Survivors of abuse have been telling their stories to members of the Anglican Communion’s Safe Church Commission. The Commission was set up to promote the safety of people within churches of the Anglican Communion throughout the world, with a particular focus on children, young people and vulnerable adults. It met last month in South Africa to plan the next step of its work, and to meet with abuse survivors.
“Every time he would go to work I would just look through the window and just stand”, one survivor said as she recounted the abuse she had endured as a child. “Neighbours would see me and come close to the window and talk to me. I couldn’t speak it. I don’t know. . . even the word ‘help’ – I didn’t know how to say it. I didn’t know what to say. They want to reach out. They would ask me why I was not in school . . . but I can’t respond.”
Commission member Cleophas Lunga, the Bishop of Matabeleland, said that the Commission was “humbled” by the courage of the survivors who met with them. “In many cases, the stigma associated with such kind of stories makes it difficult for people to come out publicly, to tell their stories and to find ways as to how best that they can be helped. So the work of this Commission is quite important in that regard.”
Mary Wells, a Canadian social worker, is a member of the Commission. “I felt that their final plea was how can I be safe in the Church?”, she said, speaking of the survivors’ stories. “Developing policies that make everyone safe will help them but I would personally suggest that . . . in a very practical way parishes can help women who are emerging from abuse or trying to leave shelters and need help in transitioning.”
Sereima Lomaloma from the Diocese of Polynesia is another member of the Commission. “One of the greatest challenges we face is the culture of silence,” she said. “In the community, the majority of the population in the Pacific are Christians and faith is an integral component of our lives. . . And the culture of silence is also a very important part of our lives and so we don’t speak publicly about abuse.”
The Commission is chaired by barrister Garth Blake, a senior counsel in Australia. He said: “Hearing from survivors is extremely important to our work. We need to ensure we understand the harmful effects that they have experienced and, as best we can, ensure that the guidelines we are developing will prevent that sort of abuse from happening in the future; and where abuse of that nature does happen, that there is proper care for survivors.”
Explaining why the Commission was established, he said: “Over the last 20 years-or-so there had been public disclosures of abuse – sexual abuse but other forms of abuse – in a number of provinces. Our task is threefold: firstly we are to identify what policies are currently in place in the churches of the Communion; secondly, we are to develop guidelines to enhance the safety of people in the churches of the Anglican Communion; and thirdly, to develop resources for the implementation of those guidelines.”
Another senior lawyer who is a member of the Commission is Canon Andrew Khoo, the Chancellor of the Diocese of West Malaysia and the co-chair of the human rights committee of the Malaysia Bar Council. “Where do victims or survivors, people who want to get over this, where do they go for help, he asked. “Where do they go for assistance? Can they actually come to the Church? Or is the Church seen as the very institution that has allowed these horrible incidents to happen?”
The Commission is continuing its work through virtual meetings and are expected to gather again in November.