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Abusive vicar or wounded veteran?

For 14 years, Reverend Paul Parks and his wife Lois were known to their parishioners as a devoted couple, united in faith and committed to their flock.

A former paratrooper and SAS reservist, Rev Parks was a commanding presence in the pulpit; a man who brought a wealth of life experience and humour to his sermons.

He ran half marathons for charity, led pilgrimages to the Holy Land and, at church fetes, happily went into the stocks to be pelted with wet sponges.

Each Sunday, musician Lois would sit at her keyboard to lead the hymns, joining in the congregation’s laughter when Paul invariably started his homilies with a light-hearted joke. 

Each Sunday, musician Lois would sit at her keyboard to lead the hymns, joining in the congregation’s laughter when Paul invariably started his homilies with a light-hearted joke. Pictured: Reverend Paul Parks and his wife Lois on the Isle of Man

‘Everybody loved Paul,’ says Lois, 51. ‘He was an excellent preacher and gifted pastor who went above and beyond the call of duty, even if it meant going out in the middle of the night to comfort a dying parishioner.’

So the worshippers at St Helen’s, in the pretty East Sussex village of Ore, Hastings, were stunned when Rev Parks, 60, was suspended by the Church of England in May 2017, and then removed from his post in January this year for misconduct.

It was only last month that they discovered the reason for his abrupt departure from the rectory in March with his wife and their two children, aged 11 and eight, when the ruling from a Bishop’s Disciplinary hearing was posted on the Church’s website, making headlines.

Rev Parks was exposed by the Church as a controlling, coercive and abusive husband. 

The ruling described in unsparing detail how he had subjected his wife to repeated aggressive verbal onslaughts, dating back to before their 2003 marriage. 

Falsely accusing Lois of infidelity, he forbade her from using social media and was said to have called her a ‘Jezebel’ or ‘f****** slag’, telling her she should ‘behave like a vicar’s wife’.

Rev Parks, who admitted misconduct, was said on one occasion to have held his terrified wife in an arm lock as he drove towards a brick wall while she was in the passenger seat, and another time threatened to kill her.

He was suspended by the Church in 2017 after Lois went to the police in desperation after her husband, in the grip of a mental breakdown, threatened her with violence.

Rev Parks was arrested and, suicidal, later voluntarily admitted to a secure psychiatric unit, where he was diagnosed with combat-related dissociative sub-type Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, linked to his active military service.

Lois withdrew her police complaint after her husband started specialist trauma therapy and medication.

No criminal charges were brought.   

They have decided to speak out to raise awareness of PTSD, especially among military veterans, and the devastating consequences of the disorder on individuals and families. Pictured: Reverend Paul Parks when he was in the military

They have decided to speak out to raise awareness of PTSD, especially among military veterans, and the devastating consequences of the disorder on individuals and families. Pictured: Reverend Paul Parks when he was in the military

The couple were reconciled and prayed that, with the Church’s support, Paul could return to his calling. 

But it was not to be.

Removing him from office for two years, the tribunal panel said that, though it accepted the diagnosis of PTSD, ‘the evidence showed a clear pattern of domestic abuse involving controlling and coercive behaviour for which the Respondent was fully culpable’.

Today, the Parks are unemployed and more than £80,000 in debt due to legal costs. 

They’d be homeless if not for the kindness of friends. 

They feel like pariahs, but are still together.

This is their first interview and, though Lois knows some might judge her harshly for defending her husband, she wants to explain why she has stuck by him.

They have decided to speak out to raise awareness of PTSD, especially among military veterans, and the devastating consequences of the disorder on individuals and families.

They accuse the Church of England of ‘demonising’ a mentally unwell man, instead of showing Christian compassion.  

They feel they’ve been forced to defend themselves after being publicly ‘humiliated’.

‘The diocese tried to make out I was this flaky little woman who couldn’t even breathe without Paul telling me to do so, but they soon found out what they were up against, because that’s not who I am,’ says Lois, who loyally fought her husband’s corner at the hearing.

‘I’m not someone who doesn’t know her own mind.

‘The judge at the hearing even described me as feisty.

‘I have stayed with Paul because I love him absolutely and I am committed to him absolutely.’

Rev Parks adds: ‘I’ve had to struggle with my guilt, shame and remorse. 

‘I was a priest, people looked up to me for guidance and I’ve fallen as low as a person can.

‘Lois is the hero here. 

‘She never gave up on me. 

 Without her love and support, I wouldn’t be here today, I’d be just another veterans’ statistic.’

So does Rev Parks deserve our sympathy? 

Most importantly, is Lois safe? 

She insists she is and that, after three years of weekly trauma therapy, Paul has had no further episodes.

