I was raped by a CofE priest and I know the system's broken

It's one of the first lessons in life – bad things happen. Bad things happen to bad people, and bad things happen to good people. They can happen in 'dark and dangerous places', but they can also happen in places that are supposed to be 'safe' and full of light. Sadly, this often makes the impact of what has happened even more wounding, with devastating consequences on an individual's ability to trust.

The critical thing of course is – what happens afterwards? How do we respond? What should we do – Keep Calm and Carry On as 'normal' (or as near to it as we can pretend to be), or allow ourselves to be changed and altered by the experience, learning from it so that we ensure it doesn't happen again?


The Church of England appears to be extremely good at adopting the former – wartime – strategy. It just carries on carrying on. However, in doing so it becomes more and more like a Carry On film – a farcical comedy that stretches reality to breaking point and risks becoming the butt of too many jokes.

So, here's my bad thing: I was raped – by a priest. No matter that it happened over 25 years ago. It happened. I finally told someone – a bishop – last year, and was advised discreetly to drop the allegations. I'm sure it was with the best of intentions, but it was like a kick in the stomach, adding quite literally insult to injury.

It has caused me to reflect – not only on my reasons for staying quiet for so many years, but also on my experience in finally coming forward. Most importantly, however, it has made me consider what I would have ideally liked to have happened – how I would have liked to have been treated, and what might have helped me to speak out sooner. For that is the point of my disclosure – to help us reflect and change.

Obviously, the first thing I would have dearly loved would have been to have been taught – from an early age – that this sort of behaviour is completely unacceptable, out of order, and absolutely not my fault. The years of self-blame and shame were arguably the most damaging. These were the years where I carried this awful truth on my own, too ashamed to speak out, and too guilty about what I saw as my own complicity to call it for what it was – rape.

It wasn't until my first breakdown that a psychotherapist, on hearing my story, challenged me about my own perception of it. No – it was not my fault. It was unwanted and unexpected. Perhaps more importantly though was the fact that had the church – the evangelical church of which I was a part – given me a greater understanding of sexual desire, intimacy, love and self-worth (as a woman) I might have been better equipped to deal with this situation and its aftermath.

Sadly, back then at least, it was a topic that was held as too great a taboo – and one which we, the church, were far too buttoned up to talk about. Sex was for marriage. Full stop. You just had to keep a lid on your desires till you had tied the knot (meaning so many did so far too early). Discipline and self-control were sacrosanct – and woe betide you if you failed. I fear in some churches – particularly evangelical ones – not much has changed. Added to this a warped teaching on headship meant that the man always knew best, that he would initiate things and take charge. This was even more the case if the man was a priest – God's chosen leader. What a fertile ground for a sexual predator – one could almost say his version of heaven!

Putting that aside, however, what should have happened once the deed was done? The line crossed?

The primary thing that would have helped me most would have been a safe and independent place to go. Somewhere where I could have shared what had happened without any possible fear of him finding out, or his work colleagues, and where his name could have been logged (in case others came forward) until I was ready to take things further. This is crucial. My trust in the institution had been utterly broken – if one man could carry his calling so lightly, why not another? Asking me to trust the Church to deal with this properly was like asking me to trust a tabloid newspaper to investigate its own journalists about alleged phone tapping. Impossible. The system is heavily weighted to protect its own. Then there was the question of belief. Wouldn't the Church of England be far more likely to believe a priest it had chosen to recruit, pay for and train rather than an unknown lay 'emotional' female? The imbalance of power felt enormous.

As time moved on, and the guilt of not reporting started to weigh more heavily on me – particularly in relation to wondering whether other women might also now be victims – I began to look at my options. I learnt about the Clergy Discipline Measure, (CDM) but then heard that that had a 'one year' rule, which to get extended would mean that my protagonist would need to be contacted to ask for their consent. One year? It took me six years to tell anyone, and another 18 years to decide I had the strength to do something about it. Yes, the system has been changed so that the one-year rule is waived for child sex abuse cases and those involving vulnerable adults – but not for women with sexual harassment charges.

On receiving an email from my abuser last year, I decided to take the bold step of talking to the police. My experience there was reassuringly good, but left me with yet another Church-related dilemma. Obviously, we would need to see whether there was enough evidence for a conviction, but if there was, the likelihood was that the protagonist would be sent to jail – losing his job, his home and his income. He is now married with children, and so the dilemma I faced was this – was I willing to put another woman through the trauma of losing her family home? The Church of England has few procedures to support abusers' families (or the abused), and it is therefore the wife and children who often sadly pay the highest price!

In my mind we have a system that is completely bust. It is unfit for purpose, no matter how much we might have done recently to try and improve things. The Safeguarding system is all in-house, it has no way of granting anonymity to the victim or a recognised whistle blowing policy, the CDM is unfit for purpose and there are no victim support mechanisms for either the abused or the abuser's family.

We need to have an open and honest debate about the challenges we face, and the way the system has stopped women (and men) coming forward. We have to find the collective will to address these problems, and so ensure that we have a national Church that is truly committed to truth – no matter what the cost.

Without this, I fear society will look on at the Church of England as yet another club of privileged institutional patriarchy – which is safe for abusers but not the abused.

Jayne Ozanne was a founding member of the Archbishops' Council for the Church of England, and is now a senior lay member on General Synod.