Christians are required by the Lord of the Church to think, speak and act in ways that are God- honouring, biblically obedient and motivated by the Christian values of love, mercy and justice. Unfortunately, perpetrators of crimes often seek out churches because they are welcoming, while Christians can also backslide into serious sin. Accordingly, the Presbyterian Church of Eastern Australia, in applying the principles of God’s Word, has adopted this fuller Safe Church Policy and the associated Code of Conduct for Church Workers.
This policy is a public document highlighting our resolve to maintain a safe church for all who attend our ministries. It is a privilege to serve Christ in working with all those who entrust themselves to our care, particularly children, young people, and the vulnerable as we help them to become and to mature as disciples of Jesus Christ.
However with this privilege comes responsibility. We have a high calling to protect the vulnerable among us, especially the young, and it comes from the Lord Jesus Himself. ‘“Let the little children come to me, and do not forbid them; for of such is the kingdom of God. Assuredly, I say unto you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will by no means enter in.” And He blessed them.’ Mark 10: 14-16. Just as those first century children felt safe and secure with Jesus, so all children should feel safe and secure in our care. Their parents should also feel confident in leaving their children with us, knowing that we shall protect them from harm, whilst sharing the love of Christ in word and deed.
Parents have the primary responsibility to teach and to protect their children and they need to be assured that church leaders will similarly teach good things and protect their children. Church leaders undertake their task with responsibility towards parents and towards God. This policy seeks to fulfil the expectations of parents as well as society in these matters. These are set down in state laws but biblical standards are even higher, particularly when it comes to the care of children (including the unborn), the disabled and the elderly.
2. A Biblical Perspective
Firstly, we recognise that sin not only affects our relationship to God but also our relationships with one another. The Bible identifies sin as the root cause of the abuse and miseries we see in society. The institutional church is not free from such abuse as it is comprised of sinful people at varying levels of Christian commitment, as well as the unregenerate. But the church should be conforming to God’s standards.
In His teaching summarising the Ten Commandments, Jesus said, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’ (Luke 10:27). Jesus pronounced severe punishment upon anyone bringing offence or harm to ‘one of these little ones’ (Luke 17:2). The church therefore should always be ready to help the poor, the young and the vulnerable and to defend them from harm and exploitation. This teaching underlies our Safe Church practices.
In the law given through Moses there were many regulations designed to provide for, and to protect, ‘the stranger, the fatherless and the widow’ (Deuteronomy 14:29, 24:17-22, 26:12-13, 27:19, Psalm 82:3-4, Isaiah 1:17, Jeremiah 7:5-7, 22:3, Zechariah 7:9,10). This law reflected the heart of God himself, and Jesus reflected the same heart of love. He was moved with compassion for the widow of Nain (Luke 7:13), and for little children (Matthew 19:14). James writes, ‘Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep himself unspotted from the world.”(James 1:27).
Biblical standards include those of justice as well as mercy. These standards make provision for false allegations of abuse, either mistaken or deliberate, which may arise in the Church. This is also a serious offence (Deuteronomy 19:16-21) as persons falsely accused in public can suffer loss of reputation and health. Therefore, when an accusation is made it is important that we, as a church, judge with righteous judgment (Proverbs 17:15). ‘The house of God, which is the church of the living God, (is) the pillar and ground of truth’ (1Timothy 3:15).
The Bible requires us (as per the principle in Deuteronomy 22:8) to do our best to foresee possible sources of danger and put in place reasonable safeguards. We also recognise the need in doing this to strike a sensible balance between taking precautions on the one hand and, on the other, not being unreasonably oppressive when it comes to guarding against possible scenarios.
3. Outline of Principles and Practices by the PCEA and its Congregations
As a national organisation, the Presbyterian Church of Eastern Australia is committed to safe ministry by the following principles and practices:
-advocating Biblical principles which value children, young people and the vulnerable. We believe this will result in a safe, friendly and nurturing environment
-complying with Government requirements concerning all vulnerable people
-carefully appointing and monitoring leaders who oversee church ministries
-appointing a ‘Protection Officer’ in each congregation to promote safe church matters and to keep records
-providing initial and regular follow-up training on safe church matters
- reporting to the civil authorities any whose conduct infringe criminal codes
-disciplining (by documented procedures) and counselling any who exploit children, young people, the vulnerable or those who make false accusations
-regularly reviewing the implementation and effectiveness of this policy and updating as required
4.1 Child: A person under the age of 16 years (some laws, under 18 years of age)
4.2 Young Person: A person from 16 to 18 years of age
4.3 Vulnerable Person: A child or someone who by reason of mental incapacity or other disability, age or illnesses may be unable to take care of or protect themselves against harm or exploitation by another person
4.4 Risk of Significant Harm: This is a term for situations where a reasonable person has concerns about the safety, welfare and wellbeing of a child.
