By Chris Gelder in THE TABLET, 23 February 2019
rom the age of seven I faced a number of incidents of abuse. They have stayed with me all my life. I remember a nun once encouraged me to expose myself in front of her and cough, while other children looked in through the window and laughed. One summer, my mother, a devout Catholic, sent me to stay at the local priest’s house.
I was given a single bed in the lounge. He showered me with presents. Along with the sherry, he told me some of presents had to be kept secret, such as an air rifle. I now know this is classic grooming behaviour. He abused me repeatedly. I stared into the open fire and watched the flames while he took advantage of me. I returned home laden with my gifts and my secrets.
It wasn’t until I was 24 years old that I was able to talk about the abuse. My mother was horrified. When I was 30 I received counselling and made the decision to pursue the priest to have him prosecuted.
I contacted the Catholic Church but they were not prepared to discuss or disclose the priest’s whereabouts. By the time I discovered where the priest had moved to, he had passed away. Although I was robbed of being able to hold the priest to account, I took some solace in having made the personal decision to seek him out. But you never forget.
I feel my 32 years working for the St Vincent de Paul Society (SVP) as a manager for its Approved Premises rehabilitation hostels for ex-offenders in Newcastle has given meaning to the abuse that I suffered as a child.
I have learnt that the work of rehabilitation helps prevent further victims. The serious nature of the offences that abusers have committed cannot be condoned or minimised, but if offenders are vilified and isolated the risk they pose is increased. By serving an appropriate prison sentence, an offender has been punished. When they are released, rehabilitation has got to be the focus.
I believe that sex offenders can reform
but they must be appropriately monitored and supported. In my experience, Vincentian values are the key to the rehabilitation of offenders: respect, compassion, generosity, responsiveness, accountability and a Christ-centred approach, which for me means a person-centred approach. This is essential, because we all have to feel valued. For me it’s an acceptance and understanding of what has happened and moving on in the knowledge that the perpetrator has been held to account, and managed safely so that others are protected.
Often, abuse has not been acknowledged by the Church. The principles set out in UK employment law are a good place to start in dealing with allegations of abuse. Perhaps priests should be considered as employees and the Church as an employer. And I do wonder whether clerical celibacy is a contributor to the problem.
The rejection of perpetrators is not the answer. They too must be valued. But when the Church is engaging with offenders, this needs to be done in an open, transparent and safe way, and by fully trained staff.
Chris Gelder is the manager of the St Vincent de Paul Society’s Approved Premises rehabilitation hostels for ex-offenders, Newcastle upon Tyne.