After a four-month investigation, Antony Barnett reveals that the Anglican Church is to be hit by a new scandal, as women tell of rape and abuse by priests who practised ‘sexual healing’
Sunday July 20, 2003
Sonya Brown was sexually abused by her father as a child. She started getting flashbacks three years ago and became severely depressed. She was referred to a psychiatric day hospital, where the chaplain offered her what she believed was the refuge of a spiritual shoulder to cry on. But his support quickly turned into a fresh bout of sexual exploitation, she claims. The clergyman raped her in his office, at home and in the toilet of a cemetery.
As an eight-year-old, Patricia Stevens dreamt of being ordained as a minister. Fifteen years later, as a postgraduate theology student at Cambridge, she was close to fulfilling that ambition. But when she was sent on work experience to preach at a large church in London, she alleges that she was sexually abused and raped by the senior priest supervising her.
Sheila Hennessy used to be a senior school teacher. As a child she was abused by a family friend. When her local priest discovered this, she claims, he zeroed in on her vulnerability and initiated a ritual of sexual abuse that lasted 10 years.
According to Sheila, the vicar was turned on by the idea of menstruation and would ask her for her used tampons, and have her open up the school at weekends so he could collect her pupils’ tampons from sanitary bins.
Until this weekend, these women had little in common apart from their beliefs. But a four-month investigation by The Observer reveals they are just three out of dozens who claim they have been sexually abused by churchmen of all denominations.
Many of them, who have told their stories for the first time, remain in a state of deep psychological despair. Several have tried to commit suicide. Yet most of the accused clerics continue to preach after being quietly moved to another parish.
While the Church of England remains in turmoil over the sexuality of its bishops, some believe the mounting catalogue of sexual abuse against women is the real untold scandal of the Church. This particular controversy now threatens to envelop the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, who faces questions over his role in helping a priest who sexually assaulted a female vicar to find another job.
Britain’s leading investigator of sexual abuse in the Church is Margaret Kennedy, a former social worker who was a pioneer in raising the issue of child abuse in the Roman Catholic and other Christian churches. She described the scandal involving Williams as ‘shocking and deplorable’.
Kennedy believes the sexual abuse of adults by clergymen is just as serious as child abuse. She has catalogued more than 120 cases of alleged sexual abuse of women by clergy. In a damning study, yet to be published, she has collected harrowing testimonies from more than 60 victims – 25 concern the Church of England, 25 the Catholic Church, with the rest spread across Methodists, Baptists and Presbyterians.
‘My fear is that this is just the tip of an iceberg. We know about these cases because these women have moved on to some extent and been able to talk about it,’ said Kennedy. ‘I believe there are hundreds more frightened women who are too ashamed to deal with the situation they find themselves in. The church authorities must admit their ministers can use their power to sexually exploit or abuse vulnerable adult women.’
The evidence reveals a disturbing picture of how vulnerable women have turned to churchmen for pastoral help, only to be preyed upon. Some victims had been abused as children, others were recovering drug addicts and some were grieving for loved ones or had recently been divorced.
Most have been left in a poor mental state, many of them suicidal, while the clergymen are rebuked privately and moved on. Too often their victims are left isolated in communities unable to face the idea that a man of God could do something so wrong.
Many cases show how the clerics use religion and their position of authority to coerce women into sex, saying things like, ‘God wants you to love me,’ and ‘concubines were biblical’. In one instance, it is claimed that a clergyman told a woman: ‘God has made you beautiful so you can sexually fulfil Christian men.’ In another, it’s alleged that a priest said masturbating his victim – who had been abused as a child – was a ‘way the holy spirit could enter her to help the healing process’.
As a student minister, Patricia Stevens firmly believed in not having sex outside marriage. She recalls how the priest told her she would never understand the love of God if she didn’t have sex with a man. She alleges that the man, who was married with children, forced her to have sex with him when his wife went to work.
‘He told me it was God’s will to have sex with me, and when I turned him down, that I wasn’t being obedient to God …He started off trying to kiss me and fondle my breasts …He told me to stop struggling and then had sexual intercourse with me …Sometimes I would cry when he wouldn’t stop and the more I told him to leave me alone the more he would say it was the right thing to do.
‘He would tell me this was our secret and I shouldn’t say anything to anyone. This was what God wanted – God would be pleased with me.’
Although the alleged abuse happened a number of years ago, Patricia recently attempted suicide several times because she still cannot come to terms with what happened – or get justice from the church authorities. The priest, who denied rape, was asked to move parishes but allowed to go on preaching.
Patricia claims he boasted to her that she was not the only woman in her parish he had had sex with, and that one of his other conquests had committed suicide.
