Courage of vicar who told con­gre­ga­tion how at­tacks robbed her of any hope of moth­er­hood The Sun­day I stepped into my pul­pit to con­fess: I was raped ...twice

The Mail on Sunday - - Femail - by Jo Mac­far­lane

THE elab­o­rately carved wooden pul­pit of Christ Church Ec­cle­ston has doubt­less hosted many thought­pro­vok­ing ser­mons dur­ing its 180-year his­tory. The hand­some red sand­stone church in the par­ish of St Helens, Mersey­side, with its early Vic­to­rian ly­ch­gate and crum­bling grave­yard, at­tracts a ded­i­cated and de­vout con­gre­ga­tion ev­ery Sun­day, t hanks to t he warm wel­come from its bub­bly vicar, the Rev­erend Sonya Dor­agh. Her hom­i­lies are known for their can­dour and in­sight.

But, un­usu­ally for the nor­mally se­date Angli­can min­istry, they can also prove shock­ing. One Sun­day late last year, Sonya took a deep breath be­fore she stepped into the pul­pit. Then she con­fessed to her parish­ioners that she had been raped not just once, but twice, at the age of 17, by two sep­a­rate at­tack­ers.

‘It was some­thing I just had to do,’ she ex­plains to­day.

‘It is a part of me, and it is a part of my faith, al­though it has taken me 20 years to ar­tic­u­late. I think it’s im­por­tant as a priest to en­gage with my bro­ken­ness, and my vul­ner­a­bil­ity. To be able to say from the front of church, “I was raped, and I still love God,” is so sim­ple but so im­por­tant for any­one – women or men – who might have ex­pe­ri­enced sim­i­lar trauma.

‘ I hope my hon­esty i n turn en­cour­ages my own parish­ioners to ap­proach me with a sim­i­lar can­dour.

‘Their re­ac­tion was, “Wow! That was brave.” But I don’t know who I would be or what I would be had it not hap­pened. I know only that bro­ken­ness breeds com­pas­sion.’ That Sonya, now 45, has sur­vived such ex­treme tests of faith in both God and mankind is tes­ti­mony to a rather ex­tra­or­di­nary strength of char­ac­ter.

It was fos­tered by her strong Chris­tian up­bring­ing in Ayles­bury, Buck­ing­hamshire, where her fa­ther left the cor­po­rate world to be­come a priest him­self later in life.

But as a teenager, Sonya re­belled against the church.

It was the late 1980s, the be­gin­ning of the rave gen­er­a­tion in­spired by a new wave of dance mu­sic and party drugs, and it was all too easy to fall un­der its spell. One sum­mer’s day in 1989, Sonya skipped school to hang out in a lo­cal park.

‘It was a lovely, sunny day,’ she re­calls. ‘ Peo­ple would have been smok­ing weed and drink­ing, but be­ing the priv­i­leged girl that I was I had my mum’s car so I didn’t have any­thing, and of­fered peo­ple a lift home. It was mid-af­ter­noon – I had to get home as if I’d been to school.

‘One guy said yes and, when we ar­rived at his home, asked if I wanted to go in to meet his fam­ily. Al­though he was a bit older, I had no rea­son not to trust him.’ Once in­side, he raped Sonya at knife­point.

It is hard for her to dis­cuss the de­tails of i t, even now. ‘ It was hor­rific, ob­vi­ously planned. I was a vir­gin and I just re­treated into my­self. I have no me­mory of what hap­pened af­ter­wards. I don’t re­mem­ber driv­ing home. I was in to­tal shock, and that lasted for quite some time. I lost part of my­self that day.’

She told no one, un­til some gy­nae­co­log­i­cal symp­toms led her to con­fide in a friend, who went with her to a sex­u­ally trans­mit­ted in­fec­tion (STI) clinic at Stoke Man­dev­ille Hospi­tal.

‘I don’t sup­pose there is any­thing more fright­en­ing than be­ing raped at knife­point, though I went to the clinic think­ing I might have AIDS. Then – at the height of the epi­demic – it was a death sen­tence.’

