“I’ll never forget it,” says Angela Paterson, staring straight ahead. “We were in the study. He said, ‘You know what? I can help you with your…”
Her voice cuts out. The missing word is sexuality. She stops, breathes, reaches for a piece of kitchen towel to dry her face, and then keeps going, revisiting the moment that her life changed. “He said, ‘I can heal you.’”
Paterson was 19. She knew she was a lesbian, but as a Christian in an evangelical church, she had been taught what this meant: total incompatibility with her faith and an eternity in hell. The man talking to her was Reverand Doctor Max Donald. He was the pastor at Lancing Tabernacle Church in West Sussex, where Paterson had been attending services and youth groups since she was 14.
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The kids were encouraged to share their troubles. So Donald knew of the sexual abuse that she had suffered as a child, she says, and knew how vulnerable she was – but that did not stop him.
When Donald learned that the 19-year-old had become homeless, he invited her to live with him and his wife at the manse, the pastor’s residence near the church. It was 1990. For the next four years, says Paterson, she was under his control. At first, Donald sent her to a therapist to try to make her straight. When that didn’t work, he began abusing her to try to “heal” her.
“When I’d wake up and he was there,” she says – he would be standing by her bed – “that wasn’t… I didn’t consent. I didn’t have a choice. Because of the power that he had.”
Now 49, Paterson is in a secure relationship with a woman and works in a women’s refuge. She sits today in a garden in north London and for several hours pushes herself back into her past, reliving in daylight what normally intrudes in nightmares. The public, she says, need to understand what has been happening in secret for decades in this country.
Paterson knows now how to describe the years the pastor spent trying to make her heterosexual. “It was rape.” And, in particular, what’s known as corrective rape. “When it dawned on me that that was what was happening, it was devastating.”
The term corrective rape was coined in South Africa in the early 00s, to describe the almost routine sexual violence inflicted on lesbians, supposedly to “cure” their sexuality. It is often perpetrated in street attacks by one or several men, sometimes by family members. Since then, the phenomenon has been reported in other countries, but mostly outside the West.
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In 2017, the British Government referred to it, when more than 100,000 LGBTQ+ people responded to its survey about life for sexual and gender minorities. Around 5 per cent said they had been offered conversion therapy, the umbrella term for various attempts to “treat” someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity.
Among these respondents, some had been correctively raped. When i approached the Government Equalities Office for a breakdown of figures or for more details, a spokesman declined, in case it breached confidentiality. Little is known about the phenomenon taking place in Britain.
The idea behind this method, used from the 1940s to 1980s, is that if you inflict pain, such as from electric shocks, while exposing someone to same-sex erotica, it will retrain them to stop being sexually aroused by it.
Talking therapies to “cure” LGBT people began in the early 1970s. The belief is that there is a deep wound from childhood, often either sexual abuse or parental neglect, that triggered gayness. The patient is made to find the wound and “heal” it.
These are used in religious settings, particularly within evangelical Christian churches. It forms part of the wider belief that people can be possessed by spirits, and that prayer, chanting and the laying on of hands, can release the evil spirits.
This practice was identified in South Africa in 2001 due to the high number of lesbians being raped in a supposed attempt to make them heterosexual. There are several reports of gay men being subjected to it, too.
In the 1950s and 1960s, hormones were used to suppress the sex drive. Mathematical genius and codebreaker Alan Turing was forced to take hormone injections after his conviction for homosexuality. He took his own life two years later.
None of these treatments are effective. All cause harm.
It has taken decades for Paterson to summon the courage to speak publicly. She has waived her right to anonymity because of what the British Government is about to launch: a consultation on its proposed ban on conversion therapy. But there was one particular incident in relation to the ban that propelled her to disclose everything.
In March, Peter Lynas, head of the Evangelical Alliance – a body that represents over 3,500 churches in the UK, including the Lancing Tabernacle – wrote to the Prime Minister urging him not to impose a total ban as it would “place religious freedom in jeopardy”. Lynas described “electric-shock treatment and corrective rape” as “clearly wrong” but argued that other forms of “suppressing or repressing sexuality” should be allowed if they do not involve “marriage between one man and one woman”.
Boris Johnson responded, assuring the Evangelical Alliance that he takes “freedom of religion very seriously” and promising that he will “continue to allow adults to receive appropriate pastoral support… in the exploration of their sexual orientation or gender identity”. Soon after, Paterson approached i with evidence to support her belief that there can be no religious exemptions for conversion therapy.
She had contacted the Evangelical Alliance in 2009 to make a complaint about Rev Donald, the pastor who abused her. When they asked for more details, she described in an email what had happened to her. The Evangelical Alliance
did not respond.
Paterson now warns against “watering down” any legislation. “You might think pastoral care is a nice fluffy thing, but it can be really damaging. Praying for people – or giving them guidance – regarding their sexuality is a harmful practice.” Every major mental health body in Britain agrees that conversion therapy is ineffective and harmful, including the Royal College of Psychiatry, the Department of Health and the NHS.
