Last week I went to see Spotlight with one of the lovely ladies I co-run a Guide unit with. It is a film that everyone should watch (in my opinion) as it is an important story we need to be aware of and learn from.
I, like many others, am aware of stories of Priests who have abused children. What I wasn’t fully aware of was the extent that they were allowed to continue to work as Priests with access to other vulnerable adults and children after their heinous acts were discovered. As the film credits rolled, the lights came up and people began to leave the cinema, my friend and I remained seated. I could only utter a two word expletive as we sat shocked and angered.
7 years ago I went out to South Africa, where I worked alongside a community development project in a township just outside Amanzimtoti. Before I went, and on my first day with them we were given an orientation. We learned some Zulu words (the local language) and also given a rundown on things we needed to be aware of. I’ve worked in communities since I was a teenager myself, and seen and heard some pretty horrific things. The first time I walked into the neonatal unit at the maternity hospital in Aberdeen to hear the distressed, pained cries of many babies born addicted to heroin was pretty harrowing. The conversational tones in which members of the community groups I worked with would talk about their neighbour/friend/relative who had committed suicide or overdosed disturbed me. But hearing that the many of the children in the community I was about to walk into have been raped by the time they are 5 years old? That was one of the worst. I can’t remember the exact statistic, but it was a huge percentage. Worse than hearing that 40% of the region I was in had HIV/AIDS. And it was often by adults that they knew.
There’s a line in the film that has haunted me “when you’re a poor kid from a poor family and a Priest pays attention to you…it’s a big deal.” I remember the first day meeting the kids from the after school club that the community centre ran in the township. We were helping with their holiday club as it was the half-term holiday. Kids literally climbed all over you to get hugs. A lot of them we knew were orphaned due to AIDS and didn’t get that kind of attention at home. It was part of the reason they had so many of us there – so there was that kind of love to go around. It freaked me out at first, because I’ve been so trained NOT to hug! One girl wouldn’t leave my side every day I was there, she didn’t want to be held by anyone but me and often fell asleep in my arms by the end of the day. I was never able to find out her story, and on the last day, while I wasn’t looking she opened the calf pocket of my combat trousers and put a picture she had drawn for me in the pocket then buttoned it up. It wasn’t until I suddenly felt the tugging being caused by the buttoning of the pocket that I looked down to realise what she had been doing. How easy it must be to take advantage of kids so desperate for love and attention. When I came home, I didn’t sleep properly for several weeks…my mind remained with the kids I met.
I work a lot to make sure there are boundaries and all the protection I can give as I work with vulnerable adults and children. Both to protect myself and my staff and the people we are working with. I’ve spoken up to my friends – not caring that I’m perhaps being that annoying person who isn’t a parent giving unsolicited parenting advice – when they’ve tried to cajole their kid into giving me a hug and a kiss to say “thank you” or “goodbye” when they’ve not wanted to. I’ve realised now how important it is from a young age that we show and teach children that no one should ever force them to show affection or intimacy they don’t want to give. Don’t get me wrong – I’m a hugger (hey, there’s a reason that my siblings nicknamed me koala, and that’s one of them) but I never want a kid to give me a hug because they think they HAVE to. I want them to be able to stand up to people and say “no” and that it’s ok to not give one. I want them to know that their body is theirs and nobody else’s.
My Senior Section in particular (they are girls aged 14-25) have had me explain to them Girlguiding UK’s policies, why they are there, and how I want them to know that if an adult didn’t show those boundaries that they should be on alert. It’s usually come up when we are using cars to travel somewhere or why I can’t just add them on facebook to communicate with them. They look at me like I’m crazy at times, because they’re like “we know we’ll be safe with you“. And it’s true. I would put my life on the line to protect any one of them if it was required. I wish I didn’t have to tell them it’s because not all people are safe to be around and most of time abusers are not the obviously skeezy characters you see on TV dramas.
I’ve also heard too many stories about people in a position of leadership in the church (I don’t just mean ministers – but volunteer leaders, elders etc) that have sexually abused and even raped young people. Often they are told by friends that they shouldn’t report it because they won’t be believed, or may be rejected from the church. I’ve heard stories where people have reported it, but nothing has been done. Often in the name of ‘forgiveness’ and ‘redemption’. Sometimes in the name of ignorance because they don’t believe that it could ever happen in their church. Sometimes leaders don’t bother doing basic police checks for volunteers working with children, or have any kind of child protection or reporting structure in place just in case it is needed. Forgiveness does not mean we forget or trust restored. I am glad that my own church now has a recruitment process with police checks and references for any volunteer or leader working with vulnerable people. And I would hope that if someone was discovered to have abused that position of trust, they would be reported and taken out of a position where that could be repeated. It’s also why when I’ve given child protection training, I don’t just name the child protection person they need to go to if a kid/adult they are working with discloses something that has happened to them, but the also the person they should go to if there is an allegation made about the child protection person. How often do we not bother to do that because we assume everyone is trustworthy?
I could go on and on (clearly), but the main realisation I came to at the end of watching Spotlight? Was that we all have our part to play – because it’s too easy to ignore or play down things that don’t quite sit right with us because we don’t want to open up a massive can of worms.
Choose what is right, over what is easy.