Sonya was treated for sev­eral STIs, in­clud­ing chlamy­dia, al­though an HIV test came back neg­a­tive. But the hor­ror and lone­li­ness of the ex­peri- ence did, she ad­mits, lead her to ‘self-anaes­thetise’ with drink and drugs.

Just weeks later, she spent the night at a friend’s house fol­low­ing a trip to a club. She fell asleep in a room with other girls but woke to find her­self be­ing raped – again by a man she knew and trusted.

Sonya fled be­fore morn­ing and told no one, yet this hor­rific turn of events would throw her even more deeply into tur­moil.

‘There was shock, ex­treme hor­ror. It felt like I’d watched it in a film, hap­pen­ing to some­one else.

‘I blamed my­self – of course I did. Most vic­tims do. You hear it, don’t you, “She was ask­ing for it.”

‘For a while I even be­lieved that God had pun­ished me for aban­don­ing Chris­tian­ity; that some­how the rapes were linked. I hadn’t made my­self vul­ner­a­ble, but yet I still felt that guilt.’

Go­ing into her fi­nal year at school, Sonya de­scribes liv­ing ‘a par­al­lel life’. ‘There was a dark, in­ter­nal re­al­ity. I was scream­ing in­side. Then there was the ex­ter­nal re­al­ity where I just got on with ev­ery­thing, but avoided any proper con­ver­sa­tion or in­ti­macy.

I felt ex­treme s shock, like I had watched it in a movie

It was a whirl­wind – I wanted to be too busy to think. I played net­ball, I played in my or­ches­tra, I stud­ied for my A-lev­els. When there was noth­ing to do, I drank and par­tied.’

In­cred­i­bly, she passed her ex­ams and be­gan a de­gree in Busi­ness and French at Ox­ford Brookes Uni­ver­sity. Largely, she hid the post-trau­matic stress which haunted her, leav­ing her fright­ened, anx­ious and an­gry.

‘There were cer­tain trig­gers…’ She pauses. ‘I had some bizarre re­ac­tions to kitchen knives. If I was alone in a room with a man I would have a wobble – or more, if some­one grabbed hold of my wrist.’

Out­wardly, how­ever, she ap­peared fo­cused and des­tined for suc­cess. Dur­ing her fi­nal year, in 1994, Sonya was of­fered a place on a Marks & Spencer fast- track man­age­ment scheme, and had also passed the first round of tests for a Civil Ser­vice role. But un­sure of which path to take, she ac­com­pa­nied a friend to church. Seek­ing clar­ity in her ca­reer, it in­stead gave her the courage to con­front her ex­pe­ri­ences.

‘Com­ing to faith helped. I’m not blam­ing my rapes for all my teenage de­ci­sions. I had a lot to be for­given for. My ex­pe­ri­ence of for­give­ness has been it’s a move­ment rather than an oc­ca­sion. In be­ing for­given my move­ment was, and is, to­wards God.’

Ul­ti­mately she re­jected the cor­po­rate path, in­stead choos­ing to work – un­paid – for Chris­tian char­ity Viva, help­ing street chil­dren.

‘It was greater than my drive for all the things that had mo­ti­vated me be­fore. All my peers were do­ing the man­age­ment thing – I wanted to change the world.’

Meet­ing her hus­band Phil, who was train­ing to be a youth worker, on a blind date in 1996 was trans­for­ma­tive. ‘He was very peo­ple fo­cused, at­ten­tive, car­ing, gen­tle – the an­tithe­sis of the al­pha male.’

They mar­ried within a year, but soon found that dam­age to Sonya’s ovaries – linked to the de­layed chlamy­dia treat­ment – was too se­vere to al­low them to have their own chil­dren. One fal­lop­ian tube was com­pletely bl ocked; t he ot her twisted at a 90-de­gree an­gle, mak­ing con­cep­tion un­likely.

They learned only later that IVF was also not an op­tion.

‘It was then that the “Why me?” ques­tions re­ally be­gan. I know one of my rapists now has chil­dren,’ she adds, qui­etly. ‘That’s not fair. But I’ve learned not to ex­pect fair.’

