United Reformed Church issues 'heartfelt' apology to abuse survivors

(Photo: URC)

The United Reformed Church has made a 'heartfelt' apology to survivors of abuse after a wide-ranging review identified institutional failures.

The review was initiated in 2015 to examine whether the URC had appropriately addressed any cases of historical abuse.

It spanned more than two years, during which time thousands of church files going back to the time of the URC's founding in 1972 were scrutinised and an invitation was made to people to come forward with any concerns.

A report into the findings said a total of 54 files were referred for independent review, the majority of which were due to concerns around minister boundaries or inappropriate relationships with members of the congregation.

Two files were of great enough concern that the Church involved external agencies and began a review in line with its ministerial disciplinary process.

The review found evidence in the files of cases of sexual abuse and neglect of children as well as sexual abuse and inappropriate behaviour, domestic violence, financial abuse, and the spiritual abuse of adults.  It also identified a lack of awareness around vulnerability and mental health.

While instances of good practice and effective responses were acknowledged, the report identified flaws in the Church's handling of some cases and its overall safeguarding measures.

This included instances where allegations of abuse had been dismissed out of hand and occasions where the Church had failed to refer them to statutory agencies or take the appropriate follow-up action.

'There is evidence that children tried to share their stories, but these were not acted upon or believed at the time of disclosure,' the report said.

'In at least one case this failure to act upon a disclosure led to further victims of the same perpetrator.

'A number of these cases were non-recent. Nonrecent cases often included lack of understanding about child sexual abuse and inappropriate response.

'In some of these cases ministers were allowed to return to ministry or to resign ahead of investigation.'

Similar failures were identified in the handling of allegations of domestic abuse by a church minister, with the report pointing to a 'lack of robust policy and procedure'.

'In some of the cases the behaviour reported does not appear to be recognised as abuse or to be responded to effectively,' it said.

'In some cases, the response to disclosures appears to be victim blaming or involve minimisation of the abuse.'

The report also found that the 'quality and standardisation of record keeping was generally poor'.

In response to the findings, the URC's executive body, the Mission Council, has issued an apology for the occasions when it failed to protect or listen to children, young people or adults who suffered physical and sexual abuse by ministers and others in positions of trust in the Church.

The Rev John Proctor, General Secretary of the United Reformed Church, said: 'The United Reformed Church offers a heartfelt apology to survivors of abuse and to their families, supporters and communities.

'We acknowledge the past failures of the United Reformed Church and the courage of survivors, some of whom disclosed exceptionally difficult, life-changing, experiences of abuse as part of the past case review. Any harm and abuse inflicted by people we trusted is, and will remain, a deep source of grief and shame to the Church.

'The Church calls on anyone who serves our congregations, synods, institutions and offices to continue taking significant steps to support and protect children, young people and adults from suffering and experiencing any form of abuse.'

The Church has also issued a prayer by the Rev Elaine Colechin, one of the Chaplains to the Moderators of General Assembly.

Listening God,

In many different places and situations

you hear our cries:

you are aware of every pain and hurt,

of every sorrow and shame.

As we acknowledge as a church our failings:

we remember before you

those who had the courage to come forward

to share their experiences which have been harmful

and irreversibly and wrongly life-changing;

We remember before you

all those effected by abuse -

survivors, families, supporters and communities.

We pray now for healing:

for your peace to fill the hearts and minds

of all who live with the grief of abuse;

for your hope that from here on

as your church, we will not be a people

who have eyes, but do not see,

who have ears, but do not hear.

This we pray in the one

who brought your peace and healing

to those most in need, Jesus Christ. Amen