The Churches’ Opportunity – Taking the Lead in Child Protection

3 September 2005 News

Speech by Nigel Williams, Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People, at the Presbyterian “Taking Care” Child Protection Conference on Saturday 3 September 2005 

If my record of church membership where examined by a political journalist I am sure I would be called a carpet bagger – that is, someone who moves from constituency to constituency as the whim takes them. I was brought up within the Methodist Church but even as a teenager was regularly visiting other denominations and groups with friends looking for what we saw as authentic belief.

At university I spent most of my time in the Christian Union – once notching up a record of 28 Christian meetings in one week – a record I am not proud of – my reaction now is “get a life”. Back in Northern Ireland, I joined what we now call a community church, where I met my wife, and was part of an ecumenical community including Catholics and non-Catholics. I have retained close associations with that kind of grouping to this day.

In England in the late 80’s our family joined a local Baptist Church. We then moved on to the Anglican parish church, where I became vice chair of the Parochial Church Council – quite an achievement for an avowed non-conformist. Then returning to Northern Ireland over a year ago, my wife and I moved to the Antrim coast, and found that the nearest church was a Presbyterian church.

Now I am not sure with that kind of record, whether all you Presbyterians should be rejoicing that you have captured me, or worried at what has landed in your midst. I suppose I would argue that my decisions have always been based on wanting to be part of a living worshipping community of believers – and that is why we are now part of Cairncastle Presbyterian.

But I suppose my varied church experience, and also the fact that my work experience on children’s issues with CARE in the early 1990’s and later with Childnet International and now as the Commissioner for Children and Young People, have perhaps given me a significant vantage point from which to observe the approach of the Church – in the widest sense – to child protection. I have to say that until recently it has not been a very happy story. I want to speak to you today both as Commissioner, and in a personal capacity as a fellow church member.

My challenge to you today is that the Church needs to regain its confidence as a leading agency in child protection, regain the amazing child friendliness exhibited by Jesus Christ, and walk in his footsteps and those of heroes like Dr Barnardo, George Mueller and the Earl of Shaftesbury in the 19th century in their work for children.

It is not difficult to see why the reputation of the Church has taken such a battering in recent years in the area of child protection. In an age when the media like nothing better than a scandal involving religion and sex, the church has seemed to have an endless supply of such stories to fill the newspapers.

A good friend of mine, Professor Patrick Parkinson, of the Law Faculty at the University of Sydney, had no difficulty in finding examples for his seminal book “Child Sexual Abuse and the Churches”. I suppose one naturally thinks of clerical abuse, and the scandals of institutional neglect and abuse that have been associated with the Catholic Church worldwide, including Ireland.

But the Protestant churches have no reason to feel smug. One of the biggest abuse scandals in Northern Ireland in recent years is that involving Dr Lindsay Brown, vice principal of Bangor Grammar school, and well known throughout the Presbyterian Church and a leader in Scripture Union camps. Although convicted of abusing nine boys, some estimates suggest the extent of his abuse could run to many more boys.

The reaction to this particular scandal is illuminating as it highlights one of the major challenges the church faces in dealing honestly with this issue. Initially the majority of those in the Church who knew of Lindsay Brown seemed to be incredulous that he could have hurt anyone. “Christians don’t do that sort of thing”.

The problem we face is that Christians do abuse children, that clergy can abuse children, that church leaders abuse children. Although, as Christians we may seek to fight wrongdoing, we inevitably fail, and once we put leaders in particular on a pedestal we may be sowing the seeds of real problems.

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.

There are certain approaches that historically the church has taken to abuse which only lead to more trouble rather than less.

Key among these is a desire to protect reputation rather than children. Child sexual abuse is a shaming activity and sadly the initial reaction of many can be cover it up. This is totally wrong. What we need to do is to bring allegations into the light so that they can be tested, not keep them in the dark where children will still be at risk. While a congregation may be shocked if one of its members or worse still a minister or leader is accused – that shock is nothing compared with the damage that can be done to children if abuse is allowed to continue.

A second tendency historically has been where churches are willing to acknowledge that abuse may exist, but believe that it is best for all concerned if they investigate the charges themselves, and do not inform the authorities. Sometimes this view may be attributed to a mistaken understanding of the Bible or a false theological view of the pre-eminence of the church in deciding its own disciplinary procedures. The problem with this view is that we are not talking about an internal disciplinary matter involving breaking the rules of the church. Rather we are potentially concerned with serious criminal offences that can lead to prison sentences if the accused is guilty.

It is wholly inappropriate, and arguably illegal, for churches to try and deal with this sort of thing as an internal matter. Even if the allegations have not come to the attention of Social Services and the Police – the church should be in the vanguard of reporting such allegations, not conducting internal investigations and being the judge and jury on what children say.

A third tendency has been to give more credence to those in authority who deny allegations than to children who make them. This approach is not confined to the church – it is present in any institution from schools to youth organizations. We do well to remember that Jesus turned the view of authority and children upside down when he invited children to come and sit on his knee, when he commended children for singing his praises when the Pharisees thought it unseemly, and when he said that anyone who hurt a child would be better to have a millstone put round their neck and thrown into the sea.

The church needs to recapture its belief in children and its belief of children.

It is to combat tendencies like these, and to promote the best practice of current child protection policies that documents like the Taking Care pack have been put together. And can I here take the opportunity to commend the work that the Presbyterian Church has done on this issue right from the first guidance in 1995, and the excellence of this new resource.

What the Taking Care pack does is to give individual congregations all the information they need to develop effective child protection policies and to ensure that they are in line with best practice. It is an invaluable resource and one that I would commend all congregations to use

In my role as Commissioner for Children and Young People, Child Protection is inevitably one of my key priorities. Indeed the legislation which founded my office says that the aim of the Commissioner is to “promote and safeguard the rights and best interests of children and young people”. When you ask children what are the most important things to them that Government should be doing “keeping me safe” will always feature near the top of their list.

