Focus on prevention

The first National Safeguarding Panel after the summer was the last meeting for Graham Tilby, the National Safeguarding Advisor, who is leaving for a new post in local government, and the first for Melissa Caslake in her new job as Director of Safeguarding. Sir Roger Singleton, who has been Interim Director of Safeguarding, will be re-joining the Panel from our next meeting.

The main topic for the meeting was prevention. Continuing with our “select committee” approach we invited Graham Tilby, and Justin Humphreys, Chief Executive Officer of the organisation Thirtyone:eight, to give evidence and answer questions from the panel. Thirtyone:eight is a Christian charity of independent safeguarding specialists who work with many churches, faith organisations and community groups.

The Panel were keen to hear from both the National Safeguarding Team and from someone outside of the Church of England their views and experiences. Ahead of the questioning the panel considered key areas for discussion. These included:

  • What is the nature of the risk in the church?
  • The church has a unique role in society, can it assume a leadership role with a strong voice concerning the importance in safeguarding in society?
  • How does it respond to abuse within families?
  • What should it do about churches where effectively the congregation has been groomed?
  • How can reporting of suspicious behaviour be encouraged?

Graham Tilby recognised that the Church has not specifically had a preventative strategy or framework. That said, much of the work to put policies, procedures and resources in place, over the last few years, will have contributed to prevention. This includes awareness raising, training and having better responses to concerns being raised. Justin Humphreys felt that few people and organisations have grasped the comprehensive nature of safeguarding work and the importance of having prevention running through it. Understanding what makes places less safe, and what helps to produce safer places, is essential. It was noted that the government has committed itself to develop a national child abuse prevention policy.

The need for more work with children was identified as one area that needs further development. Justin described some of the work done by Thirtyone:eight and the centrality of work with children in making safer places. An important element is empowering them to be able to speak about their views, experiences and feelings.

The Panel raised questions as to whether safeguarding can be made simpler, including using simple messages. Examples were given of work being done in other organisations on other issues such as sexual harassment. Having posters with information on how to get help can give a clear message that a particular organisation takes the matter seriously.

There was a question as to why more clergy don’t speak about safeguarding from the pulpit. All clergy are required to undertake training, shouldn’t this include encouraging them to do so? It was also suggested that churches could reinforce what children are taught in schools? Given the number of Church of England schools why isn’t there a closer link with the education system? The new legal requirement for personal, social, health and economic (PHSE) education creates an opportunity for the church to lead the way.

It was recognised that reporting concerns at the earliest opportunity can be particularly helpful in preventing the development of abusive situations and / or further abuse. People need to feel confident that they can raise concerns no matter who it may be about. It was noted that such issues can be difficult to raise because of the subject matter, particularly in more conservative churches where some issues are taboo and the issues of power and hierarchy are more evident than in the main churches.

There was discussion as most abuse happens in families the Church must not just focus on the sexual abuse by clergy. Churches also have a relatively high number of offenders who have to be managed. It is important that prevention covers adults and not just children. In a church context the term “vulnerable adult” is not helpful as we can all be vulnerable at particular times. We also have to recognise that there can be strong links between vulnerability and faith. Churches invite people to bring their vulnerabilities and many look to churches at times of personal stress.

A particular concern was that prevention is not just about individuals. There have been recent high-profile cases where church congregations have been groomed – effectively under the spell of an offender. This can also happen to families of victims. More work needs to be done on how these situations can be identified sooner.

The Panel agreed a number of recommendations arising out of the discussion for the Church to consider and will continue to monitor work in this area. The session concluded by recognising that whistleblowing is not well developed in the church. This will be further considered at the next Panel along with the complaints processes.