Past Case Review: ‘Learn from the past and make the future better’

Lisa Oakley pcrThe United Reformed Church has extended its Past Case Review (PCR) deadline to 30 June 2017 and issued new resources to help churches and individuals acknowledge past abuses, show Christian love and build a stronger, safer Church community.

Review organisers have urged all within the URC to spread the word about it so that the Church can learn from the past and do better in the future. The new resources – a poster, church magazine article, and statement for churches – are now available here. The second phase of PCR, launched in October last year, sees the public being invited to raise concerns formally about the behaviour, or conduct, of anyone affiliated with the URC since its formation in 1972. Concerns may involve all forms of abuse, including sexual, financial, spiritual, psychological and emotional.

The Revd Richard Church, Deputy General Secretary (Discipleship), is responsible for the Review. He says: ‘Every church has a vital role to play in getting the message out and sharing it far and wide. The Safeguarding Advisory Group agreed to extend the PCR’s original deadline of 31 March in order to ensure that all who may wish to come forward will have opportunity to do so. This is so very important and we need your help to make sure the message gets through.’

Dr Lisa Oakley is programme leader for the only undergraduate course in Abuse Studies in the UK at Manchester Metropolitan University. She is also a member of the URC’s Past Case Review learning group and is in no doubt about the importance of the Review: ‘I don’t think you can preach the gospel of love and then not want to listen to people’s stories where they’ve been hurt and damaged by the Church or by people within the Church. Those in positions of authority have a responsibility to learn from what’s gone on in the past and try to make the future better for those that come into their care.’

A PhD in spiritual abuse saw Lisa look at people’s stories of psychological and emotional abuse within the Christian faith, a work that has now developed to cover issues of safeguarding and abuse. As an Associate with The Churches' Child Protection Advisory Service (CCPAS), she has also been involved in partnership research looking at safeguarding adults in the Church.

More recently, Manchester Metropolitan University, CCPAS and the Victoria Climbié Foundation conducted a survey on child abuse linked to faith and belief. Lisa is currently involved in analysing that survey and sharing its results.

Her path crossed with that of the URC after addressing the Methodist Safeguarding Conference in early 2016. Lisa – who is also a Visiting Fellow at Bournemouth University – went on to speak of spiritual abuse to the United Reformed Church’s safeguarding group. There followed an invitation to join the URC’s learning group as they prepared to address key questions about the way forward when dealing with all forms of abuse – and what the denomination can learn for the future.

The role of the learning group is to appraise all the cases that come forward as part of the URC’s Past Case Review; both those that are already known and others that emerge through the call for people to come forward with their stories. Group members will read anonymised accounts and make recommendations about change reflecting good practice for the church in future. The group aims to ensure that the URC responds well to those cases, including any investigations that may need to take place as a result.

‘I’m really excited to be on it, ‘said Lisa, ‘because it includes independent people from outside the URC, as well as people from within the denomination, to be honest in their assessment of what emerges through the Review. This is far from an “in-house exercise” and it’s certainly not being done to promote some kind of representation of the URC at the end of it all.’

The group will also take a look at the Review as a whole and consider what can be learned about how to make things safer, respond well when things happen, discover future training needs and achieve better understanding of safe church culture.

Lisa is clear about the importance of the task – and spreading the word about it: ‘Yes, until we begin to look at the cases, we won’t know what the specific learning will be but the ethos behind it all is to learn from what’s happened in the past to make things better in the future. That’s why it is so very important for URC members and ministers, synod officials and representatives to get the message out about the Review because, above all, if people have had a story of abuse, it really matters to them. They should know they can tell that story and it will be listened to, and dealt with, as it should be.

‘I don’t think you can preach the gospel of love and then not want to listen to people’s stories where they’ve been hurt and damaged by the Church or by people within the Church. Those in positions of authority have a responsibility to learn from what’s gone on in the past and try to make the future better for those that come into their care.’

She understands why some may feel anxious about promoting the Past Case Review. ‘I know some people are fearful because of concerns about “can we cope, can we manage, can we respond well?” And I think that’s where having good training, using organisations like CCPAS to help in the process, is part of the solution to that. Another comfort is that you’re not expected to be an “expert”; you just have to know what you’re looking for and report it on.

