Safeguarding Children at Church in England
Jeremy Gibson, Derby, England
In England during 2016/17 there were 13,591 recorded cruelty and neglect offences against persons under sixteen years old. In the same period 43,522 sexual offences were recorded against children under sixteen years old. 1 It is estimated that one-in-three children who are sexually abused by an adult, do not tell anyone. More than 90% of children who are sexually abused are abused by someone they know. 2 Sadly, much historical abuse that has hit news headlines has taken place under the auspices of religious organizations.
By way of contrast, local churches should show children genuine kindness, free from any abusive behaviours, and where their welfare is promoted. But we do not live in a perfect world. A Christian worker may become concerned that a child is being abused elsewhere. Children can make unfounded allegations against Christian teachers. Sadly, it is even possible for children to be abused in local churches. If any of these issues arise, it is vital that they are responded to quickly, transparently, and in line with current legislation. Failure to react appropriately can store up trouble for years to come. Christians must not only do the right thing, but be seen to do so.
What are the categories of abuse?
Children can be abused in four main ways: physical, sexual or emotional abuse, and neglect.
- Physical abuse includes hitting, shaking, throwing, poisoning, burning, scalding, drowning, and even suffocating. Fabricated or induced illness (FII) – previously termed ‘Munchausen by proxy’ – is when a carer deliberately causes symptoms of illnesses in a child. This also comes under the umbrella of physical abuse.
- Sexual abuse comprises forcing or enticing a child or young person to participate in sexual activities, whether or not the child understands the implications. Legally, no child under thirteen years of age can consent to sexual activity with anyone.
- Emotional abuse is the continued emotional maltreatment of a child, causing severe and persistent adverse effects on the child’s emotional development. It may involve conveying to children that they are worthless, not giving children opportunities to express their views, or having age or developmentally inappropriate expectations. Even witnessing the ill-treatment of another person can lead to emotional abuse in a child.
- Neglect is the ongoing failure to meet a child’s basic physical and/or psychological needs, likely to result in the serious impairment of the child’s health or development. A carer may fail to provide adequate food, clothing or shelter, or not protect a child from physical and emotional harm or danger, not supervise the child sufficiently, or prevent a child from accessing appropriate medical care or treatment.
What are the relevant legal principles?
The most up-to-date statutory guidance on inter-agency working to safeguard and promote the welfare of children specifically mentions voluntary, charity, social enterprise (VCSE), faith-based organizations and private sectors. 3 This document is based on various national legislations, including the Children Acts of 1998 and 2004, and the Children and Social Work Act 2017. Its guidance applies to all organizations and agencies which have functions relating to children and it should be complied with unless exceptional circumstances arise. Chapter two, which details organizational responsibilities, states that ‘every VCSE, faith-based organisation and private sector organisation or agency should have policies in place to safeguard and protect children from harm. These should be followed and systems should be in place to ensure compliance in this. Individual practitioners, whether paid or volunteer, should be aware of their responsibilities for safeguarding and protecting children from harm, how they should respond to child protection concerns and how to make a referral to local authority children’s social care or the police if necessary’.
What biblical principles apply to safeguarding children?
Paul made clear to the Romans that where no biblical principle is at stake believers should obey the laws of their land, Rom. 13. 1. Given that UK legislation to safeguard children does not contradict the Bible, local churches should comply. A child who is being abused is at risk of being murdered. A timely reporting of suspected child abuse has the potential to save a life. This is consistent with the Bible’s view of the preciousness of life. The Bible teaches that human beings were created in God’s image, Gen. 1. 26. Murder is considered such a serious crime that under Mosaic Law murderers were to be executed, Exod. 21. 12; Lev. 24. 17.
The Old Testament law also emphasized the importance of showing care to the most vulnerable members of society, Deut. 24. 19. When a lawyer summed up the entire Law with two commandments, the second of these being ‘Thou shalt love . . . thy neighbour as thyself’, Luke 10. 27; Lev. 19. 18, the Lord Jesus illustrated the command with the Good Samaritan, Luke 10. 30-37. Having been assaulted, a man was left on the roadside, bleeding and bruised. Two men, from whom we would have expected genuine concern, saw the man and ‘passed by on the other side’. A Samaritan, who, because of his nationality, was despised by the Jews, ‘when he saw him, he had compassion on him. And went to him, and bound up his wounds, pouring in oil and wine’. Of course, this was the man who showed true love for his neighbour. To see a child (one of the most vulnerable members of our society) suffer, and do nothing, when it is in our power to help, is unloving.
With both the Old Testament and the New Testament cautioning the need for a plurality of witnesses in matters of jurisprudence, no adult should ever work alone with children, Deut. 19. 15; 1 Tim. 5. 19. Although Paul is referring to two adults, his words to the Corinthians, ‘It is good for a man not to touch a woman’, 1 Cor. 7. 1, should be heeded in children’s work. Avoid any form of physical contact that could in any way be misconstrued.
How can local churches encourage the safeguarding of children?
While many of the recommendations made in Working together to safeguard children are probably already in place in most local churches (see table), in the current climate it is important for them to be formalized. Burying our heads in the sand is the wrong approach. It fails to show true love for children. It disregards the laws of our country. And it has the potential to open Christians up to future litigation, which can mar a testimony. An assembly should address any safeguarding concerns, including allegations against any of the children’s workers, with openness, following a clearly written policy. ‘Let all things be done decently and in order’, 1 Cor. 14. 40. A friendly and non-intimidating atmosphere should encourage children to express their views and to ask questions. To ensure every children’s worker feels confident in identifying signs of potential abuse they should undergo formal training. It is not, however, their responsibility to investigate and to make a decision if abuse has actually taken place, which can be difficult even for highly trained professionals. It is a children’s worker’s responsibility to identify and report any potential abuse to children’s social care, which will then co-ordinate appropriate investigation and intervention.
Summary of chapter two recommendations
||While elders are responsible to lead, supervise and support a local church, those who work with children should undergo formal safeguarding training. In addition, there may be a named safeguarding lead.|
Older Christians should encourage children to ask questions, Josh. 4. 6, 21.
||Each local church should have a written safeguarding children policy to follow if an allegation or a concern is raised.|
Although people are interviewed before acceptance into a local church, those who work with children should undergo Dis-closure and Barring Service (DBS) checks.
1 How safe are our children? 2018. The Most Comprehensive Overview Of Child Protection in the UK. Available at: https://www.nspcc.org.uk/globalassets/documents/research-reports/how-safe-children-2018-report.pdf.
2 L. Radford et al, Child Abuse and Neglect in the United Kingdom Today, National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, 2011.
3 Working together to safeguard children. A guide to inter-agency working to safeguard and promote the welfare of children. July 2018. Available at: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/722305/Working_Together_to_Safeguard_Children_-_Guide.pdf.