In December 2003 when I had only been in office a couple of months, the news broke that Ian Huntley, just convicted of the murders of the two young girls in Soham – Holly and Jessica – had been the subject of police concern in Humberside some years before he had taken up the job as a school caretaker. The Home Secretary ordered a thoroughgoing review of both how this had happened in the Huntley case – why the Humberside Police information had not made it to Cambridgeshire, and come up as part of the vetting for his job – and of the general system of child protection vetting.

I remember lying in bed the night I had heard this news. Going round in my head was my statutory responsibility to safeguard and protect children, and also to advise Ministers of any concerns I had. I began to wonder if the Northern Ireland vetting system, which had recently been overhauled and was much vaunted, would pick up an Ian Huntley. I wondered if we even vetted school caretakers. The next day with these thoughts ringing in my ears and after I had had a number of telephone conversations with senior civil servants I wrote to the Secretary of State and recommended that we needed to review our child protection system too.

The Secretary of State agreed but suggested that any review should follow on after Sir Michael Bichard had finished his inquiry in England. So it came about that the first major formal review undertaken by my office was on Child Protection Vetting. The review was a joint effort – my staff did a huge amount of information collection on existing policies and practices within government, business and voluntary organizations including churches; and then I invited an independent person – the barrister Ruth Lavery – to review all this information, take her own evidence, and make recommendations. Ruth reported earlier this year and in June I wrote to the SOS with her report and suggestions for action in five key areas. Let me briefly summarise these for you:

  • CLEAR LEADERSHIP – I stressed that employment checking and child protection are so important that they demand very clear leadership within Government. The Secretary of State’s direct response to this was to create the post of the Minister for Children, which earlier in the summer he announced would be filled by Lord Rooker.
  • CONSISTENT POLICIES & AUDITING – The review found quite patchy approaches to child protection and vetting across the public sector. In general, the voluntary sector was much better though not all churches are as good as the Presbyterian church. By auditing I mean that there is no point in having policies, if you do not check whether these are being implemented properly.
  • IMPROVING THE STATUTORY AND POLICY FRAMEWORK – A number of changes were proposed to tighten up the existing statutory and policy framework. For example, I recommended it should be mandatory for ministers and church leaders to be vetted, not optional, because of the position of trust they occupy. I also recommended greater clarity in relation to checking private tutors of children
  • CLEAR GUIDANCE, TRAINING AND IMPLEMENTATION – I was concerned that although current arrangements might be quite effective, they were often misunderstood and therefore clear guidance was essential. This sort of training conference is exactly the sort of initiative of which I think there should be more.
  • NATIONAL & INTERNATIONAL CO-OPERATION – with the greater movement of labour between Northern Ireland and other countries, especially the Republic of Ireland, I called for much higher standards of vetting in other countries too.

I am glad to say that I got a very positive response from the Secretary of State to my recommendations and those of Ruth Lavery. The Government immediately said that 80% of the recommendations were either already in train or they were committed to implementing them. In about a month’s time I will receive the detailed response to the recommendations.

But in relation to churches, I hope that a report like mine will only be a case of pointing to the minimum standards that should be adopted. In this area of child protection the churches should treat legislation and guidance merely as the floor from which they will move forward, not as the ceiling on the maximum action they intend to take.

You see, legislation and guidance is a protective measure. It will never produce a good attitude towards children. It will never foster love and affection. It cannot produce caring initiatives that reach out to the abused and neglected.

This is where I now think the real challenge for the church lies. The church has survived the scandals of abuse – chastened, shocked and I hope reformed. In some parts of the church there is still substantial unfinished business. There are still inquiries and court cases pending, and indeed sadly such events may always be with us.

But the church does need to move from being defensive about child protection to going on the offensive to reach out to children who need it most.

There is a good base from which to work, whatever picture the media may try and convey. For example, I have seen figures of between 50% and 75% of all youth work done with children and young people in Northern Ireland is provided by the churches. That is a mammoth proportion. The biggest annual festival for young people in Northern Ireland is run by the Church of Ireland – Summer Madness – although young people and helpers from many other denominations participate.

And historically, there is such a heritage of Christian child care to build on. I mentioned earlier Dr Barnardo. Although nowadays some of his methods and attitudes would be questioned, at heart he reached out to orphan children in Victorian England and offered them a much better life, indeed in some cases rescued them from certain death. George Mueller ran his homes for children as an act of faith, and God never failed to provide for the children. The Earl of Shaftesbury revolutionized the way that children were treated in the mines and factories and founded numerous charities to help them. He was motivated entirely by his Christian faith.

Where are the people who will follow in Barnardo, Mueller and Shaftesbury’s footsteps? Where are the Christians who sharing their motivations will take up unpopular causes influencing children today? Who will fight for the rights of traveller children or those seeking asylum? Who will reach out to young people struggling with mental health problems? Who will stand against the paramilitaries who still have such influence on young people in certain areas? Who will provide for women subjected to domestic violence and their children? Who will get alongside children whose parents are going through divorce and separation – an issue that still attracts such stigma in our churches?

These are merely a selection of issues that show how much we need to develop a broader view of child protection. At the very minimum anyone from our churches working on such issues needs to be properly vetted, and needs to work within a well developed child protection policy. That we must do.

But the real challenge is to go beyond the legislation, policies and guidance and begin to address the clarion call of Jesus to “love our neighbours”. And remember that almost 25% of those neighbours in Northern Ireland are under the age of 18!

Thank you.