Churches need to take their child protection policies seriously

Hardly a day seems to go by without hearing of yet another disturbing story of child abuse. The Jimmy Savile revelations have unleashed a flood of allegations against celebrities of all descriptions, both dead and still living. And now, following the latest distressing claims on ‘Newsnight’, Home Secretary Theresa May has announced a new police inquiry into allegations of child abuse in North Wales dating back to the 1970s and 80s.

One victim, Steve Mesham has suggested that a 2000 inquiry failed to fully examine all the claims, including one that suggested that a senior Conservative figure from the Thatcher era was intimately involved in all that happened. The crime agency head, Keith Bristow, will look at how the historic claims were handled, and at fresh allegations. He will report by April 2013, Mrs May has told MPs.

It is all so depressing and courts the danger of creating a ‘McCarthyite’ atmosphere in which we look for paedophiles under every bed - we need to beware of becoming hysterical. Having said that though, church leaders in particular need to be vigilant and informed because churches are easy targets for those who are determined to groom their way into their unsuspecting victims’ lives.

Anyone wanting to enter the mind of a paedophile could do no better than view the film ‘The Woodsman’. It is a moving and helpful portrayal of a man who is struggling with his demons as he tries to make a new life for himself following his imprisonment for ‘child molestation’. Unfortunately though, it reinforces the stereotyped image of the paedophile as a male predator who stalks and takes advantage of vulnerable children. Sadly the truth is more complicated.

The major concern, it seems, is not ‘stranger danger’ because the majority of abuse happens in the child's own home or in that of the offender. Figures issued by NSPCC (2009) underline this conclusion. Its research has shown that of those most likely to offend, just 5% are strangers whereas Childline research (2009) shows that of those who engage in child sexual abuse, 58% belong to the victim’s family, 32% are known but not of the family, and a mere 10% were unknown to their victims. Many find it even harder to come to terms with the fact that a significant (and possibly growing) amount of sexual abuse is attributable to females.

All of which suggests that churches need to take their child protection policies seriously (assuming they have them). As one serving police officer has said we need to be vigilant while maintaining a sense of proportion. His unit operates on the assumption that they must “think the unthinkable and assume nothing” whilst trying to “keep things in perspective".

"Not every male or female out there is a sex offender," the officer said. "They are a very small minority but you need to have an awareness about you, for at the end of the day we all have a responsibility to protect children.”

This creates huge challenges for church leaders in particular. They need to be vigilant because have to welcome convicted paedophiles into their congregations. This is one of the most demanding tasks I face as a pastor. I cannot prevent anyone attending public worship, and there are times when I might be unable to disclose the identity of a convicted sex offender. All I can do is ensure that there is an action plan in place which is monitored and evaluated on a regular basis.

This is no simple task. I am committed to the gospel of grace (I believe God can forgive and change anyone) but I am also aware of the need to protect those who want to be part of our church community. There are times then, when church leaders can feel as if they are in a “Catch 22” situation and frustrated because it seems that a criminal’s right to anonymity can outweigh a child’s right to protection.

The Home Secretary has told MPs that Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary is looking at all forces that have received allegations in relation to Saville to see if they were investigated properly and what lessons can be learned.

This might be an appropriate moment for every church to look at its child protection procedures again too, and to ask some fundamental questions such as” Are the proper checks in place?” “Have we received adequate training?” and “Do we have a good relationship with our local police protection team?”

This is not hysteria. This is pure common sense.

Above all though, we need to be constantly praying for God’s protection as well as for the gift of heavenly wisdom as we seek to be the church in a dark and often very disturbing world.

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