Child safe priority

PENNY MULVEY

All churches, sporting clubs, schools, scout groups and any other institution or community group that engages with children are facing legal responsibilities to ensure the safety of children.

Employees and volunteers associated with these groups must put the welfare of the child front and centre. That means understanding issues such as grooming; bullying behaviours; children who are potentially at risk or who could be exhibiting behaviours of abuse.

It means policies, training, codes of conduct, special awareness of particularly vulnerable groups, paperwork, good processes and clarity about what is required.

If this sounds onerous, then it is worth reflecting back on some of the initial findings of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, which held its final public hearing into the nature, cause and impact of child sexual abuse at the end of March.

As religious non-profit organisations, churches are fundamentally about people. If people do not enter the doors of the church, it will cease to exist. Those people attend church for a number of reasons, but primarily for the sense of community and/or to worship God.

At the conclusion of its public and private hearings, the Royal Commission announced that 60 per cent of survivors who told their stories of sexual abuse as children in private sessions had been abused by institutions managed by religious organisations.

The Moderator of the VicTas Synod, Rev Sharon Hollis, said the statistics reinforce the importance of the Uniting Church taking very seriously the expectations imposed by the government, assembly and the synod for rigorous child safe measures.

“The community has been betrayed by Christian institutions, and that includes the Uniting Church. While the Commission has more reports of abuse from other denominations, that does let the Uniting Church off the hook,” Ms Hollis said.

“We have failed children within our own institutions, both historically and now. And all of us – Catholic, Anglican, Salvation Army, Pentecostal, Baptist, Uniting –need to work hard to restore the broken trust of the community.

“The community had every right to expect more of religious institutions. We certainly do not want our neighbours to now expect less of us because of our betrayal of trust.”

Case Study 57, the Royal Commission’s last public hearing before it hands down its final report at the end of the year, sought answers to some of the big questions regarding child sexual abuse. What factors contribute to the risk of child sexual abuse in institutional contexts? How has community understanding of abuse changed over time? What are the challenges to identification and prevention of abuse? What are the long-term impacts of child sexual abuse to survivors, their families, friends and the wider community?

The Commission held 11 panel sessions throughout the course of this hearing, comprising expert witnesses and survivors.

Karyn Walsh, CEO of Micah Projects, which offers a specialised service for people who have experienced abuse in institutions, particularly those in out-of-home care, was one such expert witness.

Ms Walsh told the Commission the impact on survivors of abuse within institutional contexts is lifelong, and made more complex as they enter into systems they need at different phases of their lives.

“The most common thing is that people feel that our systems reinforce they’re not being capable, not being competent, not being courageous, not being able to take on those functions of life as life changes.”

The moderator believes the Royal Commission has helped people begin to understand the lifelong damage inflicted on people as a result of childhood abuse.

The Uniting Church Safe Church training incorporates both care of children and vulnerable adults.

Ms Hollis said congregations and church institutions must provide a safe inclusive environment for all people – children, and adults, and particularly the vulnerable.

“I urge each congregation to take seriously the Keeping Children Safe policy and procedures. Do the training. Tell your community that your church is a safe place where children and vulnerable adults will always be welcome,” she said.

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