LAST month, Numurkah Uniting Church became the first rural church in Victoria to receive its formal Safe Church Recognition Certificate, which included adoption of the Keeping Children Safe Policy. It’s a church with no children attending regularly, so why did they think implementing a policy focusing on the safety of children was important to embed in their culture?
Sandra Beer, secretary of the Numurkah UC council is adamant. “As church people we need to be aware of each other, be open and welcoming and never in any way hurt others. That’s what this is about. We may not have children attending but we see child safety as an all-of-church responsibility.”
The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse commenced three years ago to uncover how systems failed to protect children. In that time the Commission has received over 7000 allegations relating to faith based institutions and more than 5000 people have shared their stories in the private hearings. The stories, including those involving church abuse, shocked many. One of the key roles of the Commission is to make recommendations on how to improve laws, policies and practices so children never again feel unsafe.
Adrian Pyle recently commenced as chair of the Victorian and Tasmanian Synod’s Royal Commission Task Group. Mr Pyle believes that, rather than feeling overwhelmed by the policies, the church has the opportunity to reflect the culture and values that stem from gospel traditions and to provide strong community leadership.
“It is right that we have been jolted out of our normal processes as congregations. The safety of children is not an optional extra for us,” he said. “It goes to the heart of who we are supposed to be; it’s about inclusion, a sense of safety and that a child’s voice is welcomed and listened to. Even when you say a church may never see a child, as a congregation in a community we should be demonstrating leadership that keeps children free from sexual abuse.”
When Sandra Beer read the information required to formalise Numurkah’s safe church recognition she admits she felt that it looked complicated.
“‘Good grief’ I thought when I first looked at it! But really it isn’t that hard to do,” Mrs Beer said.
“OK, you have to think it through but then I went through it step by step and presented it to church council step-by-step and we accomplished it.
“We talked to the congregation and we included information in our newsletters. We intend for it to become part of our culture now.”
Over the coming months congregations will receive increased support with the appointment of a Safe Child Project Officer for each presbytery. Their roles will be to resource and support the presbyteries to implement the Keeping Children Safe Policy and assist congregations to recruit a Safe Church Contact person.
Josh Woollett, the synod’s safe church educator, sees the new roles as vital support, particularly as all Victorian religious bodies need to have met new child safe standards by January 2017.
“The laws across the states vary but our belief is that as moral and ethical people of the church, we have a responsibility to demonstrate best practice,” Mr Woollett said.
“We have standardised our policies throughout the synod to comply with regulations across Victoria, Tasmania and NSW. At the end of the day, whether you’re in a metropolitan or rural congregation, in whatever state, we want to create a safe and welcoming space for children.
“And of course, these standards are required across every organisational section of the church – camps, schools, agencies, synod, and so on.”
The new child safe standards comprise seven obligations covering effective leadership, implementation of a child safe policy, a code of conduct, screening and training of staff and volunteers, processes to report abuse, strategies to identify risks of abuse and strategies to empower the voice of children.
“If you need help with resources to meet these standards please get in touch,” Mr Woollett said. “For example, if you’re not sure how to record your Working with Children checks or implement a policy, we can provide training or resources. We are happy to train mid-week, evenings or weekends because this is so important. We tailor a time to suit each congregation’s requirements.”
The new standards place focus on the needs of Aboriginal children, children from culturally diverse backgrounds and children with a disability. It is an emphasis that the new chair Mr Pyle applauds.
“The Uniting Church prides itself on its diversity and its understanding. This is more than ticking the boxes,” Mr Pyle said.
“Different cultures have different ways of speaking about matters of abuse and it’s important we sit and talk together. We want to be mindful of the way we achieve these standards based on cultural diversity and children who have special needs. It is not a one-size-fits-all but, of course, keeping all children safe is the one goal we all embrace.”
With its policies now in place, Numurkah Uniting Church is in the best position possible if children do visit.
“We are serious about this becoming part of our culture,” Mrs Beer said. “For example, we are running a workshop soon around the care of people with dementia, but we are going to incorporate a reminder about the Keeping Children Safe Policy. My advice to any church is just to get on and do it. We are all in this together.”
For information about training, policies and the January 2017 Victorian Government deadline please contact Josh Woollett: