Sixty Second Interview with David Pearson, executive director of the Churches’ Child Protection Advisory Service
By Maria Ahmed
Your survey found that churches are ‘extraordinarily complacent’ when it comes to responding to child abuse. What are the key reasons?
We know that some are small, rural churches with few or no children, but in our view policies are still necessary. Others, unfortunately, still haven’t got the message, or consider they don’t need a policy.
Although 6% of churches in England (about 2,250) have no child protection policy, the good news is that the number has fallen from 9% since the issue was last investigated, in 203. However, this is likely to be an underestimate as there is simply no way of polling all churches which now exist.
Many congregations, and especially in inner city locations, do not possess their own church building and so may need to use halls, cinemas – or even people’s front rooms. Some churches for whom English is not their first language, have found themselves isolated from possible sources of help in regard to policies and good practice as promoted in the UK.
However, the good news is that the vast majority of churches have worked hard on the issues over the years and have effective systems in place. Anecdotal information suggests that child protection training offered in churches is often better than that given to teachers and doctors.
What are your particular areas of concern?
In addition to the lack of child protection procedures in some places, the churches with the ‘got the T-shirt’ mentality with policies sitting on shelves. Policies need to be living documents, shaping practice and kept under constant review. Other concerns include sects or groups which lack accountability and which are exclusive by nature, not related to the community, groups where there is an over-emphasis on control of children which can be associated with harsh discipline, and others which justify abuse on religious or cultural grounds.
What are the main difficulties involved in monitoring child abuse in churches?
It may be stating the obvious, but the Christian church is not one single organisation. It is made up of a multitude of diverse and different groups that operate across the whole spectrum of society. Though ‘umbrella bodies’ exist, none speak on behalf of all. It is not uncommon for an independent church to be formed in somebody’s front room today, be meeting in a warehouse tomorrow, or perhaps cease to exist altogether. Many such groups are often isolated from other churches and networks and it is extremely difficult to disseminate any sort of child protection message.
Other difficulties include a lack of awareness of the issues and naivety, eg someone’s repented of causing abuse and has been ‘forgiven’ – therefore they must be OK.
Churches can be small ‘incestuous’ groups which make it difficult to address abuse issues as in a family. Abusive parents and carers can be part of the same congregation and children may not be listened to, or could be afraid to talk. Alternatively, they could be very large congregations and some children just get missed.
All of this needs to be put in the context of churches serving vast numbers of children, many of whom will be ‘in need’. As with the work of Children’s Services, the good work going on week by week in the majority of churches does not get noticed but something going wrong will hit the headlines.
There have been a number of high-profile cases of child abuse in the Catholic Church. What can other churches learn from these cases?
Though late to come on board (compared to other churches), their ‘arm’s length’ child protection team presents a good model for others to follow. Keeping concerns ‘in-house’ is the worst of all worlds. Churches should contact the statutory authorities or seek the advice of an external agency such as CCPAS. The Catholic church has accepted the need to be more transparent in how they handle cases. Taking responsibility for past mistakes and the damage caused is important. Avoid at all costs such responses as ‘we didn’t know these things then’. Unfortunately, other people often did!
How can the implementation of child protection policies in churches be improved?
Specific expectations from government re churches and faith groups having procedures and policies in the recently published edition of ‘Working Together to Safeguard Children’ are an important development. Insurance companies have been stepping up their demands. These developments have been pushing the issue up the agenda. The challenge, as always, is to reach ‘closed communities’ and new groups.
Discovering these groups will fall by and large to local agencies. A development in one London borough whereby providers of community meeting facilities are being asked to ensure that all groups (including churches) hiring premises have child protection policies in place is a welcome development. It’s also important to help all organisations working with children see that sound policies and procedures are not only essential for children but vital for workers and organisations too. If the primary aim is to protect your organisation, the child will almost certainly be failed. If the emphasis is upon protecting children this will safeguard the organisation too. A lot of what exists by way of child protection guidance often is too complicated or does not make sense to the recipients. CCPAS are in the business to develop effective practice which people can understand.