Thursday, July 04, 2024

Gay man subjected to ‘exorcism’ at Sheffield church has complaint upheld

A MAN who experienced what he considered to be an exorcism that sought to “rid him of his homosexual inclinations” has had every aspect of his complaint against a church in Sheffield upheld, four years after it was lodged.

An independent investigation of St Thomas’s, Philadelphia, in respect of a complaint by Matthew Drapper, was published by the diocese of Sheffield on Monday evening, after it was leaked to the BBC. It is dated 30 November 2023.

Mr Drapper, who was a volunteer at the church from 2013 to 2016, first complained both to the church and the diocese of Sheffield in 2019. He said that he had been forced to step down from volunteering for the student leadership team at the church, after stating that he was considering dating as a gay man, and that he had been subject to prayer ministry — which he considered to be an exorcism — that attempted to change his sexual orientation from gay to straight.

He was told in a letter from a trustee of the church that his complaint had not been upheld, and that there was “no evidence to substantiate” his claims. But the independent investigation, commissioned by the diocese of Sheffield (News, 11 February 2022) and conducted by Linda Richardson and Jane Sarre, safeguarding consultants at Barnardo’s, has upheld every aspect of his complaint.

The report, from which names have been redacted, reveals the extent to which the church resisted participating in the investigation. In February 2022, a spokesperson for the church told BBC Yorkshire: “St Thomas’s, Philadelphia, is a caring and generous church community which does not engage in conversion therapy. We welcome the independent investigation initiated by the diocese into these allegations of eight years ago, and will participate in it.”

But the report records that, three months later, the church referred to legal advice “that the issue was not a safeguarding matter, and they were therefore not obliged to comply with Core Group decisions or provide us with any documents or reports linked to MD’s complaint as there were data sharing implications”.

Some individuals named in the complaint declined to be involved, talking of “concerns about mental health and personal implications if they were to contribute to the investigation”.

In a second report about existing safeguarding arrangements at the church, the investigators raise a number of concerns. Four years after Mr Drapper’s complaint, there was “still no formalised recording system which captured what safeguarding concerns or complaints had been made, how these had been addressed and by whom”.

ST THOMAS’s, Philadelphia, was planted out of St Thomas’s, Crookes, an Anglican-Baptist local ecumenical partnership, in 1998. Since 2009, when it was joined by the King’s Centre, a Sheffield house-church, it has been known as Network Church Sheffield.

Officially registered with the Charity Commission as the Philadelphia Network Limited, it is part of the Yorkshire Baptist Association and the diocese of Sheffield, although there is no Local Ecumenical Partnership currently in place. Until 2019, the church offered young adults an intern opportunity, called FORM.

Mr Drapper joined FORM in 2013, and, having completed the first year, was expecting to return for the second year. The investigators were satisfied that there was “a clear expectation by both parties” that this would occur, and said that it was “common knowledge” that he described himself as a gay man during this first year.

In 2014, an invitation to attend the second year of FORM was not extended to Mr Drapper. He was informed, he told the investigation, that “having a leader who believed in gay relationships would be a bad influence on first-year interns”. During this period, he wrote blogs “about his emerging views about gay theology”, the report says.

While he was not invited to take part in this second year, Mr Drapper was invited to join the student team as a volunteer, liaising with and meeting university students. He was later informed, he told the investigation, that if he chose to continue “promoting” gay relationships online and in person, he would not be allowed to continue as a volunteer.

The report upholds Mr Drapper’s complaint that, besides not being invited to complete FORM part two, in 2015, he was forced to step down from volunteering with the student leadership team at the church, after he stated that he was considering dating as a gay man.

A SIGNIFICANT aspect of the review concerns the church’s transparency about its views on sexuality and leadership. The consultants write that they “do not disagree” with the argument that it was “considered appropriate that individuals were asked to uphold and abide by the Church’s teachings”. In their response to Mr Drapper’s complaint, the church argued that he was “aware of the Church’s theological position”.

Mr Drapper’s said that he was “never given any indication that his sexuality or views would be a barrier to him holding any leadership positions in the Church”, the report says. The church has acknowledged that there was no document in place at the time that clearly stated this. It was, the investigation was told, “unspoken but understood, that a gay person who could or would not commit to celibacy would not be offered a leadership role in the Church”.

While the investigators were told by one redacted contributor that “people who describe themselves as gay were and are welcome and accepted in the church”, it includes recollections that challenge this account. One person recalled “celebrations in the congregation because a parent stood up and spoke of an adult in their family, who had been ‘delivered from the sin of homosexuality’”.

At the time of Mr Drapper’s complaint, the church did not have a complaints policy, and the consultants write of “a sense that the Church chose to quieten or discourage any open discussion around the impact of their doctrine on individuals who wanted to openly describe themselves as gay”.

