A survivor of abuse writes to the Archbishop of York

Your Grace,

I write as an adult survivor of what my former counsellor calls chronic childhood trauma, some of which included sexual, physical and emotional abuse over a prolonged period of time.

I understand that you are in favour of altering the nature of the seal of confession in order to safeguard the abused. I write concerning that proposal.

I have known God’s hand supporting me from an early age, but no more so than when he, I believe, literally saved me from committing suicide at around the age of 14. As I was about to take that step I felt a clear strength come from outside of me to give me an inner strength and peace. I found myself walking away from the water’s edge to go back to the house, passing my mother taking yet another beating from my stepfather. From that time onwards I found myself making the three mile round journey to my village church every Sunday. I cannot begin to tell you the pain of all this and how it has affected and damaged me, as abuse does to anyone. With respect, unless you have survived abuse you cannot begin to grasp the pain, the isolation, shame and effect upon the whole of life.

I was fortunate enough to escape the farm at 17, when I joined the Merchant Navy. The farm was an isolated existence, living in the Peak District half a mile from the nearest neighbour. That isolation enabled my stepfather’s abuse to go unnoticed and to isolate my family further. I was fortunate enough at 21 to have sufficient money to help my mum buy a house and so escape to a new life. I have never seen anyone look as terrified as my mother on that day. I could go on to explain my circumstances, but I want to get to my point.

The shame that I felt from years of abuse is beyond words, a shame that has shaped the whole of my life, a shame that belonged to the abuser but which the abused assimilates. The only place I felt able to speak of the abuse was to a priest in confession. I remember it clearly from all those years ago. I had hidden it for many years. The shame prevented me from speaking of it. I cannot emphasize enough that the only place I felt secure to open up was in confession; even my mother did not know of my sexual abuse at that point. When eventually she did learn of it she screamed. I ask you to pray for my mother that she may forgive my deceased stepfather.

Being able to make my confession in the knowledge that its confidentiality was absolute gave me the courage to speak of the abuse. It began a road to recovery, a road I am still treading. I am fortunate that God has given me the grace to forgive. I felt forgiveness from my heart as a gift during my first Holy Week at theological college. Forgiveness does not make the past go away, but it helps not to be destroyed by it.

Please do not remove the time-honoured absolute nature of the seal; without it folk like me may not feel able to speak of their abuse. The church speaks of creating ‘safe spaces’ for the marginalized and needy; please do not remove this safe space from the victims of abuse. Please do not victimize the abused further by isolating us even more! Confession is a life line. The seal gives the victims of abuse the space and confidence to speak out, perhaps for the very first time, and so begin a journey of redemption.

The author of this letter wishes to remain anonymous