For Society Guardian, Saba Salman and I write about one woman’s experience of trying to report claims of 1970s sexual abuse to the Salvation Army and the police. The full article is below.
The Salvation Army failed to investigate allegations of historical child abuse, according to a woman who told the charity 16 years ago that four of its members had sexually assaulted her in the 1970s.
In 1998, Lucy Taylor (not her real name) told the Salvation Army that four men at her local branch of the charity in the north of England had abused her. Her story suggests she was groomed from the age of 10, assaulted from 12 years old and the abuse continued for eight years until she left the organisation.
Taylor says her complaints were not handled seriously either at the local branch, known as a “citadel”, which was at the centre of her allegations, or at the national headquarters in London. When she later approached police, an investigation resulted in two of the four men being arrested on suspicion of indecent assault. They were later released without charge. For legal reasons the Guardian cannot name the alleged victim, now in her 50s, or the men.
Taylor says: “I want somebody to take me seriously – listen to my problem and help me sort this out”. She adds of her alleged abusers: “I just want them to realise what they’ve done to me [but] part of me doesn’t, part of me doesn’t want them to know how it’s upset me and ruined my life.”
Taylor’s decision to speak to the Guardian follows recent high-profile cases, including Jimmy Savile and Rolf Harris. It comes just weeks after the home secretary Theresa May announced a public inquiry into how complaints of sexual abuse were treated, and sometimes ignored, in public bodies over several decades. May has said the inquiry would also consider “other non-state institutions” in relation to historical child protection issues.
The Salvation Army, which is both a worldwide church and a social justice charity, operates in 126 countries. It describes itself as a movement “supporting and empowering the vulnerable and marginalised”. In Australia, it is being investigation by the Australian government’s Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sex Abuse. Last month, the Australian branch of the charity said it was “profoundly sorry” for abuse at four boys’ homes in the 1960s and 1970s.
In the UK and Ireland, there are previous cases of Salvation Army staff or volunteers being convicted of offences linked to child sexual abuse. Among them, in 2012, a former volunteer from Didcot, Oxfordshire, James Ernest Summers, was sentenced to 18 years for raping three girls under the age of 10, with the first attacks in the 1980s. There is no suggestion that Taylor’s case is linked.
Born into a Salvation Army family, Taylor became a “junior soldier” aged five, pledging allegiance to the charity – the organisation has a military-style structure – and by 16, she was a senior soldier. She sang in the band and the charity became an integral part of her religious, social and family life.
“My future was probably to become an officer [running my own church] and go to London to the William Booth College,” she says. But instead, Taylor says, she had to flee the abuse. “I had to leave my beloved church, religion, friends, and lifestyle.”
Taylor breaks down when talking about traumatic details that she says occurred decades ago. She recalls being pleased when an older male Salvation Army member was friendly at the charity’s local youth club. An only child with an absent father, she welcomed his visits to the club. She explains: “It was really nice to have a father figure”.
By the time Taylor was 11, the man was giving her lifts home. She says the abuse began when she was about 12. She was seated between him and another man who, she says, also later assaulted her: “I’m in the middle [he] has his arm around me … the whole of the time, which was a one hour 20 minute drive, he was fondling my breast. I didn’t know what to say, I didn’t know what to do … this doesn’t feel right, you’re confused and still a child … I probably thought that he didn’t really know where his hand was.”
She adds: “I couldn’t get out of the van, I couldn’t walk away from the situation – I was stuck.” She recalls thinking, “just don’t say anything because whatever you say is going to make it even worse”.
She says of accepting various lifts: “I was so sorry I continued getting in … each time it progressed slightly, so he was maybe testing me to see how far he could go.” The man would park in alleyways near Taylor’s house and molest her there. She says he also molested her at the local Salvation Army branch.