They express disappointment that “some key church leaders named in MD’s complaint refused or did not feel able to meet with us to share their views and observations about MD’s complaint, even though many continue to actively work in nearby churches or projects.”

They uphold Mr Drapper’s complaint that he was not welcomed at the church after his removal from the student leadership team.

THE investigation concludes: “It is clear from information provided to us that deliverance ministries in relation to homosexuality was endorsed and supported by the Church.”

It provides an account of a weekend away for FORM interns (“Encounter with God”), during which interns were asked to complete a questionnaire and provide “highly personal information about their past life and childhood; they were asked to detail any experience of abuse and describe their struggles and traumas and any challenges they were trying to address in their adult lives”.

The consultants observe that such disclosure “to individuals who have no training in understanding or assessing the impact of vicarious traumas and disclosures carries a significant risk of not only triggering and retraumatising the individual but also rendering some individuals even more vulnerable”.

The completion of this questionnaire was followed by an individualised prayer-ministry session, documented in notes taken by both Mr Drapper and an intern. It entailed “Sozo” prayers: a model of deliverance prayer created by Bethel Church, a megachurch in Redding, California.

Mr Drapper recorded in his notes that he was told that he was “not taking responsibility for his own choices, and this was due to the fact that he had inherited from his family a ‘Hereditary Demon’.”

He was told that “he needed to renounce his homosexual lifestyle and needed to speak to the demons inside him as if they ‘were a dog’.”

The intern’s notes refer to prayer calling out demons, and Mr Drapper recorded being told that demons could be seen “leaving hand in hand, marching through the window”. He was asked to repeat a prayer “which would indicate he had broken off ‘his agreement with Satan’ and which would free him of his homosexuality”.

The session had a “lasting impact on his welfare and mental health”, the report concludes. It was “consistent with what many individuals would describe as a form of exorcism which could fall under the definition of spiritual abuse”.

While focusing on Mr Drapper’s experience, the report raises concerns about the wider fall-out of this ministry. It refers to a lack of support in place in the aftermath of these “highly charged and emotionally intense” sessions. Some contributors to the investigation described “having a visceral/physical reaction to the experience, which was then regarded by the prayer team as proof of spirit possession”.

The consultants write of their contact with others involved in the church: “We were struck by how many of those who spoke with us referred to their own vulnerabilities at the time, either because they had family issues, were lonely or just seeking ‘a home’ . . . it could be suggested they were all vulnerable in some way.”

A desire “to be accepted and to fit in” was a factor, they suggest, “which influenced why some individuals looked to suppress their identity and ‘consent’ to practices or prayers which sought to remove the sins they were told they carried.”

A belief that demons cause homosexuality, and that rituals can allow gay individuals to be “healed”, is “not unusual or confined to this church”, the report observes.

“There are many other churches who believe in demonic possession, but most have strict criteria that must be followed when such spirits are discerned and/or when an ecclesiastical exorcism is considered necessary.”

They say that, in the Church of England, exorcisms may be carried out only by those authorised by the Bishop. There is, their report says, “no evidence that the church has ever sought permission from the Bishop in this respect or has ever needed to do so”.

IT WAS not until December 2020, a year after the initial complaint was made, that the diocese of Sheffield, in line with C of E guidance, decided to convene a core group to address the safeguarding concerns raised by Mr Drapper’s complaint. Both staffing changes and the impact of the pandemic are referred to as possible causes of the delay.

Besides looking at Mr Drapper’s complaint, Barnardo’s was commissioned to “review and assess current safeguarding arrangements in the Church to ensure that all areas of student and prayer ministry are conducted safely and without causing harm to any individual whatever their sexuality or theological position”.

This second report is dated 26 February 2024. In contrast to the response to the first part of their investigation, the consultants speak of a “constructive approach and a willingness to work with us to examine safeguarding arrangements in the Church and highlight where policies, procedures, and practice, going forward needed to change or be strengthened.”

The report identifies a number of changes that have taken place in recent years. Prayer ministry at the church ceased during the pandemic in 2020, and was only resumed in September 2023. It now takes place only at the front of the church after services. A prayer ministry protocol has been co-produced by church leaders and volunteers.

An executive summary records that the church “now makes clear that it neither permits nor endorses prayers which seek to change a person’s sexual orientation and prayer ministry teams are not permitted to refer to or discuss a person’s sexual identity”.

FORM no longer exists, Encounter with God weekends no longer take place, and the review was told that “interns are not required, and would not in future be required, to share deeply personal information about their past experiences and vulnerabilities.”

