Building a culture of safety

Since the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, the Uniting Church WA has responded to more than 100 claims of historical child sexual abuse within our former institutions, and colleges. For some this might be a hard thing to comprehend, but it is important to acknowledge if the church is to live out its faith of caring for the vulnerable and working towards justice.

This September marks Child Safe Week, Sunday 5 to Saturday 11.

The Uniting Church WA acknowledges its failings to the community in terms of keeping children safe and, guided by the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, is working towards a future where all vulnerable people are safe. In WA, this work is the responsibility of the Culture of Safety Team which resources the church by developing current Safe Church policies, training and resources, and responding to survivors of abuse.

While the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse gave its final report, with recommendations, in 2017, the Uniting Church WA has been working in the Safe Church space since Rev John Atkinson was resourcing the Called to Care program back in the 1990s. The current program has continued to build on these important principals.

“Our aim is to make amends for past abuse and to prevent further harm now and into the future,” said Cindy Gorton, Executive Officer: Culture of Safety at the Uniting Church WA. “To do this we are now responsible for professional and ethical standards training for our ministers and lay leaders; and we are participating in the National Redress Scheme which offers survivors of past abuse a redress payment, counselling and a direct personal apology for each one who requests it.

“We are looking at safeguarding and protecting all vulnerable people in the church,” Cindy said.

The Uniting Church’s National Safe Church Unit was established as a response to the Royal Commission, and from a need for consistency across the Uniting Church in Australia. John Cox, Director of the Uniting Church in Australia’s National Safe Church Unit, said being a safe church is the responsibility of all Uniting Church members.

“One of the things we determined as a church was to say, if we’re going to be a safe church, if we are going to commit to this development, then we’ve got to do it consistently across the whole of the church,” he said.

“The National Safe Church unit sits between the Assembly and the Synods, and our responsibility is to do this work on behalf of the church.

“We have responsibility to develop national policy, to develop national education and training programs which people use consistently, and to develop cultural messages about how we are a safe church and what that looks and feels like.

“Our responsibility is to both look at the very particular recommendations of the Royal Commission and implement those, but beyond that, to identify, articulate and lead those elements of what it means to be a child-safe organisation.”

While safety has been a concern for the church for decades, the Royal Commission has taught the Uniting Church a number of hard lessons. One of these being that we simply cannot trust people purely because they are part of the church. Screening and other measures must be enacted when people are working with children and young people.

“There are many, many [lesson’s learnt],” John said.

He said that the church has learnt that the long held belief of ‘it can’t happen here’, is false.

“It absolutely can happen here, and we are in some ways more prone to attacks because of the level of trust that exists in a congregational church setting,” John said. “We’ve become more sharply aware of grooming and what’s required of us to interrupt grooming behaviours.

“We’ve become more sharply aware of the extent to which trauma impacts lives lifelong. And that we need to roll out a greater level of understanding of what it means to engage each other in trauma informed ways so that we’re not retraumatising people in the way that we engage with each other.

“We’ve learnt about corporate responsibility. Child safety is not just the responsibility of people who lead children’s groups, or minsters, church councils or people who run programs. Child safety is everyone’s responsibility – and children are safer when we take responsibility together.

“We learnt that there should be no roles in the church that are exempt from the checks and balances applied to everyone.

“We learnt that the lack of consistency across organisations was a significant risk factor, as gaps in processes facilitated access by people who might seek to harm children.“

And, whilst this isn’t a learning from the Commission, one of the learnings that we’re having as we continue, is that if we’re working to be a safe church for children and young people, then what we’re actually doing is working towards being a safe church for all people.

“Foundationally, if we take hold of that cultural imperative that it’s everyone’s responsibility, if we wash away some of those long held beliefs that it couldn’t happen here, if we work consistently to ensure a commitment to train our people and build awareness and quality processes around reporting abuse, then those things actually translate beyond just keeping young people safe. We’re creating structures where all of us are safe because of the culture that we’re building.”

During the Royal Commission, the Uniting Church committed to working with the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

“The Uniting Church’s commitment was to provide everything to the Royal Commission that the Royal Commission wanted from the church; to learn everything we could from the Royal Commission and then do everything in our power to implement the recommendations,”said John.

“One of the things the church determined out of the Royal Commission was, being a safe church isn’t just about policy or process. It’s about understanding who we are and how we all are part of being a safe church.

“It’s a corporate responsibility, not a set of individual responsibilities.”

Responding to the Final Report from the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, the Uniting Church in Australia released a statement calling on members to do their part to make the church, agencies and schools the safest they can be for children and all people in its care.

And in a Pastoral Statement issued to coincide with the end of the Royal Commission, Stuart McMillan, then President of the Uniting Church in Australia said the church would reflect on recommendations and implement measures to deliver the best quality of care, service and support for children.

