PCEA Safe Church Complaints Handling Procedure
1. Making a Complaint
If you are a child, young person or vulnerable adult who has been abused then it is important that you tell someone about it.
Anyone who has reasonable grounds to believe that a child or other vulnerable person has been abused or is at risk of abuse should also report this.
1.1 Who should you speak to? You can speak directly to the minister or one of the elders, or you can speak to any leader of a church activity such as a Sunday school teacher or youth leader. All our leaders have been trained to listen to your complaint, to take it seriously, and to report it to the session. You also have the right to go directly to the police or relevant government agency to report abuse.
1.2 What if the abuser is one of the church leaders? As a Church we try to be very careful about who we appoint to leadership positions but it is a sad reality that sometimes even a person who was trusted to be a suitable leader may use that position of trust wrongly to abuse others. This is unacceptable and it is important that it is reported to another leader in the Church, or directly to the police or relevant government agency.
1.3 What if the abuse happened somewhere else? Even if the abuse happened somewhere else, such as at school, or at a friend's house, you can still speak to the leaders at your church about this. They will listen to you and seek to help you.
1.4 What if the victim is now an adult? Abuse by a church leader should be reported even if it happened a long time ago. It may not be easy for a victim to speak about the abuse they experienced but the Church should seek to ensure that help and support are provided to the victim, who should be encouraged to bring a report to police.
1.5 What is abuse? Children and vulnerable people have a right to be safe, protected, and looked after in their family, daily life and at church activities. Abuse is when a leader, adult, or even another young person, uses their power or position of trust in a wrong way to hurt or exploit by doing things to a child or vulnerable person, or making them do things, that are inappropriate or distressing. It can take many forms, including physical, sexual and emotional abuse, as well as neglect and exploitation.
2. Our Response to a Complaint or Disclosure of Abuse
2.1 We will treat all disclosures seriously and record the details - Our Church is committed to processes that strive for truth and confidentiality and will treat all allegations seriously and act upon them. A child or young person may disclose, deliberately or inadvertently, that he/she is a victim of abuse. Alternatively there may be reasonable grounds to suspect that a child or young person has been or is being abused. ‘Reasonable grounds’ is a subjective concept, but this does not remove responsibility from a person to act. In all cases, details will be recorded of what happened, when and where it happened, details of persons present or witnesses, using the complainant's own words as far as possible.
2.2 We will be compassionate - 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.
2.3 We will report abuse to the relevant church body and the proper civil authorities - Leaders and any others in the congregation who hear such disclosures or have reasonable grounds for concern should report the matter to the minister or an elder. You also have the right to go directly to the police or relevant government agency yourself and can ask advice from the congregational Protection Officer. From that time the session (or the presbytery if the allegation is against a minister), 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.
2.4 We will not let fear of being wrong prevent us from reporting abuse - The fear of being wrong is not sufficient ground for not reporting the concerns.
2.5 We will take immediate steps to minimise the risk of further harm – As soon as the session becomes aware of a complaint of abuse they must carry out a risk assessment to identify risks of harm that exist and they must take steps to ensure that those risks are minimised in order to protect the safety of children and vulnerable.
2.6 We will keep careful and confidential records – Confidential records (as a record apart) will be kept by the session clerk and controlled under the privacy legislation of the Church. These records will 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) attached. Copies will 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 will be lodged with the presbytery clerk.
3. Investigating a Complaint
3.1 Initial stage - At the initial 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.
3.2 Confidentiality - 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 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).
3.3 Precautionary suspension - Any church leader or worker who is accused will be stood down by the session or presbytery from his/her position until the police investigations and Church investigations are concluded.
3.4 Investigation according to Biblical standards – When any police investigation is concluded the Church will conduct its own investigation. It is possible that charges arising from the police investigation may not be proved to the satisfaction of the civil court. Nevertheless, the standards of conduct required by the Word of God are to be maintained by the Church. Irrespective of any other action that may be taken, the Church reserves the right to exercise its own powers of discipline over adherents, members and office-bearers.
3.5 Disciplinary action – Following investigation by the Church, any minister, office-bearer or other leader found guilty of the sexual abuse of a child, young person, or other vulnerable person, will be immediately removed from office and from all other positions or roles they may hold within the Church.
4. Providing Support and Assistance
4.1 We will seek to provide appropriate support to victims - Appropriate sensitive pastoral care will be extended to any child, young person or vulnerable adult 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.
4.2 We will provide ongoing care and support for victims and their families – This is the responsibility of the session and will normally be carried out by the minister or an elder. The Church should also assist victims and families to find information and obtain help from sources outside the Church if desired.
5. Review of Procedures
5.1 Commitment to review
We are committed to regularly reviewing and improving our Safe Church standards to ensure that our Safe Church Policy, Code of Conduct and procedures are effective in protecting children and the vulnerable from harm. We also want our stated procedures to be clear, accessible and easy to follow for all.
An internal review is to be carried out after a complaint process has been concluded. Any causes of systemic failure should be identified and the views of leaders, complainants, and the victim or their family should be sought wherever possible. Details of the review are to be retained as confidential records.
Safe Church training events may provide a regular opportunity for presbyteries to review, with leaders, how well they are able to understand and implement the Safe Church standards in their congregations.
Observations, comments and suggestions should be forwarded to the relevant Synod committee to facilitate improvements to the Church's policies and procedures.
5.2 Review with leaders
Questions to leaders who were involved in reporting or investigating a complaint may be along the following lines:
Was there some inadequacy or systemic failure in the Church's procedures, or in the implementation of these procedures, that resulted in harm to a child or other vulnerable person under your care?
Were you as a leader/session clear about your duties?
Was the complaint process easy to understand and follow?
Was there anything unclear in the Safe Church Policy, Code of Conduct or complaints
procedure, or anything in these documents that requires to be clarified or to be updated?
5.3 Review with complainants, victims or their families
The views of complainants, victims or their families should be sought wherever possible in the review process. This will require particular care and sensitivity depending on the nature of the case. They may wish to submit responses in writing or prefer to meet with an appropriate person who has been appointed by the Church to talk with them and record their views. If it has not been possible to obtain these views then the reasons for this should be stated in the report. Questions may be along the following lines:
Was the complaint process easy to understand and follow?
Did you feel listened to and was your complaint taken seriously?
Did you feel the Church handled the complaint appropriately?
Did the Church take proper steps to protect children and the vulnerable from harm?
For further information on safe church matters, please refer to the PCEA Safe Church Policy, available from the Protection Officer and elders of your local congregation.