She refuses to accept the tribunal’s verdict that Rev Parks’ PTSD had not ‘entirely explained his behaviour, neither did it excuse it’.

The couple say that, supported by their medical team, they appealed to the Church not to publish the ruling in such ‘punishing’ detail — to protect their children and Paul’s ongoing recovery — and are devastated.

The Church said it rejected the appeal because the misconduct was extremely serious and ‘justice should be administered openly and be held to public scrutiny’.

It added: ‘We felt very strongly that the parish and the wider community, who had been let down badly by the Respondent, had a right to know why he had been suspended and removed from office.’

Lois says she is deeply hurt, adding: ‘The real, authentic Paul is a lovely, kind, caring, sensitive, considerate, strong, affectionate man. 

‘That’s the person I fell in love with, courted, and married. 

‘What I call “The PTSD Paul” is very different, but that isn’t the real person. 

‘Yes, what he did was terrible, but he never physically harmed me.

‘These were six incidents spaced over a period of 14 years, so for the majority of the time we were very happy together. 

‘These were symptoms of a serious mental illness, not a reflection of his character.

‘Now he’s in recovery, I have the real Paul back permanently.’

Lois was a successful career woman and divorced single mum to a young daughter when she met Paul, then a curate in Devon, through a Christian dating site.

With a degree in French and music, she was a chartered company secretary specialising in compliance.

Born in Coventry, Paul had joined the Parachute Regiment at 16 to escape a dysfunctional childhood with his single mum and little education. He served in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, and shared with Lois traumatic, brutal memories of being caught in riots and violent clashes where people were shot.

Divorced, with four children, Paul had applied to the priesthood after experiencing a spiritual awakening, returning to education to gain a theology degree.

‘When he shared his life story, that was one of things I fell in love with. I’d had a very middle-class, settled, happy, blessed childhood, while Paul had overcome great obstacles,’ says Lois.

‘He was a very open and honest person and, as a Christian, I’ve always tried to take people at face value and not judge them.

‘We shared the same values and faith and felt like soul mates.’

Lois’s first glimpse of “PTSD Paul” came when she went for a farewell meal with colleagues, after giving up work to become a vicar’s wife.

‘Paul had forgotten I’d arranged to go out and called my mother who told him: “Oh, she’s gone out with the lads,” because most of my colleagues were male,’ says Lois.

‘That triggered in Paul a state of paranoia, wondering: “Who’s she with, what’s she doing?” He rang me up and was just swearing down the phone at me.

‘I was shocked because Paul is the kind of man who never swears. I put the phone down, thinking: “I don’t want anything more to do with him.”

‘A day or two later he apologised and explained he couldn’t understand why he’d behaved like that. He put it down to having been cheated on in the past.

‘Of course it worried me, but I thought it a reasonable explanation. I told him: “It is never going to happen again” and we moved on. We were deeply in love with hopes and dreams of a ministry together.’

A few months after their wedding, the couple left Devon, but problems resurfaced when, in 2004, Paul took a position in Berkshire.

‘Sometimes it was as if something inside Paul just switched, I wouldn’t know what had triggered it, but he’d draw himself up physically and the look in his eyes was just terrible,’ says Lois, who admits she once packed her bags and left him for a couple of days.

‘He’d use swear words I didn’t know existed and I just didn’t recognise him. Afterwards, when I told him what he’d said or done, he had no memory of it at all.’

Lois says she first turned to their diocese for help in 2004. The tribunal heard the then Bishop of Reading, Stephen Cottrell, referred Rev Parks to a psychologist. But Lois claims the therapy offered was not appropriate, given what they now know about PTSD, and the diocese made no effort to involve his GP and psychiatrists.

She believes the diocese effectively just wanted to get rid of Paul to avoid a scandal. She claims they were cast adrift, and Paul struggled to find a new job due to poor references.

‘I was put under pressure to keep everything “in house”, they didn’t want Paul’s behaviour getting into the public arena. No safeguarding was put in place,’ she says.

Oxford Diocese denies this and said: ‘We cannot reconcile what Mr and Mrs Parks are saying with what we know of this case.

‘Mrs Parks raised concerns about her husband’s threatening behaviour towards her on the evening of his licensing, but subsequently retracted her claims.

‘Following his arrival, Rev Parks quickly fell out with his parishioners who say they found him overbearing and controlling. 

He left the parish by mutual consent in 2005. 

It appears that the couple were shown considerable sympathy, generosity and pastoral care by the Bishop and senior clergy at the time.

‘Rev Parks had admitted his violent and aggressive behaviour and was referred to a psychologist, paid for by the diocese. 

‘A time-limited ministerial post was created for him in a neighbouring deanery “under the wing” of an experienced clergy person while he underwent therapy.’

