One of the first responders to victims of sexual abuse in the church says that if we don’t listen to the victims and take heed of their experiences, we are silencing them and sending them to hide in the shadows. Counsellor Nicky Lock and hospital chaplain Tim Spencer are among the first people to hear victim statements and they spoke to Eternity about what justice looks like for victims of child abuse in the church, as well as how everyday Aussies can grieve over these awful criminal acts.

How can Christians respond to allegations/evidence being uncovered?

Nicky Lock: To be shocked and devastated is an appropriate response. Maybe the wider public are learning about things that they really hadn’t been aware were happening.

Tim Spencer: I agree. A lot of people are hearing things they would rather not hear, or don’t want to hear. It’s important for people to deal with how they feel, what they’re experiencing and what’s going on in their community.

We as a Christian community, as hard as it is, we actually need to own that these criminal behaviours took place within our community.

How can people avoid becoming numb to the stories that are coming out?

NL: The danger is that this story of sexual abuse in the church is a stain on the Christian community and if we don’t listen to it and hear it and take note we are, in effect, silencing again all the victims of the terrible crimes. We’re sending them to hide in the shadows.

And we as a Christian community, as hard as it is, we actually need to own that these criminal behaviours took place within our community. And we need to denounce these criminal behaviours that took place within our community. And we need to seek justice for those who were hurt by these criminal behaviours.

What do you think justice looks like in this situation?

We need to listen to victims and take them seriously. And we need to apologise and take responsibility for what’s happened to them, to find pathways for healing.

NL: We need to listen to victims and take them seriously. And we need to apologise and take responsibility for what’s happened to them, to find pathways for healing. And we need to be prepared to be serious about some form of redress for the damage that they’ve experienced. And we also need to deal with perpetrators appropriately.

TS: How we behave in our church communities, and how we safeguard those who come within our community, has to be a priority for us too. So we are actively working at how to actually encourage our community to create safe environments for children and adults.

How do you continue to do this job and still keep your faith alive?

TS: When people hear that such a person (minister) behaved in this way, their own faith can be called into question. It could well be that they have in some way been subject to abuse or aware of abuse and it can touch old painful places in them. Or it could be that they actually start to grieve for the loss of the church that they believed existed which now they don’t believe exists because within that church these things happen.

…the behaviour and the betrayal of a few doesn’t negate the gospel, does not negate our faith in God.

NL: For most of us as we come into contact with this sort of information we have to mourn as we’re confronted by the terrible truth that our churches have not been safe places. In fact, quite the opposite – our churches have been dangerous places where our children have been terribly hurt by people within our community.

As difficult as that is, to go through that process of mourning, I think it brings us to a place of reality. Our churches are but a reflection of the world that we live in, and the world that we live in is a broken place.

As we’re confronted with the reality of that, that is actually a place of challenging our faith. And ours is not a simplistic faith, we actually have to wrestle with this idea of how to confront the reality of evil in our world that is pervasive throughout the world. It is something that happens in our churches as well. And so it is a place of great spiritual growth when we actually confront this reality.

TS: There’s an opportunity for us to grow in our faith and come to a place where we realise that the behaviour and the betrayal of a few doesn’t negate the gospel, does not negate our faith in God. We can actually find God in the dark places.

Does the information uncovered in the Royal Commission affect you personally?

That the church I am a priest within actually would have those sorts of things happening leaves a very difficult feeling within.

TS: After looking at the transcripts of the first few days I can remember sharing with colleagues that I felt quite hollow; it’s a yucky feeling. That the church I am a priest within actually would have those sorts of things happening leaves a very difficult feeling within.

We need to be prayerfully supportive of survivors of sexual abuse, the ones we know about and the ones we don’t know about.

How can local churches grieve these realities?

NL: I think it can be something as simple as deciding that in one particular week all the home groups and study groups are going to hold a minute’s silence and remember that these things occur in our community and maybe even in the group that we’re sitting in. And then holding these people in prayer. And staying in that place of contemplation.

For most of us, if we actually contemplate these things for a minute, in silence, we will come to a place of touching the sadness of these events.

TS: In the first stage it’s helpful to just sit with the reality of it, and then, once that’s done, there’s a place to step off from and that’s really important. Too many people just want to get their life back without actually owning the reality of it within, and then it’ll just come back and bite them later.

It’s pointless telling people what they have to think or believe or feel. That is something they need to work out for themselves.

NL: This always reminds me of the beginning of Job. When Job had lost everything (health, family, wealth), his friends came to him and they were fantastic, they just sat with him for seven days and said nothing. They exerted this idea of “presence ministry”; they sat with him in his distress.

To be with someone in that time of darkness, to support them – this is what you can do – join with people in that place of distress.

TS: It’s pointless telling people what they have to think or believe or feel. That is something they need to work out for themselves. To take something outside of yourself and lay it over your own painful place and try and live that out is never going to work. It has to come from within. It’s a decision you make on the basis of what you believe is right and true for yourself. And it’s a process; it takes time.

How do you give hope to a victim of abuse?

NL: We can hold the hope that some recovery is possible. But many will carry deep scars for the rest of their lives.

I think we can hold that hope for people – that a degree of healing is possible. And obviously ultimate complete healing is something for heaven.

Our bodies can heal and our emotions can heal. If you’ve had a very serious physical wound, you may heal but you may be left with a limp. If you’ve had a very serious psychological or emotional wound, you heal but you may be left with a bit of a limp.

I think we can hold that hope for people – that a degree of healing is possible. And obviously ultimate complete healing is something for heaven.

What keeps you going in this work?

NL: I have felt called into this ministry. I am here because this is where God wants me to be. But also, it is an enormous privilege to journey with survivors of abuse through their journey of recovery. They are brave, courageous people and it’s a privilege that people are prepared to share of themselves as they go on that journey.

My other motivation is that we need to do better than this. We need to be working towards creating a safe church in the future. We want our churches to be safe places, where people can come and be safe. And even though sometimes the Safe Ministry guidelines may seem restrictive, we need to embrace those for the good of protecting children and vulnerable people in our churches. We need everybody in the church community to be working at this.

We have a way to go, but we are working on rebuilding trust and creating a safe church.

TS: I’m not entirely sure when I actually put the first foot on the ladder of being involved, but there’s a rightness about it, [even though] sometimes it is quite an uncomfortable place to be in.

Anything else to add?

NL: I am keen to say that while the Royal Commission is going on we are hearing terrible stories, many about historic abuse, but I’m also keen to say that for the last 20 years, certainly the last 15 years, churches have been working really hard to make churches safe places.

We have a way to go, but we are working on rebuilding trust and creating a safe church.

Nicky Lock and Tim Spencer are both members of the Professional Standards Commission of the Anglican Church of Australia.

If you or someone you know wants to report abuse, please call the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Abuse on 1800 099 340.

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Pray

Some prayer points to help

  • Pray that the evidence uncovered at the Royal Commission would lead to justice for victims and their families.
  • Pray that survivors of child abuse in the church would experience healing.
  • Pray that the church would be a safe place for children and all vulnerable people.
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