But Paterson wants the Government and the public to understand exactly what goes on: how the corrective rape and abuse of lesbian women operates on British soil, how religion can facilitate this and why the silence of victims persists.
A framed poster promising “Hope and Love” adorns the brick front of the Lancing Tabernacle church. The words appear like a halo above a crucifix, set in a starburst of pinks and yellows. It was the same promise of light and goodness that drew Angela Paterson in as a teenager. Earlier in her childhood, she had met American missionaries feeding the homeless. “My mother taught me to care for people that were less fortunate,” she says. So at 14 she was baptised and joined the Tabernacle.
Rev. Donald had been pastor there since the early 1980s, living at 1 Grand Avenue, a wide street nearby comprised mostly of interwar semi-detached houses.
“They seemed like nice people. Like you’ve found your tribe. You really respected them.”
This, combined with Donald’s charisma, did not only capture Paterson’s attention. It was Donald who had converted the now disgraced BBC journalist Martin Bashir to Christianity just a couple of years earlier, she says. Bashir, whom she met through Donald, was also just a teenager at the time. “You put them on a pedestal,” she says of the Donalds.
When Paterson told the pastor about her sexuality, therefore, and he sent her to a Christian counsellor, she did not question it. The intention was clear: to banish her lesbianism.
in the pastors house that she lived with him and his wife and kids (Photo: Supplied)
She knew this because the counsellor’s approach was “framed around [the idea that], ‘You’re gay because you’ve been sexually abused by a man.’” The belief that a childhood trauma is the cause of homosexuality is a core, false presumption in conversion therapy.
The therapist explained what they were going to do: explore the first five years of her life and at the following session, the next five years. The idea was that by examining what happened in those early years, “it would release me from my homosexuality”. She laughs at the preposterousness of this.
Paterson laughs only occasionally during our time together. Her features are open and expressive. It’s not hard to imagine the girl she once was. She maintains eye contact only when the mood lightens; preferring to sit at an angle, looking ahead.
After one session with the counsellor, Paterson told Donald she couldn’t go back. “It was too painful” to relive the sexual abuse. The pastor accepted this. He secured her a job at a local Christian rest home.
The abuse began gradually. “I’d be in bed and he would come into my room with a cup of coffee, sit on the bed and on the odd occasion touch my hair and say, ‘We really want to look after you. Then we would be in the lounge and he would just grab my hand. I was confused but I also thought, ‘This is a pastor, someone I can trust.’ Then I was at the fridge one night and he grabbed me and kissed me on the lips. I was really taken aback but he was trying to reassure me, [saying], ‘It’s OK, I just care about you.’”
It was soon after this, in the study, when Donald said he could “heal” her. “I was thinking, ‘OK, because if you don’t get healed, you’re going to hell.’ I believed that in no uncertain terms.” The sexualised atmosphere grew. “He had Christian porn and would show me that to say, ‘This is what a heterosexual relationship looks like after you’re married.’”
But while the pastor and his wife were in bed, Paterson would watch her own video: Desert Hearts, a famous lesbian film she had rented from the local Blockbuster video shop. The “treatment” was having none of the intended effects.
“[The abuse] wasn’t fully sexual at first, but then it did become intercourse.” When his wife was on night shifts at the Christian rest home, Donald would come to Paterson’s room at night. He would begin by touching her before it descended further, to penetration.
“I felt like it was expected because it was part of what was going on,” she says, referring to his promise to heal her sexuality. “That set up the dynamic of it.” His wife would be on night shifts at least once a week, and whenever she was out, it would happen, and even “grabbing me when no one was in the room and holding my hand or kissing me”.
In the early days, he would reassure her afterwards. “He would say, ‘This is OK by God.’” Now, working with abused women at the refuge, Paterson can identity the process by which she came under his control. “I was groomed by him.”
He never used physical violence; it was never necessary, because the emotional abuse – convincing her she was sick and needed healing – held her captive. “I didn’t have a choice. It was like, ‘This is what we’re doing.’”
She was dependent on him for somewhere to live, for her job, her community, and at the time, she couldn’t see the situation for what it was. “The dynamic with abusers is they show kindness and they show care.” He would tell her he loved her. His position as head of her church was further justification. “As far as I was concerned, he was closer to God than anybody else.”
There was a lot he would say: that it’s all right for men to masturbate but not women, that she couldn’t socialise with a friend of hers who was also a lesbian, and all while repeating Biblical verses; 1 Corinthians 6:9,10 being a favourite: “Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.”
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But after a few months, nothing needed to be said to justify himself or silence her. “I was stuck and lost. You’re left feeling confused and guilty and shameful.” Whenever she questioned his actions, the aura of his position quashed her concerns. “You think, ‘But he’s the pastor of the church.’” The rest of his flock were in awe of him. “He would visit people who were ill. He was very funny. There were a lot of old ladies who would idolise him.”
There were many times she wanted to tell someone but she couldn’t bear the idea of hurting his wife and the church. Also, “I thought it might work. I was a broken person when I moved there. So I stayed.”