4.5 Abuse categories: Each of the following constitutes a reportable offence (Serious) physical abuse occurs when a child or vulnerable person is severely and/or persistently hurt or injured. It can occur in the context of domestic violence.
Sexual abuse occurs when a child or vulnerable person is exposed or subjected to sexual behaviours or threat to commit such behaviours that are exploitative or inappropriate. It usually occurs when a person uses their power and authority to take advantage of another's trust to involve them in sexual activity. Sexual abuse does not necessarily involve physical contact. It includes any act which erodes the sexual boundary between two persons. It may appear to be consensual, but the validity of consent is negated by the power differential.
Emotional (psychological) abuse occurs when a child or vulnerable person is repeatedly treated in ways that damage their ability to feel, express their feelings and develop self- esteem.
Neglect is a legally defined term and occurs when a child or vulnerable person is deprived of the basic physical and emotional necessities of life (such as freedom of movement, food, medical care, clothing, housing, education).
4.6 WWCC: A Working With Children Check is carried out by State Governments, using a national database, to provide a clearance to work with children based on police records.
5. Positions for Ministry
These include the minister and any other paid employees, elders, deacons, carers (including the crèche), Sunday School teachers and helpers, Kid’s Club leaders and helpers, Youth Group leaders and helpers and Scripture Teachers (SRE). Most of these positions are voluntary.
This is an associated document to be followed by all leaders and office-bearers. This Code may be updated from time to time by the Synod.
7. Protection Officer
The session of each congregation will appoint a suitable Protection Officer (or Officers) who will be responsible for the following:
-promoting to the congregation the details and importance of the Safe Church Policy including the Code of Conduct
-being readily available to answer queries and to provide information to the congregation and others (e.g. parents) when required
-keeping the non-confidential records such as the WWCC documentation and training records for each leader (and other records as outlined below)
-checking on the training of all leaders and liaising with the clerk of presbytery concerning training courses
-providing a report to the clerk of session annually, or as required
Within each congregation there will be two sets of Records kept in books or folders
8.1 Non-Confidential records showing the list of approved workers, dates of appointment to positions, Working With Children Check approval numbers and dates and training programmes attended; also to be recorded here are the training course programmes delivered to the congregation with name of the providers, objectives, content, dates of delivery and attendees. Registers are also to be kept showing attendance records of all those participating in youth activities, and these are to be retained for at least 25 years. These records are kept by the congregational Protection Officer.
8.2 Confidential records (as a Record Apart) kept by the session clerk and controlled under the privacy legislation of the Church. These records are to contain the details of any alleged abuse and the steps taken to process the alleged abuse with the resolution of the process and any conditions placed on the parties involved with all relevant supporting documents (or attested copies) to be attached. Copies are to be kept with the session records for 50 years and then archived at the direction of Synod. A duplicate certified copy of the above records should be lodged with the presbytery clerk. Confidential records are not to be stored electronically, nor to be communicated electronically except where there is a statutory requirement to do so. Presbytery clerks and session clerks are authorised to release relevant confidential information for insurance purposes upon receipt of a written request from the person or committee that organises the Church's insurance renewal.
9. Selection Process for Church Workers
This is a critical aspect in preventing harm and requires care and patience, with prayer. The most important thing is to appoint godly leaders who are well known members of the congregation. When Paul chose Timothy to be his assistant ministry worker he obtained the opinions of the local church members at Lystra/Iconium (Acts 16:2). We also should be encouraging those who have the gifts for service and leadership.
For those who will be working with children and young people, the following protocols apply: -applicants must be members of the congregation who have been regular attenders for at least one year (less time approved only if they are well attested from another approved congregation, with at least two referees' reports)
-applicants for leadership positions must be approved by the local session -before they commence working as a leader they must have a WWCC clearance -they must undertake initial and follow-up training as prescribed by presbytery -they must continue regularly at the public worship in the congregation
-they must have ongoing supervision and mentoring by an elder
10. Procedures for Dealing with Alleged Abuse
Our Church is committed to processes that strive for truth and confidentiality and will treat all allegations seriously and act upon them. Information about how to make a complaint can be found in our COMPLAINTS HANDLING PROCEDURES (Act 5, Synod 2021), which also sets out how the Church will respond and investigate the complaint.
