‘Tribute to woman unjustly locked away in asylum after calling vicar a liar’ was the headline of an article in my Sunday paper this week. The year was 1837, the place Doncaster, and the woman in question, Mary Heaton, called out her local vicar during one of his sermons alleging that he had not paid the fees for his children’s music lessons that she had been providing. She called him ‘a whited sepulchre, a thief, a liar and a hypocrite’. She was brought to court, labelled ‘a lunatic insane and dangerous idiot’. Her sentence was to be locked up in a West Riding asylum in Wakefield for 41 years. Mary is now being honoured with a blue plaque, one of 12 ‘Forgotten Women of Wakefield.’
For some people, trying to speak truth to power about a safeguarding matter has been particularly challenging, and although they will probably have not been locked away in the literal sense, the strong feeling of being consistently disbelieved, being seen by those in authority as a nuisance or even ‘hysterical’ will seem like a life sentence. They may have been trying to be heard for years or even decades. Challenging authority and the status quo, and seen not to be conforming, can be a pretty uncomfortable place to be.
Following the 2015 Past Cases Review, the Church has spent a good deal of time and effort reflecting on its culture, aiming to ensure that it is a safe place in which people affected can tell their stories of abuse or bullying behaviour. Later this month it is planned to deliver to every church in the Connexion a pack of leaflets that describe what survivors of abuse can expect to happen if they wish to make a disclosure. Written by a group of survivors who have had the courage to step forward, the leaflets are designed to be easily accessible in church entrances. Along with the previously described posters, this development hopefully signals an invigorated approach to hearing about and responding to safeguarding concerns directly from those who have been impacted in any way that chimes with the recommendations stemming from the IICSA inquiry.
Mary Heaton died in 1877 and was buried in a pauper’s grave. During her imprisoned life she had been exposed to numerous ‘treatments’ that in fact contributed to her failing mental and physical health. The researcher into Mary’s life, quoted in the article, described her ‘broken spirit’. Many survivors of abuse who have tried to tell their story either unsuccessfully or at great personal cost over time, may well see echoes of this sense of being worn down in their own life experience. The Church’s job is therefore to provide a safe space to listen and then act promptly and decisively whenever abuse is called out.