But after four years, when Donald was away on a mission in India, Paterson, now aged 23, confided in the wife of a local youth leader she knew, who had ties with other evangelical churches. At the time, Paterson only told her she was having a relationship with Donald, unable to explain the true nature of what was happening. “I was very ashamed.”
The woman and her husband took Paterson to a residential evangelical house in Bedford. But Paterson knew the rules well enough in her own church to know what was coming. The couple spoke to the elders and soon afterwards, “They brought me back to confess. They put a blanket over my head in the back of the car so no one would see me.”
Back at the Tabernacle, Paterson had to stand at the front, facing the congregation. “I had to say, ‘I confess to you that I’ve had an adulteress affair with Max Donald and I’m sorry.’” She remembers the reaction from the audience: yelps and gasps. “It was horrific. I felt a lot of shame: the word ‘adulteress’. It’s one of the major sins and I’d done that. That’s what I thought.”
Later, Paterson says she was told that Donald stood up after she had left and played a tape in which he confessed to adultery. He left his position some time afterwards. But in 1999, Donald moved to Inverness and later returned to ministry at the Holm Evangelical Church.
Paterson did not find out about this until nearly a decade later. By this point, in 2007, she had come out fully as a lesbian, and had built a life for herself. But the idea of Donald regaining his position of authority disturbed her so much that she wrote to the Baptist Union of Scotland – the body to which his new church belonged – to inform them what he had done to her. “He felt I would be healed of my homosexuality from having sex with him,” she wrote. “The effects of this have been devastating for me.” It became a protracted exchange over many months.
In one of the responses, the Baptist Union warned Paterson that if her allegations were “at all untrue” she would have to withdraw her letter immediately, “otherwise you could be accused of slander”.
Eventually, the Baptist Union wrote to Paterson, assuring her that an investigation was carried out, that there was a “careful process of accountability” before Donald was hired as a minister in 1999, and that he had been consulted about the allegations recently. But, the letter said, “we have decided not to remove accreditation feeling that such accountability is better kept than lost,” and ended: “I do hope Angela that you can now let this matter rest and move on.”
But for Paterson, that was not possible. “I was really angry. [It was] so unjust. How can they just keep getting away with it?”
bridesmaid at a wedding at the church (Photo: Supplied)
The following year, she approached the Evangelical Alliance, as this was the organisation under which the Lancing Tabernacle fell, and asked who best to contact about an issue of abuse. A representative requested details. Paterson replied, disclosing what had happened to her.
“He told me that if I had sex with him, it would help my homosexual tendencies. I was a vulnerable adult, in their care,” she wrote. “I believe that this was spiritual and sexual abuse towards a young vulnerable adult.” She ended by adding, “I didn’t have a voice when I was younger… too messed up. I have a voice now.”
But she received no reply.
“How can they ignore that? They just don’t want to hear it.” The lack of even an acknowledgment was crushing. “It made me give up a little bit. You should be able to rely on the church. It makes you think, ‘If that’s the Evangelical Alliance, the umbrella [organisation] to all these churches and they’re not going to take a complaint seriously, well, where are we at? We don’t care?’”
The inaction has had a “huge effect on my wellbeing. It’s another way of systematically shutting people down. It’s so messed up and so patriarchal.” Paterson considered going to the police but felt so disillusioned by the responses from religious institutions that she lost faith in the prospect of accountability.
A spokesperson for the Evangelical Alliance said they were “saddened” by Paterson’s allegations and added: “Unfortunately, we are unable to access the relevant information from 2009 and the staff member involved has moved on. The Evangelical Alliance is not an investigative body and our policy is to recommend reporting such matters to the police.”
In a statement, the Lancing Tabernacle said it was “completely unaware” of these allegations and that they would treat such a matter “very seriously indeed”. When approached by i, the Baptist Union of Scotland did not respond. Donald’s family was approached by i prior to publication.
Donald died in 2010. Paterson is left with lasting damage. “I have dreams pretty much every night of being in that house and trying to escape.” She has chronic health problems that she thinks are a reaction to trauma, and previously suffered a gambling addiction to numb herself.
But what Paterson wants is to stop this happening to others. Any religious exemptions to the proposed ban “would still leave it wide open to abuses happening”. And “cures” that aren’t corrective rape, such as conversion therapy, or praying away the gay, are “just as damaging”.
There has also been opposition to a full ban from some anti-trans campaigners who believe it could prevent clinicians encouraging transgender patients to stay in the sex they were born. But, for Paterson, any gaps in the legislation would do “untold damage”.
“Suppressing people’s sex, gender, thoughts about their true self and their identity is harming people. As feminists we should be standing in solidarity with groups who are being discriminated against. Shoulder to shoulder.”
Paterson urges the Government to hear the victims. “Get some people in a room who have had experiences of this and deeply listen to them.” Would Paterson talk to ministers directly?
“In a heartbeat,” she says quietly, before looking away, down the length of the garden.
“It never leaves you.”
If you have been affected by rape, or are worried about someone who has been, call the Rape Crisis hotline on 0808 802 9999 or visit the website for a live chat.