The consultants write of being told “on several occasions by different people that what happened ten years ago [in relation to MD’s complaint] was ‘then’, but the Church now has a different [and better] ‘feel’ under the current church leader.” While they were “unable to observe how prayer ministry is delivered”, they were “assured that practice has changed significantly in recent years”.

In their report, however, they raise several ongoing concerns. It remains unclear, for example, “how the Church will, going forward, ensure that prayer sessions are delivered in line with the prayer ministry protocol and that individuals, whatever their personal beliefs, comply with the Church’s policy and procedures on this issue”.

Among the 22 recommendations is that those delivering prayer ministry “should be able to demonstrate, through training, a trauma informed approach which understands that, however carefully managed, prayer sessions can re-trigger past traumas, and this can leave a person vulnerable”.

The reviewers also uncovered “a lack of accountability and managerial scrutiny at Board level in how safeguarding concerns are identified, addressed, and managed”. It would appear, they write, that there are “no records (other than some email trails) of discussions and decisions taken. We found Board minutes to be so minimal that we were unable to determine, from a safeguarding perspective, what information was shared with the Board and what discussions took place.”

Four years after Mr Drapper’s complaint, there was “still no formalised recording system which captured what safeguarding concerns or complaints had been made, how these had been addressed and by whom”.

The consultants write: “We were unable to view any case records and were informed that there had been relatively few safeguarding concerns or complaints reported in recent years. This is most unusual in an organisation of this size and especially one located in a relatively disadvantaged area.

“The lack of reported safeguarding concerns or complaints could suggest any of the following: the reporting process is not well known or staff and volunteers fear using it, that there are complaints or concerns, but they are not reported to leaders or managers or there are reported concerns, but they are not recognised as being related to safeguarding.”

It diagnoses “a somewhat restrictive approach to safeguarding, tightly applying legal definitions of vulnerability and need and using thresholds regarding those at risk as opposed to the more nuanced and contextual application omen used in social care and not including the all-encompassing safeguarding requirements of the Charity Commission”.

The consultants warn: “The way in which the complaint made by Matthew Drapper was handled, for example, over a four-year period has brought into sharp focus that safeguarding procedures in the Church were not in line with the Charity Commission regulation . . .

“We were unable to identify any clear system or process by which the Board can demonstrate robust managerial oversight or scrutiny of its safeguarding arrangements.”

They were, however, “encouraged by the church’s readiness to support the development of a more robust approach to safeguarding”.

On the church’s current position on sexuality, the consultants were told that the congregation included people who were “openly gay and some who lived in same-sex relationships”. But there was agreement that, “if individuals did not believe and could not endorse the Church’s values and beliefs, they should not hold or be invited to hold leadership positions in the Church”.

It is, the report says, “still not clear how new members of the congregation would be made aware of this”.

ON MONDAY, the BBC reported that Miriam Cates, the Conservative candidate for Penistone and Stocksbridge and a former biology teacher in Sheffield, was a member of St Thomas’s, Philadelphia, between 2003 and 2018, and a trustee from 2016 to 2018.

The BBC article referred to social-media posts from Mrs Cates made in November 2012, “which suggest she attended a conference hosted by a third party at the church which Mr Drapper has described as an ‘exorcism training weekend’.”

Audio from the conference, which the BBC has not verified, suggests that it involved practising a prayer of repentance “for giving place to any demons . . . including demons of . . . homosexuality . . . lesbianism”.

Mrs Cates told the BBC that she “did attend a conference at the Church in 2012, although I have no diary records of the time, and, to the best of my recollection, this was a standard church conference with a series of seminars, Bible teachings and worship.

“I have no recollection of the content or title of any of the seminars that took place at the conference because it took place well over a decade ago.”

She said: “I do not and have never advocated for what is referred to as ‘gay conversion therapy’. I have never participated in such activities, and I was not aware — nor was there any way that I could have been aware — of Mr Drapper’s allegations.”

ON MONDAY, a statement from the diocese of Sheffield said: “We have been working urgently for the past month towards the publication of a lightly redacted version of both stages of the report, and have been able to publish it on our website today.

“The trustees of Network Church Sheffield have accepted both parts of the report in full, and have developed and put into effect a comprehensive action plan to implement the report’s recommendations. . .

“We deeply regret that the process has taken so long and understand the frustrations of those who have been affected. We apologise unreservedly to the survivor for the distress this has caused and to anyone else similarly affected by such practices in the past. The Diocese of Sheffield believes, along with the wider Church of England, that conversion therapy is unethical, potentially harmful and has no place in the modern world.”

Network Church Sheffield (NCS) told the BBC: “We have accepted the outcomes of the first investigation and are saddened that eight years ago one of our community was not cared for in the way we would have liked. We sincerely apologised to them for this.

“Whilst the leadership of the church has changed, we recognise there are significant lessons to be learned and we are determined to learn them.”