Kennedy said: ‘Nearly all the priests who abuse women are multiple offenders. One problem is that the abuse is not viewed by the church as sexual offending behaviour, and they are allowed to get away with it. The church hierarchy, which still is very patriarchal, believes them when they say, “I’m sorry. I won’t do it again”. In the US they would treat these priests as sex offenders and send them to treatment centres.’
Even a woman priest can be preyed on. A devastated Dr Tanya Jenkins, the vicar of Llangefni on Anglesey in North Wales, is still off work three years after she was sexually assaulted by Canon Geoffrey Hewitt of Bangor Cathedral.
Hewitt ‘stuck his tongue down her throat after Jenkins invited him for a coffee at her home after a funeral.
She reported Hewitt, who had been married for more than 30 years, to the Church in Wales authorities. It emerged that officials had received another complaint from a worker that he had patted her on her bottom and emailed lewd poems to her.
Hewitt admitted both counts of sexual harassment at a Church tribunal, but was allowed to keep his job. However his parishioners refused to have him back and he was forced to seek another parish. The Observer has established that Williams, then head of the Church in Wales, became involved.
As Bishop of Monmouth, Williams had a vacancy in his diocese for a vicar at Rhymney. When Hewitt phoned Williams, who was fully aware of the charges against him, to seek advice about the post, the bishop said he would not stand in his way.
The local press heard that a clergyman with a history of sexually harassing his colleagues was to be the new vicar. An uproar forced Hewitt to withdraw his application. However, he has since emerged as a vicar in Bristol.
Helen Mary Jones, a Welsh Assembly member and former deputy director of the Equal Opportunities Commission, believes the affair reeks of double standards.
‘This priest acted in ways that would have led to him being sacked if he had been a social worker or a teacher, yet he is allowed to continue working as a vicar. Williams has staked his reputation around social justice, but in this case he must answer serious questions about his role.’
The dog collar should be a symbol of trust and moral rectitude, but for Sonya Brown it now has an opposite effect.
When Sonya, who had been abused as a child by her father, began visiting a hospital chaplain for counselling she felt secure. ‘The collar gave me a feeling of protection and safety,’ she said.
But, according to her distressing account, at one meeting, ‘I was very, very upset and very depressed. He got off his chair and knelt down before me. He offered me his handkerchief, put his arms round me, cuddled me, kissed me, then touched my breasts and put his hands between my legs. I felt confused, disorientated, upset and left the room in tears.’
Sonya says she continued to see the chaplain, as she desperately depended on his support. One afternoon, however, she claims he visited her at home and they had sex. Sonya, who was married with children, admits that at first she felt special. A week later, however, she realised she had made a terrible mistake. But, in a state of severe depression, she felt powerless.
In March 2000, she claims that the chaplain brutally raped her in a toilet at a cemetery where she had gone to visit her sister’s grave. ‘I was very upset and went to the toilet in a very distressed state. (He) followed me … In an instant the door was closed and locked.
‘My trousers were pulled down and he was touching me. I said, “No, please get out”. He smiled. He turned me round and pushed me against the door. He put his arm across my neck. He raped me. I couldn’t scream or shout. I felt sick and confused. I prayed somebody would come into the toilets – somebody, anybody. Nobody did.’
Sonya claims she was then repeatedly raped at her home, but could tell no one.
‘He repeatedly told me it was a moving-on process. He told me constantly not to tell anyone, or he could lose his job. He threatened to tell my husband, and most of all that nobody would believe me.
‘He kept telling me it was our secret. I was terrified and kept my mouth shut – until the day I felt suicidal and reported the incident to another counsellor.’
The hospital held an internal investigation and the chaplain’s ministry was told. But it was the chaplain’s word against Sheila’s, and the hospital took his. He still works there and is allowed on home visits to other vulnerable women.
According to Kennedy, one of the major problems is that the perpetrator is a male member of the clergy who is seen as above reproach. ‘The woman is often seen as the seductress who has tempted the priest into a sexual relationship,’ she said.
While the tabloid press feasts on tales of randy vicars and sex-starved women pouncing on priests, the truth is much more complex.
Some victims said they believed they had been ‘groomed’ by a cleric just as a paedophile prepares his victims.
Sheila, now a senior magistrate, said, ‘I now believe I was targeted from the word go, and he drew me in. And I now know there were at least three others. When he learnt I had been abused as a child he used this to put me in a vulnerable position. He used to come round to my house with his dog collar on and get me talking about abuse, and gave me what he called special hugs which he said would help heal me. This meant putting his hands down my pants. He then used to masturbate. It was ritualistic and he made us pray together.’
Sheila felt like a paedophile victim in another way. The Church of England would not take her complaint seriously unless she made it formal, which meant going public.
‘I wanted to deal with this informally. They didn’t want to help me. That is why I feel terribly betrayed. They wouldn’t help me. They seemed more interested in burying the story.’