Patrick Sandford (centre right) leads a conversation after his play 

By Devin Watkins

Nov 20 2023

Ahead of the World Day for the Prevention of and Healing from Child Sexual Exploitation, Abuse and Violence, the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors hosts a play written and performed by a survivor of child sexual abuse.

“I hated my body because of the bad things that had been done to it. I kind of numbed it from my neck down. But shame, if you expose it to other people, it kills it.”

Twenty-six years: That’s the average amount of time it takes for a victim of child sexual abuse to break the silence and shame surrounding their trauma.

Patrick Sandford was 9-years-old when his elementary, or primary, school teacher began to sexually abuse him at his school in England.

“It would be true to say that psychologically it caused quite a lot of damage. And one of the ways I survived was by retreating into my imagination.”

After he was first abused, Patrick ran to his room—“always running, running from the abuse for years”—and there he found a model theatre with little cutout figures.

“Pretend life stories were safer than real life,” he told Vatican News. “And this developed through my teenage years and into my university years, and I ended up becoming a professional theater director.”

Now, at the age of 71 and after decades of psychotherapy and “dealing with my demons”, Patrick has put his theatre expertise and the truth of his abuse together to create “Groomed”.

Rethreading the unraveled past

On Thursday, Nov 16, Patrick performed the dramatized testimony of his abuse and subsequent rage at an event hosted by the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, the Holy See’s safeguarding entity.

The event was attended by several rectors of seminaries in Rome, as well as several laypeople, and took place just ahead of the UN-sponsored World Day for the Prevention of and Healing from Child Sexual Exploitation, Abuse and Violence, held annually on Nov 18.

Several national Bishops’ Conferences have taken up the initiative and hold an annual Day of Prayer for Victims and Survivors of Abuse, including the Bishops of Italy and Germany.

Speaking with Vatican News, Fr Andrew Small, OMI, the Secretary of the Pontifical Commission, said the Holy See endorsed the UN Day when it was passed by the General Assembly. He highlighted Patrick’s story as an opportunity to open the conversation surrounding abuse through art, especially focusing on the importance of healing.

“I like the word ‘repair’ or ‘ricucire’, as they say in Italian, to sort of bring the threads of the fabric back together again, which is never easy for people who’ve experienced such terrible trauma,” said Fr Small. “Unless we sort of hold out that vision of healing, of the possibility of life that is not dominated by this trauma, I think we’re not really able to preach the hope that comes from the Gospel.”

Getting ahead of the problem

“I made [the play] very tentatively and I was very frightened of it. I didn’t know what I had done. I just wrote it. It took me several years,” said Patrick. “And I performed it for some friends and they all said, ‘Oh Patrick, you have to do it and you have to perform it because it’s your story’.”

He has performed it for several years now and the play’s composition has reflected his own journey of healing. At first, it was focused only on his personal experience.

“I tell the truth. I don’t say a lot about the actual abuse, a little bit about it, but I particularly talk about the psychological effects, the fact that the child could not speak and the adult could not speak,” Patrick said. “There is an understanding between the perpetrator and the victim and the survivor that this will be a secret.”

Gradually, he incorporated his perspective of what could have been going on in his abuser’s mind, drawing on testimony he had received from people who have abused children.

As performed on Thursday, Patrick takes on the persona of his abuser at various points, using citations from child abusers. He added only one line that he had not taken directly from an abuser: “What am I supposed to do?”

In a conversation that followed the award-winning play, Patrick admitted he had added the line, saying the reason was that there are no telephone hotlines or support systems for people who are tempted to sexually abuse children. “We need to get ahead of the problem, and not only try to deter abusers with jail time,” he said.

Healing presence

“Groomed” was chosen as the play’s title to highlight how abusers psychologically prepare children for the abuse, and ultimately their parents, too.

“I hated what the teacher was doing to me, but I liked his attention,” he said. “And I liked the fact that he always made me top of the class, and he told my mother I was the cleverest little boy he had ever taught.”

Decades later, when his mother was 90-years-old, Patrick finally told her that his teacher, whom she had just praised by name, had sexually abused him.

As they drove, she was silent for a stretch of 11 miles (roughly 15 minutes). Then, she said simply—in what Patrick would later describe as a moment of deep healing: “You’ve had a lot to cope with, haven’t you, Patrick.”

Pastoral outreach

As Fr Small said, referring to Patrick’s play and story of abuse: “This is the present for people; it’s not the past.”

“And we have to find the pastoral ministry and outreach that can welcome that and to honor it and to lead people where they want to go with that, which is normally a better life; one that’s not locked in this silence of the past.” – Vatican News