Within our social context there has been significant change over a relatively short space of time. Many of these changes have implications for safeguarding and therefore for us as churches as we consider our approach.
The use of technology, particularly internet access, mobile technology, social media and advances in virtual reality, augmented reality and artificial intelligence technology, has opened up whole new areas of risk and opportunity for perpetrators of abuse. There are of course many benefits to the use of technology, but these technological advances have resulted in changes to patterns of abuse and increased risk. Whether this involves online grooming, sexting, radicalisation or creates space for abusers to identify others who have similar inclinations to collaborate in abusive behaviour etc., technology has played a significant part in the shifting patterns. Traditionally, abuse was most commonly perpetrated by someone who knew and had access to the child. Technology has allowed relationships to be formed and abuse to be perpetrated where there is no “real world” contact between the perpetrator and the victim.
Our understanding of historic abuse and the abuse of a position of trust has grown significantly. This has presented many challenges, both practically and legally and it is important that the learning from past failures continues to inform and shape our safeguarding practice. Often this has involved the abuse of a position of trust, whether involving celebrities, teachers or teaching assistants, social workers, church leaders, volunteers, youth leaders, football clubs, the Army Cadets etc. This has resulted in an increased awareness of safer recruitment practices, not only for employed staff but also for volunteers.
The increased awareness of Child Sexual Exploitation (CSE) has been a shocking and important development that has underlined the importance of engaging with workers whose roles have not typically been seen as relevant to safeguarding (for example hotel workers, taxi drivers, shop workers, bar owners and others involved in the night time economy) so that they too can play their part in raising concerns and protecting children. Although mandatory reporting has not been introduced following a consultation in 2015, there is now far greater expectation on all members of society to play their part in protecting children. Along with this shift has come a greater expectation on churches and other faith and voluntary sector organisations. Despite the fact that these shifts have not resulted in changes to legislation, there is, nonetheless, a significant shift in expectations.
There are now clear expectations with regard to whistle blowing (or responsible reporting) which have also been highlighted by historic failures. There is a clearer understanding that abusers have used a culture of secrecy, coercion, manipulative control and fear to facilitate their continuing abuse. This has resulted in a far greater expectation and requirement of openness and transparency. Many of these issues are still being worked through, but it will not be a surprise to see significant shifts in this aspect of safeguarding over the coming years. This could present significant challenges for churches.
There are many other aspects that we could explore, however for the sake of time and space we will simply refer to one more that is of importance for churches. Within society, we have seen a noticeable shift to a more secularised outlook and a move away from what have traditionally been regarded as broadly “Christian values”. The shifts within society require us to think carefully about how we engage with the culture and provide many opportunities for meaningful gospel conversation, however we must (without wishing to engage in unjustified scaremongering) recognise that there is now a far greater suspicion of churches and other faith groups than has historically been the case. It is our view that our response to this should not be to retreat into a defensive posture, but rather to be open and transparent. We should have nothing to hide or fear and it is our firm conviction that we should, as churches, be seen to be above reproach and to allow our good works to speak for themselves. This requires a genuine openness and cooperation with those agencies that have the legal duty to work to keep children safe. Not only is this important for the well-being of children, young people and adults at risk of abuse, it is also important for us as churches if we are to overcome the suspicion that can prevail. We would encourage churches to carefully work through the biblical principles and to adopt an open and transparent position. We firmly believe that such an approach will demonstrate clearly that rather than being people and organisations to be feared, churches are in fact leading the way in valuing, protecting and promoting the well-being of the most vulnerable members of our society.