Top award for Eastbourne man who exposed child abuse within the Church

Phil Johnson and Peter Tatchell
Phil Johnson and Peter Tatchell

An Eastbourne man who has campaigned on behalf of survivors of child abuse within the Church of England has been given a top award.

The National Secular Society has named Phil Johnson as one of its Secularists of the Year for 2018.

Phil, abused as a child by paedophile priests in Eastbourne, accepted a £5,000 prize from the human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell at an awards ceremony in central London at the weekend.

He was honoured for his work campaigning on behalf of survivors of child abuse in the Church of England.

Phil has worked as the chair of Minister And Clergy Sexual Abuse Survivors (MACSAS), a support group for those who have been sexually abused by ministers or clergy and also runs Eastbourne Survivors.

The award was handed over the day after the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse concluded three weeks of hearings into the cover-up of abuse in the diocese of Chichester. Phil gave evidence to the inquiry earlier this month.

Peter Tatchell called Phil and fellow winner Graham Sawyer “two exceptionally courageous, tenacious and determined men who simply refused to give in to the lies and deceit of the church hierarchy” as he handed over the award.

“If Phil hadn’t fought and campaigned and battled for so many years, in all likelihood we would never have had an abuse inquiry at all,” he said. “You can be religious but challenge religious power and privilege and believe that the church has to play by the same rules as everyone else.”

Phil said it was important to “continue the fight” on behalf of victims who were often too weak to take on strong institutions on their own.

“Most of our time and resources at MACSAS are spent providing support and advocacy to victims of sexual abuse and exploitation in a religious context,” he said.

“Making representations to religious institutions and campaigning for change and accountability is a very important part of what we do and this award will help me to continue this work.”

He criticised the Church of England as “elitist, sexist and homophobic” and said it did not “see itself as accountable to the law”. He called for legal change to require mandatory reporting of sexual abuse to the statutory authorities, so that “those who fail to report or cover up abuse can be held to account”.

Stephen Evans, the NSS’s chief executive, praised the winners for their “courageous efforts to break the silence that has allowed an epidemic of abuse to take place in the Church of England”.

“Phil Johnson has given a voice to many voiceless people who have suffered clerical abuse,” he said. “And both men have faced institutional hostility and worked tirelessly to promote meaningful change which will protect children in the future, often at great personal cost.

“We hope their work will cause those in positions of power to reflect on the damage done by excessive deference to religious authority. The Church of England must be held to account for its cover-up of abuse, including through independent oversight of its safeguarding policies. And ultimately it needs to be disestablished so society can hold clerical authorities to the same standards as everyone else.”

The NSS has given out the Secularist of the Year award annually since 2005 to recognise a campaigner or group for an outstanding contribution to the secularist movement.