Rev Parks suffered further trauma in 2006, when his eldest daughter from his first marriage, a student nurse, was killed in a road accident.

In 2015, the couple moved to Hastings where Paul’s undiagnosed PTSD worsened, culminating in mental breakdown.

‘Paul sank into a deep depression and there were days when he could barely get out of bed,’ says Lois, who had given up a teaching job to become his PA.

‘I kept trying to get him to see a doctor, but he’d refuse. 

‘Part of the military culture is that you do not show weakness or show any vulnerability. 

‘I was constantly walking on eggshells.’

Paul adds: ‘I was barely sleeping an hour a night, having flashbacks and night terrors. 

‘I was paranoid and hyper-vigilant.

‘I just wanted to swim out to sea until I was too tired and fall asleep.’

Lois says Paul’s final dissociative episode was by far the most terrifying. 

Brandishing a letter-opening knife, he threatened to gouge out her eyes.

‘I went to the police because I didn’t know what else to do. 

‘I told them I didn’t want Paul prosecuted, I just wanted help because I could see he was ill,’ she says.

‘After Paul was questioned, he was thankfully put on a mental health pathway, and once he was diagnosed with PTSD everything started to make sense.

‘These young lads join the Army at a young age and are brutalised. 

‘The trauma they suffer during combat causes permanent physical changes to the brain.

‘We discovered that with Paul, even the sound of a dishwasher being unloaded could trigger a memory and feelings that his life was in threat, which could tip him into a dissociative state.’

She says she expected more understanding from the Church, citing the Archbishop of Canterbury: ‘On World Mental Health Day, Justin Welby spoke about how employers need to be more understanding of mental health in order to reduce the stigma, shame and isolation.

‘Yet Chichester Diocese actively denied Paul the mental health pathway its own psychotherapist was recommending, and instead decided to take a solely punitive approach.’

In September 2018, the Parks received an email from the diocese saying it could no longer fund Paul’s therapy, adding that, because his PTSD wasn’t caused by the priesthood, he should approach the military instead.

Had the Parachute Regiment not agreed to pay, Lois believes Paul would not be alive today.

She claims that, even though it was aware of Paul’s diagnosis and suicidal state as early as 2017, the diocese was planning to ‘expose his misdemeanors’ in the media.

A former paratrooper and SAS reservist, Rev Parks (pictured) was a commanding presence in the pulpit; a man who brought a wealth of life experience and humour to his sermons.

A former paratrooper and SAS reservist, Rev Parks (pictured) was a commanding presence in the pulpit; a man who brought a wealth of life experience and humour to his sermons.

 A Church of England spokesperson said: ‘Chichester Diocese supported Mr Parks and his family both financially and pastorally and suggested they approach the military for a further contribution towards therapy costs if there was no NHS provision available.

‘Domestic abuse is a very serious issue with devastating effects on the lives of victims. 

‘The evidence showed a lengthy history of domestic abuse by Mr Parks, a military veteran, towards his wife from before their marriage in 2003 to his eventual arrest in 2017. 

Mr Parks admitted the misconduct.

‘The Tribunal felt very strongly that the parish and the wider community had been let down badly by the Respondent and had a right to know why he had been suspended and removed from office.’

Lois says: ‘Given all the medical evidence, I naively thought we’d get a fair hearing, but they tried to make out I’d been living full-time with this absolute monster, who made me fear for my life.

‘Our medical team, including expert psychiatrists, counsellors and case workers, gave evidence to the panel saying that Paul was absolutely no risk to anyone but himself.

‘They provided no opposing opinions from medical experts, nor asked for him to be assessed. 

I think they just thought: “He’s a bad, mad man and he’s a problem.” ’

The day of the ruling, Rev Parks lost his £2,000-a-month stipend. 

The couple were initially given just four weeks to leave the rectory, although this was later extended.

Lois says: ‘We told them: “We have nowhere to go, we have no money, we’ll be homeless.” 

In the end they gave us something to pay for removals and rent, but Paul had to agree to sign away any right to take future legal action.’

The couple have now set up a GoFundMe page to try to clear their debt and rebuild their lives. 

Lois hopes to return to her career and Paul is writing his autobiography. 

Though not defrocked, he has no plans to return to the ministry.

‘Before we left Hastings, a parishioner said to me: “I know what your husband did is terrible, but he is a good and decent man,” ’ says Lois.

‘The Church’s narrative from the start has been: “He’s a monster, he’s a monster, he’s a monster.” But PTSD is the monster, not Paul.”

The National Domestic Abuse Helpline, available 24 hours a day, is on 0808 2000 247.

Also see thenotforgotten.org/ how-we-help/what-we-do; and theripplepond.org (0333 9001028).

Read more at DailyMail.co.uk