‘Safeguarding, we keep hearing, is everybody’s business; that’s absolutely true. It’s also true that if you are in a church, you have a responsibility to care about the other people in that church but you don’t have a responsibility, unless it’s your role, to make the call about whether something is abuse or not – and what needs to happen next. We shouldn’t be scared to allow people to tell their stories and to learn from them.’

It can be very difficult to tell a story of abuse about somebody who’s seen in a very positive light in a church. ‘People who abuse others sometimes do it “unintentionally” by which I mean that they might not know their behaviour was abusive at the time. They will often do lots of good things – as well as things that are not good – and therefore it can be difficult to tell that particular story. I would tell anyone in that situation that the first person they’re going to talk to, as part of Past Case Review, is somebody who is trained to listen. They can tell their story and not be afraid to do so. It certainly will not be shared.’

Lisa has extensive experience of organisations from various sectors attempting to deal with issues of abuse. Their concerns and matters of process vary but openness is vital to all of them, no matter what the size of the institution or the scope of its work.

‘There is a real benefit in being transparent about what’s happened in the past, obviously while maintaining confidentiality of individual stories. It means there’s nothing hidden and it offers a much more positive foundation on which to build. We are all aware of headlines about abuse within the wider Church, and it’s quite right that abuse should be highlighted, but I do think it makes a positive impact when a denomination is willing to say, “We’re being open and transparent in dealing with this issue.” I think that can change the perception of what Church is all about; particularly for those who aren’t part of it.’

Much media coverage tells of sexual abuse within church settings but that’s not the only form of abuse to be considered by the Past Case Review. Lisa urges a wider understanding of abusive situations and why they are included in this process.

‘Yes, sexual abuse is part of this Review. So, should that be somebody’s story; then, of course, they are welcome to come forward and tell that story – if that’s what they want to do. But I think it’s really, really important to understand that other forms of abuse are being looked at as well. That’s physical abuse, financial abuse, what I call spiritual abuse and what’s becoming more understood around psychological and emotional abuse. Any of those stories can be told in this Past Case Review.

‘Sometimes people think their story isn’t what’s being looked for, or doesn’t fit, and actually we would be saying, “No, come forward if you’ve got a story of any experience of abuse because that’s what the Past Case Review is really all about. It wants to capture the whole picture, not just a part of it.’

Further confusion arises when people mistakenly believe they need to be a current member of the United Reformed Church to register a concern. ‘That’s absolutely not the case. You don’t need to have been a member of the URC, or any denomination, in the past – or present – to do so. Others think that because they are no longer part of the URC, their story wouldn’t be listened to or doesn’t count. This really is a Past Case Review of any cases that come forward where there’s a connection with the URC.’

The message of the Review needs to be announced both inside, and outside, churches. Lisa says the Review is poorer if either context is overlooked. ‘There may be people sitting in churches with stories yet to be told. But it is as, or more, important to get the message out beyond that because often, if you’ve experienced abuse within a church setting, you choose not to stay within that setting. So if you only tell the story “inside”, you are going to have a very select group of stories. It’s about being brave and promoting the message “outside” through community links, organisations in your area, and the local press. Trust that the process is being well managed and has been well thought through; and the learning from it will be really important for the future.’

What about situations where people don’t want to come forward because of the feeling that whatever happened was as a result of something they did, or didn’t, do? ‘People can feel they have somehow been complicit because they didn’t take any action at the time or they perhaps did do things that didn’t stop it. But we have to understand that abuse is never the victim’s fault and so it’s important to be able to tell your story to people who understand the whole picture of abuse.

‘This is a process and people will make a decision about how far they go with that process. Obviously there’s a slight caveat if there’s criminal activity or it’s an ongoing issue but, if this is a case that happened in the past, people will have an ownership of what happens with that, how far they want their story to go, and what they want to happen. There can be a fear in these cases that you tell your story and then it becomes somebody else’s and you’ve lost it, you’ve lost control of it. And that really isn’t the case. I would really encourage people thinking of coming forward with a story to have a look at the URC material online because it’s really clear about that process and how you can call time on it if you want to.

‘If you have concerns about something that has happened, you should raise them – that’s what the Past Case Review is here for.’