It is not surprising that some survivors find common cause. And it’s hardly surprising that some of them appear angry.

    One other point. The power dynamics in relation to the synod-survivor you mention are so complex that her reluctance to speak about her experience is almost certainly not as straightforward as you suggest. I sincerely hope that you have a) reported her allegation of abuse to the police and/or social services and b) directed her to sources of support outside the church.

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    • Simon Butler says:

      Thanks Andrew. I take many of your points onboard, although I would caution you to be a little less willing to assume what you do about the survivor I have mentioned. We must let survivors speak for themselves and there is a particular danger in trying to psychologise a survivor whose identity you do not know. I can’t imagine what she might be thinking or feeling as she reads your post, which I’m sure she is.

      A third survivor has now been in touch with similar reservations about survivors groups, something they as a survivor themselves see as a real identifiable party in the conversation. The danger here is that, to some survivors survivors groups are seen as real and identifiable. Whether willingly or unwillingly you are seen now as a spokesperson for a group survivors but clearly some do not identify with some of what you say.

      I will be seeking the third person’s permission to raise some of these matters in the forthcoming Synod debate – the second survivor has already asked me to speak on her behalf if she doesn’t feel able to herself. My only agenda here is that we hear a range of survivors’ voices in the Synod, especially those who feel that no one is currently speaking what they want to say.

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      • Janet Fife says:

        I agree that we need to hear the voices of all survivors of abuse, including those who are content with the way their cases have been handled. Simon, I’m glad you are able to speak for a couple of them.

        My concern is that in rightly wanting to pay heed to what these survivors say, we will continue to dismiss the concerns of those who have still not received a fair hearing or justice. In saying ‘This group are happy but that group are not, and are making a lot of noise’, we are doing exactly what the ill-fated Good Fish Co. in my parable did. It’s a false polarisation.

        The Singleton Report, issued today, makes it clear that there are a number who wanted to speak and were not listened to in 2010 – and that number may be quite large. If there were even one survivor whose case had been dismissed without a fair hearing and atonement, that would be something the whole Church should take seriously. We know that there are far more than one. I myself have made two written complaints which appear to have been ‘lost.’ If there is such chaos in recording and keeping records of complaints, how can nay of us be confident the situation is under control?

        This issues need addressing, and they need action now.

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      • Simon Butler says:

        Janet, thanks for this. Since writing my initial article I think I want to say that the point I’m hearing – and therefore want to make – isn’t that you make by using your Good Fish Co. analogy. I’m not wanting to divide survivors into good survivors and bad ones in the way you allege. What I’m struggling to say – and seems is not being properly heard – is that there are a group of survivors who don’t feel are able to be heard in the conversation because of the way some other survivors address their concerns – that is the nub of what they are saying to me in any case.

        Two things arise from that in my mind; 1. That the Church – in the form of the diocese responsible for handling the specific complaints and the NST – listen in such a way as those who feel doubly-traumatised by abuser and the Church feel heard; and 2. That those who have ”found their voice” (as you have impressively done) are aware of the effect of their communication on other survivors who have their own criticisms of the church but find it hard to associate with the voices of survivors currently speaking out.

        I’m still very much in Learning Mode on these issues – but I am a survivor of sorts myself (of allegations that were found to be unsubstantiated) and poor process by the Church. This isn’t in anyway an attempt to silence or undermine those like you and those with whom Andrew is a kind of spokesperson, but to help some who are not feeling heard to be so.

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  3. I wish to add to Andrew’s comments about ‘survivors’ groups’. There is absolutely no evidence to suggest that there are such groups around. A few articulate individuals like Gilo and Janet stick their heads above the parapet and tell us about their experiences, but the vast majority seem to hide away, hoping that the pain will eventually go away. Who can blame any victim for wanting to repress something terrible and painful? The victims I have encountered as the result of my blogging always appear to be isolated and carrying their pain alone. The ones I know are typically not Anglican but are more likely to belong to a pentecostal-type congregation. Abuse comes in many guises.

    It is interesting to note how relatively few of the bereaved Gosport families actively campaigned for their loved ones. If every bereaved family with suspicions about their relative’s death had made a ‘fuss’, no doubt the story would have come out earlier. Instead of seeing actively complaining victims as a nuisance, we should be celebrating them as heroes and fighters in the cause of justice. As someone who has been blogging about power issues in the church for a number of years, I can witness to the courage and effort it takes to speak out. These survivors are performing an important task, not just for themselves, but for all their fellow sufferers as well as the cause of justice. Hearing their stories may be painful for the rest of us, but we desperately need their passion and the energy arising out of it that goes some way to putting right long-embedded institutional evil.

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  4. Dear Sinon,
    Every survivor is an individual. Thank you for walking with those who have disclosed to you, and for helping them to find their voice.

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  5. Janet Fife says:

    Simon, perhaps you could encourage those survivors to complete the SCIE survey, give information to IICSA via the Truth Project, and/or write (anonymously if wished) to the Church Times? As well, of course, as telling their stories in the upcoming debate.

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  6. Gilo says:

    Hello Simon Butler,
    Can I ask. The survivors in Synod and in church ministry who are uneasy at the anger and insistence of others – would it be your impression that their lives are relatively stable in terms of employment, housing, pensions, stable income, etc?

    To my mind, if the Church is not concerned with helping many of us back on our feet properly with a commitment to fair, dignified and compassionate justice and serious intent to mend broken lives – then it’s pedalling a mirage. How willing or unwilling do you think your structure is to look seriously at this question?

    These concerns might not be of such significance to someone whose base is secure and who is not especially worried about economic survival and the future.

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