AT FIRST glance, it looked like part of a carnival.

The black iron railings outside St Peter’s Church in Kirkbampton village, west of Carlisle, were a blaze of colour, with silk ribbons of red, blue, pink and yellow fluttering gently in the breeze along its entire 30ft length.

It was a crisp and bright November morning in 2020.

This was the scene of Cumbria’s first ever ‘loudfence’ event - an idea as powerful as it is simple: attached to each of the ribbons tied on the railings was a message for church leaders - messages from survivors of sexual abuse.

Those who troubled to read them may have been shocked as they read and heard - possibly for the first time - the voices of abuse surivors, saying they must never be silenced, and telling church leaders that abusers must not be protected.

Most poignant, perhaps,  was a 14-word statement, placed between ribbons of yellow, pink, purple and green. It said: “For Chrissie, whose daughter Emma died of suicide because she suffered child sexual abuse.”

Others referred to the crimes of Ronald Johns, the disgraced former Carlisle Cathedral canon who sexually abused a schoolboy - and went unpunished for decades. When his Bishop (now deceased) was told in 1993 of the abuse, his response was to simply move Johns to an out-of-the way posting in Caldbeck.

Another message, for Johns’ victims, said: “You were treated with contempt for speaking out. You were let down by those who should have been there to support you.”News and Star: One of the moving messages at the Kirkbampton loudfence.

Though unaware of it at the time, the creator of this moving loudfence display, mum-of-two Antonia Sobocki, was igniting a fire of church reform that is now spreading around the globe, reaching into the very heart of Catholicism, the Vatican.

St Peter’s is an Anglican church, dating back to the 12th century.

Yet the loudfence concept – amplifying the voices of abuse survivors – has most effectively taken root in the Catholic Church, securing a personal endorsement from Pope Francis himself.

Speaking of this remarkable achievement, Antonia revealed for the first time that she was inspired in part by her own experience of surviving child sexual abuse. “I was sexually abused at the age of seven,” she says.

A practising Catholic, she found solace from her faith and her church. “When I found out about all the abuse in church, for me it was more than devastation; it was a personal bereavement.”

That pain deepened as she learned of two local church abuse scandals: the first involving Johns and the second featuring former Roman Catholic monk Peter Turner, formerly Father Gregory Caroll.

Like Johns, he admitted his crimes - and yet was allowed to continue as a clergyman, moving to Workington where he abused more children.

In yet another sorry episode, the former Bishop of Carlisle, James Newcombe, wrote a reference for another paedophile priest following his prosecution– though he later withdrew it and apologised.

These events fuelled Antonia’s determination to end a church culture of "reputational protection," which she believes protects abusers at the cost of survivors. In the months after the first loudfence, interest in it grew and spread.News and Star:

She says: “Due to a combination of factors, the Catholic Church came to a point of critical mass where it realised it had to face this issue; it had to do something positive to prioritise survivors – or go the way of the dodo.”

Her work came to the attention of the newly appointed Catholic Bishop of Hexham & Newcastle. A former criminal barrister, Bishop Stephen Wright is fast becoming a determined advocate for reform.

Shortly after his appointment, he called Antonia. Introducing himself, he told her: “I need your help.”

A two-hour meeting followed, with Bishop Stephen inviting Antonia to his installation in July. They planned a loudfence on the Cathedral’s altar railings.

Antonia also personally tied a ribbon to the new Bishop’s raised throne, known as the cathedra, symbolically “tying him” to his promise to put survivors at the church’s heart.

Bishop Stephen told his congregation: “Antonia is my eyes; if I don’t govern right, or act justly, there are people watching me.” After her fellow campaigner Maggie Mathews finished her speech, the Cathedral erupted into applause.

“I’ve never felt anything like it in my entire life,” says Antonia. "We were witnessing history.” Among the loudfence messages that day was this one from a Kirkbampton school boy, who wrote: “Just because I’m nine it doesn’t mean I’m not allowed to be safe.”

Antonia says: “He was not a victim, but he wanted to be safe; it had clearly occurred to him that he might not be.”

Though she did not know it, the entire live-streamed installation was being watched by senior clergy in Vatican City. Days later, Antonia took a phone call from a priest called Father Andrew, who said: “I really like your work and I’d really like you to help me hold a loudfence.”

It was Father Andrew Small, a key figure in the Vatican based Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, and right-hand man of the Commission’s president, Cardinal Sean O’Malley, widely tipped to be the Pope’s successor.

The result was Antonia being invited to address the Commission directly, which she did on September 19.

Standing in front of dozens of senior clergy and church officials, Antonia spoke without a script, from the heart. First, she recounted her experience of sexual abuse and its lingering, devastating impact.News and Star: Antonia adresses the papal commission at the Vatican

In the wake of this childhood trauma, the church gave her comfort and sanctuary, she said. “When I found out about all the abuse that happened in church, for me it was more than devastation; it was a personal bereavement.

“I told them about the reaction to the loudfences; how they brought dialogue and how we’ve encouraged survivors to speak; and how we’ve even had people go to the police about abuse in other settings.

“I told them that growing up in the church made me feel very loved, included, affirmed, and valued; and that if the church could do that for me then it absolutely can do it for all those people.

“I said they were not aiming high enough by just aspiring to clean up the church. We have to be a sanctuary for all those people who have been harmed.”

Prioritising the church’s reputation over supporting survivors was the ultimate betrayal, she said. “The church has to be a place where children and vulnerable adults can be looked after.”

Concluding her address to the Commission, she saw some were moved to tears. A few hours later, Antonia was invited to meet Pope Francis. Greeting her, he said: “Thank you so much for the work you are doing.”

She gave him a loudfence ribbon, prompting the Pope to describe it as a beautiful “symbol of hope.” Antonia says: “He said the loudfence should be everywhere. I could barely believe this was happening."

She also handed the Pope a letter, written by a religious sister from England who was sexually abused in a confessional. “It’s had a devastating impact on her,” says Antonia.

“She wrote an intensely personal letter and told me she could not bear for it to fall into the wrong hands. It was so delicate. I was able to ring her the next morning and tell her Pope Francis had her letter.

“She was in tears.”

Of her own decision to reveal being abused, Antonia says: “I can’t ask people talk freely about it if I can’t do that myself.

“Silence is the best friend of the abuser. I hear that from so many people. They say they feel ashamed. I say it’s not your shame; you need to return it to where it belongs, to the abuser.

“I’ll be 50 in January, and this is me just beginning to feel okay.” Referring to Pope Francis, she says he spoke of the need for compassion; and the need for church leaders to hear difficult stories.

“I believe he genuinely cares,” says Antonia. “The Catholic Church is on a journey; it’s going to get better but it’s a journey.

“I have worked to rebrand safeguarding as something that’s not anti-church but pro-church. It’s a way of living out our faith.

“The most important voices are those of survivors; the most effective way to help them is to change the system which allowed them to be hurt in the first place. For that to happen you have to speak to the people with the capacity to change it."

“I now feel that I can finally say to all those people who confided in me that I’ve been able make their voices heard.”

Read more: Pope Francis gives blessing to anti-abuse mission pioneered in Cumbria