Safeguarding is not a tickbox exercise – it’s a justice issue

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The nature and scale of abuse within and beyond the Church is deeply disturbing.An “epidemic that leaves tens of thousands of victims in its poisonous wake” is how Professor Alexis Jay, Chair of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA), described child sexual abuse in the UK, following a seven-year-long inquiry investigating a range of institutions including the Catholic Church and Church of England. 

The report estimates that of the 13 million children in the UK “Babies, toddlers and children are potentially at risk, with current estimates indicating that 1 in 6 girls and 1 in 20 boys experience child sexual abuse before the age of 16.” 

The problem isn’t going away – it’s rising at a startling rate with the online world opening the door to grooming and sexual exploitation of children in their own homes. The Inquiry’s final report says that the internet is “magnifying” child sexual abuse. The National Crime Agency (NCA) estimates that there are likely to be 550,000 to 850,000 people in the UK who pose varying degrees of sexual risk to children. 

Both the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) and the Church of England’s Second Past Cases Review (PCR2) report uncovered hundreds of cases of church-based abuse. Behind each case is a victim and survivor of abuse who has bravely come forward to share their experience of betrayal, abuse of trust, and suffering. Their lives have been pierced with immense pain.

Senior leaders in the Church of England have taken the findings of PCR2 as a reminder of this brokenness, expressing ‘profound shame’ and publicly apologising for institutional safeguarding failings. Following the report’s publication, the archbishops of Canterbury and York issued a joint statement saying: “We sincerely apologise for our failures and want to reach out to those who are still suffering from the pain and misery they endured.” 

A familiar theme in both the PCR2 and IISA reports was a “culture of deference” to senior leadership. The reports also exposed unhealthy cultures and behaviours that valued reputation over people. IICSA’s final report states, “the Church’s neglect of the physical, emotional and spiritual well-being of children and young people in favour of protecting its reputation was in conflict with its mission of love and care for the innocent and vulnerable.”  

IICSA’s final report made 20 recommendations, including the introduction of mandatory reporting for those in regulated activity, proper redress, and new child protection authorities for England and Wales. The recommendations have been welcomed by some and criticised by others for not going far enough in addressing the problems the Truth Project, which was set up as part of IICSA’s investigations, laid bare.  

The Government has six months to respond, let alone begin implementing changes. They’ll need to invest time, more money and genuine commitment if IICSA’s recommendations are to translate into policy change and must continue to put victims and survivors of abuse first. How will survivors feel if their voices, which informed IICSA’s recommendations, get lost in austerity measures, political noise, and budget cuts?  

Although church has been a place of refuge and peace, it has also been a place of pain for too many people. Now, the Church must be part of the solution in shaping a better, safer future. Speaking up for justice is integral to the Christian faith. Far from safeguarding being a tickbox exercise or side project for the concerned few, it must be an essential element of a healthier culture including everyone in our churches. The Church must engage and lead the way rather than play catchup with the latest legislation.

The good news is that thousands of Christians in churches across the UK are taking this responsibility seriously, joining with Thirtyone:eight’s Safeguarding Sunday campaign. The national campaign coincides with the start of National Safeguarding Adults Week (21-27 November) and will help churches across all denominations to learn from past safeguarding failings and ensure they are safe for everyone.

Thirtyone:eight is equipping churches to explore what safer places look like, to tell members how they can speak out if they are worried, and to show their communities what they are doing to take safeguarding seriously.

Church workers can download a free resource pack to help them plan the event, including a range of activities for children to help them understand that their voice matters. ‘Roarry’ the lion will bring these activities to life, with children being encouraged to ‘raise their roar’ if they feel unsafe of are worried about someone.