No, we can't just 'get over it'. Why reporting assault is not 'making a fuss out of nothing'

Patricia Andrews / Viva

I don't think about the court case very often anymore, but there are certain things that will spark a memory or a stomach-churning wave of anxiety.

These include a hitherto 'good' man being accused of abuse; a conviction in such a case or a not-guilty verdict.

Over the past week I've been thinking a lot. The first 'trigger' was the conviction of Dave Lee Travis who committed a sexual assault that was similar to what happened to me. Then there was an article published in the Independent newspaper, written by Rosie Millard, and finally a blog post from the Archbishop of Canterbury.

In her article on the conviction of Dave Lee Travis, Millard calls for a sense of proportion. "Women get their breasts squeezed," she says. "They get their bottoms pinched. Without asking for it. It is not particularly exciting, but it is part of life. Get over it."

The Millard article particularly affected me, mainly because it touched on many experiences and reactions I received after I reported the 'good Christian man' who assaulted me to the police.

"Why take it to court?" Millard wrote, something a family member said to me at the time, being ignorant perhaps that it's the Crown Prosecution Service that makes such decisions.

Dave Lee Travis himself (not surprisingly) questioned the involvement of law-enforcers when the assault allegation was originally put to him by police.

"I remember the days people used to touch people and you would kick them in the balls," he had told the officers. "You didn't take them to...court."

The 'smack them and then forget about it' course of action is something I've heard a lot over the years.

There are flaws to this approach.

Firstly it's not always possible to defend yourself. Twenty five years on I still cannot recall the feeling of being violated without wanting to throw up.

It happened in a confined space by someone who was supposed to be a family friend. I did not hit out, I froze. I did what he said and I was assaulted. Someone later said, "I'd have slapped him in the face." I couldn't move.

Years later I recounted this to a wise friend who explained that 'freezing' is a common reaction to trauma, hard-wired into our brains. This apparently is exactly what happened to Lee Travis' victim.

In her Independent article Millard questions the motive of this victim and wonders why she didn't "just get on with life".

Again this attitude is similar to many I've heard over the years. After the court case I was involved in I heard that one woman had complained, "Don't these women expect men to behave like this? Why make such a fuss?"

Lee Travis was convicted of an assault that lasted 15 seconds. That's quite a long time. One wonders how Rosie Millard would she feel if one of her daughters was subjected to that kind of abuse by a creepy older man in a position of power.

Would she really tell her to 'get over it'?

Last week Stephen Fry reportedly said 'groping is not the same as penetrative rape'. Clearly it's not the same level of violation, but by saying this he too adds to the 'shut up and get on with it' narrative.

Actually I did try and get on with life. But the problem is that sexual predators rarely commit just one assault. They go on to do more, and they can move from what the likes of Millard would consider 'minor' offences, to new levels of violence.

Years later at a Bible study I began talking to a woman who had been to the church where my perpetrator was an important and respected person.

She told me the leaders were taking a fresh look at complaints against this man over the years – that she herself had been assaulted in an almost identical way to me, and that she was helping the church to investigate.

I asked when she'd been abused – it was two years after my own assault. That night I drove past the perpetrator's house and sat sobbing outside. I stopped myself from throwing a brick through his window, but only just.

A call to the archdeacon's office confirmed there was an on-going investigation into a series of complaints of sexual assaults. Most took place after what had happened to me.

Perhaps if I'd have spoken out at the time he might have been stopped. I'll never know.

This is no way intended to shame survivors who chose, for whatever reason, not to report. I didn't speak out because of fear.

Despite what Rosie Millard suggests in her article there are consequences to even the most 'minor' assault. One for me was that my God-given instincts were blown out of the water.

My 'hackles' had been raised for a while. The man was very 'touchy feely'...but he'd been helping my family cope with a traumatic event. Some of the touching was not clear cut...the kind of cuddling and rough-housing you might legitimately expect from an affectionate father figure. But then I was most definitely assaulted and I was very afraid.

This was a man everyone said was good. I'd seen his kindness that with my own eyes. So why did he do what he did? I was bewildered.

My ability to trust was affected – people were suddenly not all they appeared to be. My defences were up.

Then there's the power differential that Archbishop Welby refers to in his blog. "As a society we have to get to the point where we realise that abuse is above all an issue of power," he writes. "The perversion of power not to do good but to do grievous harm, and to meet some terrible need within the abuser."

But why is the power differential so important? It's difficult to pin down but I'll try.

I felt helpless. Because of who this man was I felt that no one on earth was going to believe me. I had a sense that all was not right with the world; that everyone else believed something that wasn't true; in essence that the world was not a good and safe place to be.

I can't look back over my life and see exactly how all this affected me but I can say this – damage was done.

All these feelings were already in place before I reported the man to the police and a guilty verdict was reached at a subsequent trial.

The immediate reaction from the church community was hurtful. At first there was disbelief and word filtered back to me that there was unswerving support for the perpetrator; a terrible miscarriage of justice had been reached.

A few days later a family friend who attended the same church as the perpetrator reported that he had called on the phone with a spurious inquiry over a rota.

"He was probably checking to see whether I was still talking to him," she said.

"And did you?" I enquired? "Well, yes."

I nearly asked whether she would be making polite chit-chat with him if he'd sexually assaulted her own daughter, but I knew the answer, and knew too exactly where I stood.

I've learnt over the years that we Christians can be a strange lot with rather odd priorities. Whenever it's reported that a church leader has been questioned over allegations of sexual assault the rallying call on social media is nearly always "pray for him, his family and their church" – it's rare that we're invited to pray for the victims and survivors.


At best we are ignored; at worst, says Archbishop Welby in his blog, survivors are actually held responsible.

One thing the Archbishop doesn't mention is that fact that very often those giving evidence are just not believed. The spectre of the 'damaging false allegation' floats menacingly into most conversations I've ever had about abuse and I'm tired of it.

Despite statistics showing these are extremely rare many still buy into this myth – perhaps because it's difficult for them to comprehend that a person who does good things can also do bad things, their world is divided into 'heroes' and 'bad guys'.

Sometimes it's just convenient to 'other' victims and survivors, to pretend either that they don't exist or are some cardboard cut-out 'hysterical, attention-seeking' or whatever insult you prefer.

The women involved in my own court case were painfully aware that if a not-guilty verdict had been delivered we would be the ones accused of making up stories about this wonderful man.

He was convicted though and slowly over the months other women started to come forward to say they too had been abused.

Reflecting now I can't help but think of the various characters in the drama of this situation that was very real to me. I'm trying to forgive and not hold on to bitterness but it's hard. There was the Archdeacon – his response to my 'official' letter of complaint was to ask me whether I wanted to report to the police. I've never heard from him since.

But when I'm looking back I can also see the very real way in which Jesus has moved in my life, bringing redemption and healing.

I wasn't a Christian at the time of my assault; I am now and God has put so many amazing people in my life. My lovely, kind-hearted husband; the other women who testified in court; my own church leaders at the time, compassionate, supportive; the amazing woman who sat in the court gallery while I gave evidence, praying, supporting, just being there.

I think of the church leader who brought it all out in the open, despite complaints being brushed under the carpet for many years.

Then there's the teacher who refused to listen to the perpetrator's claim that there'd been a terrible mistake. He was on our side. These people are my heroes, every one.

And now I've added the Archbishop of Canterbury to the list. He is listening to survivors and is advocating on their behalf. I echo his longing "for the day when not only in the institutions of the Church, but also among every Christian, we show that we understand that those who have things done to them are never the ones to be blamed."

The author lives and attends church in the south of England. She has asked to remain anonymous.