03 March 2023, The Tablet

Supporting survivors of abuse by showing solidarity through community action

by Sophie Scagell

Supporting survivors of abuse by showing solidarity through community action

Photo by Scagell/plymouth-diocese.org.uk

The focus of my role in abuse survivor support and case-worker communications in the Plymouth diocese is to help and support survivors of abuse and to champion victims and survivors issues, not only those hurt within a Church setting but from any setting, whatever those circumstances might be.  

When I began this role, I came across the organisation Survivors Voices online and was immediately drawn to their LOUDfence initiative.  

Some months later, I had a phone call with Antonia Sobocki, the LOUDfence Project Manager.  Antonia explained that a LOUDfence is a community event to show support and solidarity with survivors of abuse, where people tie ribbons around a fence (or similar structure), which could also include messages of support for survivors, this serves as a sign of solidarity, protest, and hope. 

I was struck by the simplicity of the LOUDfence and felt that it would make a very powerful and public statement of solidarity with survivors.  I am conscious that there are people in our parishes and local communities who may never have been able to share their story with someone else.  I felt that it was important for the Church to reach out to these individuals. 

A lot of people who have been abused feel let down by the Church for not addressing the issues appropriately. Many have lost their faith.  This is a sad indictment on the Church’s past actions and lack of action and as such I felt that the LOUDfence would provide a good opportunity for dialogue in a manner which was both open and transparent, moving the issues from being something that was often seen as a taboo subject to something we are open and confident in talking about and respectfully listening to the voices of those who have been hurt in anyway in whichever setting.

We know that abuse has a massive impact on people, and it is important that we provide a voice to all those who have felt that they have had to sit in silence for too long.  Recent reports about the Catholic Church including the IICSA report, highlighted the Church’s lack of focus on the needs of victims, and its failure to be compassionate and understanding towards survivors of abuse.  It was felt that the LOUDfence would be a positive step towards acknowledging the abuse that has taken place, not only within the Church but in wider society, that the Church’s response is changing and that help and support are available.

Abuse is still a very difficult topic of discussion for many people, and clerical abuse has caused many to drift away from the Church.  This was very evident from comments shared during the gathering of feedback for the synodal process in our diocese and other events.  I felt that the LOUDfence would offer a positive way to speak out about this and provide a way for people to show their support for survivors, by its very visual presence.

After a lot of planning, we decided to hold our LOUDfence in February, between the 15 and 17 February in the city centre parish of Christ the King.   As well as promoting the event on the diocesan website and via social media, we also had airtime on BBC Devon.

The opening ceremony was led by the Clergy Lead for Safeguarding, Fr Mark Skelton who hoped that the LOUDfence would in some small way recognise the struggles, pain and sorrow of all those who have been affected by abuse, and witness to the Church’s support and solidarity with them.  Antonia Sobocki, the Project Manager for LOUDfence and Jane Chevous from Survivors Voices took an active role in the ceremony and Fr Skelton blessed the LOUDfence. 

People then tied ribbons to the fence and added messages of support. Some then spent time chatting, others went into the church which was open so that anyone who wished to could sit quietly to pause and reflect. 

Members of the diocesan safeguarding team were present outside the church throughout the following two days and had several conversations with both visitors and people passing by who saw the many ribbons on the church’s railings.

At midday on the final day of the LOUDfence, a Survivors Mass was celebrated at Christ the King church by Fr Mark Skelton.  The Mass was both intimate and emotive.  Fr Mark gave a short homily that acknowledged the pain and hurt caused to those who have been abused.  He thanked the survivors present for coming to the Mass, and for their willingness to give the Church another chance.  At the bidding prayers, Fr Skelton invited anyone present that wanted to, to come to the altar to share a thought or a prayer.  Several people took up this invitation and bravely spoke to the whole congregation. 

At the conclusion of the LOUDfence, all the messages and ribbons were carefully taken down.  A permanent portable display will be created with these, so that the words that people have written can be shared further.

We have been amazed by the very positive response received to the LOUDfence.  Dozens of messages of support from across the world were received virtually before and during the event.  Many people who attended have expressed that it was a healing experience that has left them with a sense of hope for the future.

The most important outcome of the LOUDfence has been starting conversations with survivors and their family members.  We continue to respectfully listen and learn from the stories which people have shared about the impact of abuse on them and their families, and what they felt would be helpful for the Church to do, to help survivors with their healing journey.  This is the start of an ongoing process that we will build on over the coming weeks and months and allows us to continually review the service we provide to keep the Church a safe, caring and holy place.

On a wider level, I hope that those who have heard about the LOUDfence will begin to see that we as a Church are here to help and support survivors, and that we are not afraid to talk about the issue of abuse.  I know we still have much to do and much to learn, but I hope that this will be seen as a positive step in the right direction.

For others who are considering or thinking about running a LOUDfence there is one simple message: just do it.

Sophie Scagell is Survivor Support and Communications Caseworker at the Diocese of Plymouth Safeguarding Office.

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