A child may disclose, deliberately or inadvertently, that he/she is a victim of abuse. Alternatively there may be reasonable grounds to suspect that a child has been or is being abused. ‘Reasonable grounds’ is a subjective concept, but this does not remove responsibility from a person to act.
We are to ensure as far as possible that a compassionate response is a priority in all reported allegations especially at the time when details are sketchy and it is not yet certain that the allegations are accurate. At these times, when emotions may run high, leaders are not to pass judgment but to offer care and support to the aggrieved person(s) and, if practicable, to the alleged offender. Pastoral care at all stages is very important (see further under Item 11).
Leaders and any others in the congregation who hear such disclosures or have reasonable grounds for concern may go directly to the Police and/or report the matter to the Minister/Interim Moderator or an elder. From that time the session will appoint a suitable elder who will be the only one to have carriage of the matter for reportable conduct and will become the liaison person with the Police and/or relevant Government agency. This procedure shall also apply if a child discloses that the abuse has occurred somewhere else other than the church.
When session becomes aware of a complaint of abuse it must immediately assess the risks of harm that exist and take steps to ensure that those risks are minimised in order to protect the safety of children and the vulnerable.
At this stage, allegations of child sexual abuse when the alleged victim is still under 18 years of age must not be further investigated by the Church, and neither should the child/young person or the accused be questioned by the Church. When the matter involves criminal behaviour, this must be investigated first by the police.
There will be no disclosure to any interested parties connected with allegedly abused child to avoid contamination of evidence and prejudice of investigations. Although the church minister (or interim moderator) and session are to be advised, at this stage it will not become a matter for session to act upon nor of presbytery involvement (unless a minister of the Church is the accused).
Any church leader or worker who is accused will be stood down by the session from his/her position until the investigations are concluded. Irrespective of any other action taken by bodies outside the Church, the PCEA church discipline procedures, if necessary, will apply according to the Handbook of Practice and Procedure following the conclusion of Police investigations and the outcome of any Court or other legal proceedings.
Following investigation by the Church, any leader found guilty of sexual abuse will be immediately removed from office and from all other positions or roles they may hold within the Church.
11. Pastoral Care for Children & Young People who are Alleged Victims of Abuse
Appropriate sensitive pastoral care will be extended to any child, young person or vulnerable person who has made a disclosure of abuse, by the following protocols:
-not pushing the child or young person to disclose details of the alleged assault
-not attempting to investigate the allegation
-assuring the person that they are understood; that their disclosure is being taken seriously; that what has happened is not their fault and that they are correct in disclosing the incident. -not making contact with the alleged offender to discuss the case
-maintaining confidentiality by speaking only to those parties recommended by the police (or delegates), even though this may cause emotional tension
12. False Allegations
Accusations of abuse raised due to ignorance, by unwarranted suspicion or malice may prove to be false. Reputations can be irrevocably tarnished by a false accusation which is clearly forbidden under the ninth commandment, “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour.” Exodus 20:16.
False accusations may themselves constitute criminal behaviour and as such, redress may be contemplated by the aggrieved. But it is preferable that false accusations should be dealt with by the session with counselling and seeking of forgiveness.
However, the fear of being wrong in reporting situations where it is believed that abuse has occurred is not sufficient ground for not reporting the concerns.
13. Managing Known Offenders
If the Church become aware that any person attending any of its services or activities is the subject of a substantiated complaint of child sexual abuse, or has been convicted of an offence relating to child sexual abuse, they must make this known to the session.
On receiving such information the session must assess the level of risk posed to children by such a person's ongoing involvement in church activities and take appropriate steps to manage that risk. Such steps may require that the known offender always attend meetings under the supervision of a responsible individual named by session. The Church's insurer must also be informed as soon as possible.
14. Working with a Body External to the Church
Using the services of another organisation in child related ministries (e.g. at camping, conference and other sites) is allowed if that organisation agrees to uphold the policies contained in this document.
Decisions to enter into agreements with other churches or organisations for the provision of advice on child protection issues or to conduct appropriate training for church workers will be made by presbyteries.
It is required that those working with children and the vulnerable be given appropriate training in Safe Church matters. The clerk of presbytery will organise approved initial and ongoing training for all leaders and office bearers in the congregations of their jurisdictions. Records will be kept and details provided to Government agencies as required. Records also are to be kept by the congregational Protection Officers (see item 8.1 above).
[PCEA Safe Church Policy, 2021. Please note: Updates to this document will occur at the direction of the PCEA Synod from time to time]