“I would again like to sincerely apologise to all children in our care who suffered sexual abuse in our church, whether it happened after our foundation in 1977 or before that, in our predecessor churches,” he wrote.

“We are, and I am, deeply sorry that we did not protect and care in accordance with our Christian values for those children. I again want to acknowledge the impact that it’s had in the lives of those young people and their families, and to say that I am truly sorry.

“We must never forget the courage of survivors who’ve come forward to tell their stories in public and in private. The Uniting Church will continue to work constructively with Government and other stakeholders for a truly national redress scheme, as the most equitable way to support survivors wherever they might be.

“Our Church’s commitment is that we will seek to make amends and to strive to ensure others will not suffer as they have. Our prayers and a determined focus will be required if we are to build a robust culture of child safety.”

The Uniting Church in Australia has since made further statements reiterating this response. In response to the Royal Commission, the Uniting Church WA has made a number of measures to prevent abuse within the organisation.

Volunteers and staff are screened prior to commencing their roles, but there are also practices put in place in an ongoing basis, such as making sure that there are two or more people in a room with children, and that workers are educated on grooming processes and inappropriate behaviours – and what to do and who to report to if they witness these behaivours.

Members of the organisation are also encouraged to participate in Safe Church Training, which is an ecumenical program developed specifically for churches by the National Council of Churches Australia, and delivered by the Uniting Church WA Culture of Safety team. This training is compulsory for Uniting Church WA ministers and lay leaders, but open to all members of the church.

Cindy said the training incorporates Biblical principles, exploring passages which encourage us to protect marginalised and disadvantaged people in our society – asking ‘what does God expect of us?’ and ‘how would Jesus respond?’

The training also looks at power balances, the difference between crossing versus violating boundaries, duty of care, identifying abuse, and how to report and handle disclosures and misconduct.

One practical suggestion from the training is for churches to have a policy that new members of the congregation don’t take on leadership roles for a set period of time – possibly six to twelve months. This gives people an opportunity to get to know the person and their motives, and time to work through proper screening processes.

“It is so important to adequately screen our workers and leaders. Some of the lessons from the Royal Commission are that leaders were sometimes not suitable and/or were intentionally causing harm. So having these processes in place allows us to screen out potentially risky leaders, and that’s emphasised throughout the training,” said Cindy.

“Over time, a few churches have had new people approach them to work in particular areas, like children’s ministry, and have immediately put in practice the minimum six to twelve months attendance policy while undertaking the screening. In some incidences, it was found that a person wasn’t suitable to work in the area that they had asked to work in,” Cindy said.

“To have some of those things in place, it’s effective – it works. “If it’s the same policy for everyone that comes into the church, it takes the pressure off. And a new person coming into the church really needs to know what that church is about before they can be expected to take on a role, so it protects both sides really.

“And we talk about people being aware and actually saying things if they notice any behaviour that’s not appropriate within their church – people being aware of what they can do to disrupt it or call it out.

“As you can see the Safe Church Training covers many key principles including the foundations underpinning a safe church; understanding and responding to the various types of abuse in adults and children; identifying grooming behaviours and other indicators of abuse; how to ensure safe leaders and knowing how to keep our environment physically, emotionally and spiritually safe for all people. It’s broad and very practical,” said Cindy.

“We also have a lot of helpful resources to assist congregations in implementing the WA Safe Church Policy and the National Child Safe Policy Framework.

“Congregations can access all of these resources by contacting the Culture of Safety team and discussing what you require.”

Cindy said it’s also important for churches to have a clear, visible message in their church – using posters on the walls or flyers available – letting newcomers know the policies and processes around being a safe church. Not only does it keep people informed and reminded about the work, but it shows new visitors or members to the church that they are not a soft target for abuse.

“If there’s public statements or posters about a commitment to being a safe church and child safety visible, with information and photos of safe church contact people, then if anyone comes in with the idea that we’re a soft and easy target, they will get a clear message that this place is too risky for any inappropriate or harmful behaviour,” Cindy said.

Being a safe church is more than any one action or policy though – as the name of Cindy’s team suggests – it’s about a culture of safety.

“It’s several layers or levels of safe church actions and practices,” Cindy said. “And it starts with a commitment to do all that is required to be a safe church for all people.”

To get involved with Safe Church Training, or find out more about the work of the Uniting Church WA Culture of Safety Team, get in touch with Cindy Gorton at the Uniting Church Centre on 9260 9800 or email cindy.gorton@wa.uca.org.au

Learn more and access resources at:

Uniting Church WA Culture of Safety

Uniting Church in Australia National Safe Church Unit

Read the Final Report from the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse

If this article raises distress for you, contact the Blue Knot Foundation on 1300 657 380 to speak to a counselor about childhood trauma or for support and applications around national redress.

You can also call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Beyond Blue on 1300 224 636.

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