Churches must make sure their child protection procedures are the best possible, warned the Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People, Nigel Williams, today (Saturday).
Mr Williams issued his call during a speech to the Presbyterian Church’s “Taking Care” Child Protection Conference in Belfast.
The Commissioner said churches needed to build on the very significant contribution they make through church based children’s and youth organisations and take a lead in child protection.
“The problem we face is that some Christians do abuse children; that some clergy can abuse children; that some church leaders abuse children,” Mr Williams said.
“If we are to develop effective child protection policies we must start from the point that those within the church can be abusers as much as those outside.
“The real challenge is not whether such abuse exists within the church, but what arrangements we put in place to try and prevent it, and what we do when a child discloses that abuse has happened.”
Mr Williams said that all churches must never try to investigate such disclosure or allegations internally.
“It is wholly inappropriate, and arguably illegal, for churches to try and deal with this sort of thing as an internal matter,” he said.
“The church needs to recapture its belief in children and its belief of children.”
Mr Williams commended the Presbyterian Church for their excellent Taking Care child protection manual.
The Commissioner said that the recent publication of his report on vetting (that is checking adults who work with or volunteer to work with children) pointed to improvements that all organisations can make.
He said churches must not just seek to meet the minimum standards but should regard them as the “floor from which they will move forward, not as the ceiling on the maximum action they intend to take”.
The Commissioner urged the churches to reach out today to children in need – for example, traveller children, ethnic minority children and those whose parents are going through divorce – and regain the role that Christian reformers on children’s issues like Dr Barnardo and Lord Shaftesbury had in the past.