A multitude of similar, separate, incidents allegedly followed with the other three men. Fearing she would be accused of lying, she says she justified her abusers’ actions: “Nothing really terrible had happened [I’d think to myself] he’s so nice to me, he smiles and talks to me and pays me attention – accept the lift.” She recalls thinking: “I want to carry on going to the Salvation Army … all my friends are there … if I do take it any further, am I going to be able to go back [there]?”
According to Taylor, the abuse only stopped when she moved away aged 20. She says she “couldn’t stand it any more”.
The intermittent anorexia from which she suffered until her 40s was, she says, an attempt to gain control over her life. She lost “that little girl relationship” with her grandfather because of her mistrust of older men. As for sexual relationships, “when I was having relations with other people, I was told I just lay there, and did nothing”. She is married for the second time and has four children and a grandchild. She has worked in tourism for many years. But Taylor says she still often blames herself for what happened: “The adult in me tells me off, and that will not go away because I could have said no, and my life would have been totally different.”
The trigger for reporting the alleged abuse came in 1998 when, having moved home temporarily, she saw one of the men in a Salvation Army band. Overcome by memories long since “compartmentalised”, Taylor remembers: “I hear the Salvation Army music playing – they have a way of doing the brass and the harmonies together – it’s lovely and it pulls at your heart strings … I want to just run to it and there they all are … and I’m frozen.”
Seeing the man she accuses of abusing her performing with the organisation she had to abandon led her to contact her old branch. She says the then head did not take the complaint seriously, instead implying that promiscuity was rife in the 1970s.
Taylor says: “He thought I was confessing to having been ‘naughty’ – I wasn’t; I was saying: ‘This is what happened to me [and what was done] by those people at the Salvation Army when I was a little girl’… I went home with my tail between my legs and cried … [the attitude was] it was nothing to be worried about”.
When she then contacted the UK headquarters, she says she was offered free counselling, but refused as this would have been with the Salvation Army. Taylor later went to police.
A spokesman for the local police constabulary confirmed to the Guardian it had arrested two of the men. In a statement it said: “Both were arrested on suspicion of indecent assault on a female but released [a few months later with] no further action”. Taylor recently applied for her records under data protection law, but the constabulary says the file was destroyed because no further action was taken. The Crown Prosecution Service says it was unable to find information on the case.
Now Taylor wants a letter of apology from the Salvation Army. She also wants it to exclude two of the men who she believes are still active members. “I’ve had to take my uniform off and I did nothing wrong, and they’re marching around in their uniform professing to be soldiers of God,” she says. “When you wear your uniform, you’re proud and saying to people ‘I’m part of this organisation, you can trust me’… they’re not the kind of people who should be wearing it.”
Taylor, who says she fears that she was not her abusers’ only victim, wants a specific inquiry into the Salvation Army’s original response to her claims. And she believes it is something the government’s wide-ranging inquiry could look into. She asks: “Why can’t the police investigate why it wasn’t dealt with properly at the time?”
Even now, she is not confident of action: “I promise you this did actually happen. I feel like I’m in a warped universe … I think they’re all going to clam up again and nobody’s going to get anywhere with it – that’s my fear.”
The Salvation Army says it had been given insufficient information to fully investigate Taylor’s initial complaint. A Salvation Army spokeswoman says: “We deeply regret that anyone feels they had not been listened to, we take the protection of children and adults extremely seriously. The caring landscape has changed considerably since the 1970s. Our records show that we explained this needed to be a specific complaint with names and dates declared so it could be investigated, recommended the police needed to be informed and offered independent counselling by an independent counsellor. Now, reflecting best practice, we would inform the police, and speak to them if the person did not feel able to do so themselves, and any named individuals would be suspended while a police investigation took place. We deeply regret any suffering caused, we will be speaking to the police with regard to reopening the investigation.”
She adds: “We wish to assure the public that the Salvation Army is no hiding place for anyone who wishes to take advantage of children and adults in our care, and we encourage anyone who feels they have not been listened to, or now feels ready to talk to us, to contact our safeguarding unit or the police directly.”
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