We didn’t always listen to abuse victims, says Methodist Church

The Methodist Church in Britain has apologised for failing to protect children and adults following nearly 2,000 reports of physical and sexual abuse within the institution dating back to the 1950s.

Generic image of a candle at a Methodist church. The Church has today apologised for failing to protect children and adults from abuse.
Generic image of a candle at a Methodist church. The Church has today apologised for failing to protect children and adults from abuse.

Publishing a 100-page report today, the Methodist Church in Britain said it wanted to be open about the past and to have stronger safeguarding procedures in the future.

Rev Dr Martyn Atkins, general secretary of the Methodist Conference said: “On behalf of the Methodist Church in Britain I want to express an unreserved apology for the failure of its current and earlier processes fully to protect children, young people and adults from physical and sexual abuse inflicted by some ministers in Full Connexion and members of the Methodist Church.

“That abuse has been inflicted by some Methodists on children, young people and adults is and will remain a deep source of grief and shame to the church.”

He described as “deeply regrettable” that the church had “not always listened properly to those abused” nor had it always cared for them.

He added: “In respect of these things we have, as a Christian church, clearly failed to live in ways that glorify God and honour Christ.

“I am certain that the Methodist Conference will want to resolve to do all in its power to improve its systems to protect children, young people and adults from abuse within the life of the church and on church premises, and to review them diligently on a regular basis.”

The independent review, which has taken three years and was led by former Barnardo’s deputy chief executive Jane Stacey, considered all safeguarding cases for which there were written records and those recalled from memory by ministers and members of the church going back to 1950.

These included cases that occurred within a church context as well as those which were reported to the church as a matter of pastoral concern, but which occurred away from the church.

In each identified case, the church’s response was reviewed on whether it had been safe, pastorally appropriate and compliant with current legislation and policy. Where possible and appropriate cases have been referred to the police or other remedial action has been taken.

The church said the aim of conducting the review and writing the report was “to learn the lessons of the past so that safeguarding work within the Methodist Church is of the highest possible standard and the church is safe for all”.

The review identified 1,885 past cases, which included sexual, physical, emotional and domestic abuse as well as cases of neglect. In approximately one quarter of these cases (26%), church ministers or lay employees were identified as the perpetrators or alleged perpetrators. In 61 of these cases there was contact with the police and there are six ongoing police investigations as a result.

A law firm representing a group of individuals taking action against the Methodist Church has welcomed the apology.

The claimants allege they were abused by a church missionary in Africa during the 1980s.

David Greenwood of Yorkshire law firm Switalksis and chairman of the Stop Church Child Abuse campaign said: “The report into the Methodist church tells only part of the story.

“The cases examined are only the ones documented in the past. Many will not have been recorded.

“We will never know how many cases have not been handled properly. Many of those affected do not trust that churches will take their complaints seriously which means we are left with thousands of survivors who do not even report their abuse.

“Church organisations have enjoyed unquestioned trust to care vulnerable members of society. Churches are closed organisations and have been trusted to regulate themselves in relation to child abuse allegations.

“This means that those who are brave enough to speak up about wrongdoing in their organisation are forced to speak to someone with a vested interest in protecting the church. Typically very few allegations are taken seriously and reported to the police. The report itself acknowledges that only a tiny minority of cases are passed to the police.

“This has amounted to systematic covering up of allegations of abuse of children and vulnerable adults.

“My campaigning colleagues and I have heard apologies and commitments to improve yet church organisations of every denomination have refused to hand over complaints handling to an independent body.

“I have campaigned for changes to improve church responses to allegations and for a thorough investigation as part of a national inquiry. The Methodist church is not alone as a wrongdoer. All churches require scrutiny.

“I hope that the inquiry headed by Mrs Justice Goddard will thoroughly examine church handling of allegations and consider recommending the establishment of an independent organisation for taking reports of abuse and mandatory reporting of allegations to the police.”

Nichola Marshall, head of international abuse at law firm Leigh Day, said: “It has taken my clients over 30 years to have the courage to come forward with their allegations of abuse against the Methodist Church.

“They welcome this public acknowledgment by the Methodist Church as they have faced criticism and disapproval from members of the community for speaking out in the past.

“It must never again be the case that the reputation of institutions take precedence over the welfare of society’s most vulnerable.

“Faith-based organisations have a huge responsibility to ensure the trust they demand of followers is not misused by those who seek out positions of responsibility to prey on the vulnerable.”

The review carried out by the Methodist Church identified many victims of abuse and has led to greater restrictions being placed on past offenders.

Among the victims who came forward was a man in his 30s who revealed he was abused in the early 1990s when the alleged perpetrator was a youth worker within the church.

The alleged abuser is currently a lay pastor and a youth worker in four different churches including a Methodist church. He is being investigated by police and has been suspended from his church roles.

A woman in her 50s claimed she was groped by a Methodist minister’s husband in the 1970s when she was 12 to 14-years-old. The incidents were reported to the local minister at the time but it is unclear whether any action was taken.

The victim says she is aware of at least one other victim. The case is being examined by a safeguarding worker.

The review also led to the identification of four further victims of a Methodist minister who was jailed after being convicted of charges of sexual assault on children.

Two of the additional victims have made complaints which are being investigated by the police. The minister was allowed to retire on compassionate grounds which caused great offence to his victims and their friends and families.

The review also led to the completion of new covenants of care to manage known or suspected sex offenders. A Methodist minister convicted of sexually abusing children in the late 1990s was found to be unwilling to acknowledge any need to change his behaviour.

He was allowed to resign from the ministry and is now in his early 80s. Informal arrangements were in place to enable him to worship but the review highlighted that risk does not disappear with age so a more robust and formal set of rules for his involvement in the church have been established.

Safeguarding officers became actively involved when an offender described as very charismatic and highly manipulative was found to be attending worship in a Methodist church.

He was jailed after being caught with indecent images of children on his computer when he was a youth worker within the church in the early 2000s, but after being released he changed his name and did not return to his home church.

Members of his new church are said to find it hard to believe that he is potentially harmful.

Supporting victims has also been a key part of the review. In one example, a woman who was allegedly raped in the early 1990s reported the attack to several ministers but they responded in an inappropriate way, leaving the victim highly distressed.

The officials conducting the review listened to her experience and enabled her to write about what happened, restoring her self-worth and allowing her to feel confident enough to help others.