Child Protection in Religious Organisations and Settings hearings
Thank you Chair and Panel.
It is clear from the evidence that has been given throughout these hearings, that a huge amount of good work is taking place to safeguard children across many religious and faith-based settings. Examples of this have already been provided in relation to the Baptist Union, Methodist Church and United Reformed Church among others. This is a huge encouragement given the vast amount of contact that these settings have with children and the significant influence this brings into their lives and the lives of their families. There is no room for complacency, and acknowledging some significant shortcomings, the Christian community in this country has made more significant strides forward in this regard than many groups and settings within other faiths. It seems right that this should be acknowledged.
However, it is also sadly clear that in some areas examples of good practice are not so evident - in fact, they have become hard to find! Evidence shows us that children have been seriously put at risk by the willful neglect of some, the naivety of others and the malevolent intent of a smaller number to exploit and abuse children in religious and faith settings. It is unacceptable that there should be any denial, avoidance or obfuscation of this truth. To do so makes clear that children lack the priority and value that they deserve in our society.
It may seem obvious to state that one of the reasons for this variation in the safeguarding of children across a wide variety of settings is a lack of consistent standards and accountability. In too many cases, we have heard of children and young people being let down by an absence of arrangements that adequately safeguard their welfare. This can only be rectified by concerted and clear efforts towards root and branch reform. These efforts must include a much greater awareness and inclusion of activities provided for children within these contexts through legislation, statutory guidance, support and intervention. It is no longer acceptable to continue with the disjointed approach that exists across government departments and public bodies which has perpetuated a lack of collaborative effort and accountability.
The expectations set in this regard must then be shown to affect practice at grass roots level. Greater confidence must be found in these activities and a removal of any disparity between the safeguarding of children in one setting and another. In some cases, this will require a greater level of intervention from specialists outside of organisations to assist improvement and to bring sanctions where this is found to be necessary. This requires the full support of the government through law. We have heard ample evidence throughout these hearings to support such reform.
In calling specifically for changes to law and its supporting provisions, we strongly support the need for further independent oversight and scrutiny of safeguarding arrangements in a wider range of settings. To be clear, this is not the registration and regulation of religious and faith groups per se. It is a broader, more encompassing regime in which faith settings may be included. One in which such specified activities taking place within religious and faith groups are no longer seen to be outside of the arrangements expected of other settings providing the same type of activities. Calls that such measures would restrict religious freedoms are erroneous and only serve to further erode the rights of children to freedom from exploitation, violence and abuse and the safeguards that they should rightly expect in all settings with which they become involved. If any group or setting is to undertake care, training or supervision of children, it should do so to the best of its ability and accept both the standards and scrutiny that might be applied to such an important aspect of children’s lives. The development of safer cultures underpinning this cannot be overstated.
We would like to see clear and strong recommendations from this Inquiry relating to the extent of change needed in areas such as ‘Positions of Trust’, regulated activity, mandatory reporting, external and independent registration and scrutiny via a new body, redress for victims and survivors, robust whistle-blowing and complaints management mechanisms, consistent standards-based frameworks and clearer responsibility and accountability of government departments and agencies for safeguarding in relevant settings. You may be aware that the recent inter-faith work we have led with the APPG on Safeguarding in Faith Settings has begun to see some movement with the Ministry of Justice in relation to revising the Sexual Offences Act 2003. This points clearly to the need to broaden the application of 'positions of trust' to a wider range of roles and settings, including faith-based settings. We would especially urge you to continue in your efforts to state the need for this in your recommendations to government.
In my role as Chair of the Christian Forum for Safeguarding and advisor to the APPG, I am confident that there is a commitment to pursuing high standards of safeguarding from among the professionals that are deployed in religious and faith groups for this purpose. However, this is not always matched by religious leaders and influencers more widely who will often perpetuate the disconnect between their communities and statutory agencies. Many good efforts are destroyed both through this, and the protection of the institution or God's name that all too often becomes the driving force when abuse takes place. We are past the time when this can be allowed to continue. As has been said; “child abuse is child abuse in any context or culture”. I would add religion or faith specifically to this and ask for your courage and determination to fight any alternative suggestion.
I would finally like to restate the point that I made in my opening statement to these hearings. Given the sheer scale of engagement between faith settings and children in this country being second only a child's statutory education, it remains a serious concern that this is not met with a proportionate focus upon such settings and their activities through statutory frameworks and resources. Her Majesty's Government needs to pay serious attention to how this can be rectified for the sake of all children and their welfare.
I thank the Chair and Panel for their leadership through this extremely complex investigation and urge you to press on and dig deep as you seek to arrive at recommendations that will bring real and lasting change where this is so needed. Thirtyone:eight remain committed to any support we can offer to the identification and implementation of such changes in the months and years ahead.