The cou­ple chose to adopt, and have three l oud, messy boys – sib­lings who are now 20 and 19, and

a five- year- old. In 2010, Sonya be­gan her train­ing to be­come or­dained. ‘Peo­ple kept sug­gest­ing it,’ she laughs. ‘The call was grad­ual, but now it feels very much what I was made for.’

While she was study­ing, she made the de­ci­sion to speak in front of her fel­low trainees.

Sonya wrote a poem about the rapes, which imag­ined God be­ing present ‘and‘ db beingi as hor­ri­fiedh ifi d as I was’. ‘It was so dif­fi­cult to do, but very cathar­tic. I re­alised God loved those men as well as He loved me.

‘It’s hor­rific to be able to say that – why didn’t God stop what was hap­pen­ing? But I could now see that it was a lov­ing God who had al­lowed it be­cause he al­lows all of us all of our choices.

‘One verse was about me scream­ing out to God that it wasn’t fair, and be­ing sur­prised to hear “I agree” in re­turn.’ But al­though Sonya be­lieved she was con­fronting her long-buried past, it was only the fol­low­ingf year, when she broke her leg fall­ing down the stairs, which fi­nally re-awoke the full hor­ror of her ex­pe­ri­ence.

‘I would wake up in the night scream­ing. It was al­most as though the trauma that I hadn’t dealt with had clung on to this ac­ci­dent. I had coun­selling,lli which was painful and ex­pos­ing. I had gone to great lengths to shut the door.’

Sonya fi­nally found the strength, in 2015, to re­port the men who at­tacked her to the po­lice. An in­ves­ti­ga­tion is on­go­ing.

The legacy they have left is in the chronic pain of pelvic in­flam­ma­tory dis­ease, which doc­tors be­lieve could have been trig­gered by chlamy­dia. A hys­terec­tomy will, she hopes, fi­nally ad­dress this.

Then last year, Sony a was ap­pointed vicar at Christ Church Ec­cle­ston. In­ter­est­ingly, she says the re­cruit­ment panel had ‘done their due dili­gence’ and knew that Sonya had writ­ten about her rapes in the Church Times. She now felt she had their bless­ing in ex­plor­ing the is­sue with her con­gre­ga­tion.

‘They de­served to hear it di­rectly from me,’ she says. ‘In church, we don’t dis­cuss our dark val­leys enough and that’s wrong.’

The ser­mon was a med­i­ta­tion on faith, and the chal­lenges of be­liev­ing in a God who al­lows such mon­strous acts to take place.

Per­haps sur­pris­ingly, there were no shocked glances, no sharp in­takes of breath.

In­stead, most of those present that day praised their vicar for her brav­ery. Cru­cially, Sonya has not only for­given her­self, but has f or­given her at­tack­ers – a trou­bling propo­si­tion for most of us. ‘ I know th­ese men were very bro­ken,’ she says. ‘ I can only hope they’ve found a path that’s shown them love in a more com­plete and whole way, be­cause their bro­ken­ness is greater than mine.’

Sonya is now in­volved in a spe­cial ‘Mother’s Day Ru­n­aways’ ser­vice at Liver­pool Cathe­dral for any­one who finds the an­nual cel­e­bra­tion of moth­er­hood dif­fi­cult.

‘ I’ve re­alised that my story is rarely given voice. To hear that trauma spo­ken about, and to hear that some­one has thrived be­yond it, is re­ally help­ful for other women.

‘ For me, telling my story has be­come a fem­i­nist thing. It’s the only power I’ve got to vin­di­cate a rape. Rape didn’t take my life, my wom­an­hood or my fem­i­nin­ity.

‘Speak­ing out is an act of power. But in the im­me­di­ate aftermath, it felt like ex­pos­ing weak­ness.’

SE­CRET TUR­MOIL: Sonya, aged 20, tried to hide the pain that haunted her

POWER OF FAITH: The Rev Sonya Dor­agh to­day

SANC­TU­ARY: Christ Church Ec­cle­ston, where she re­vealed her trau­matic past

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