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Safeguarding is not yet on the agenda for many Churches, Anglican commission warns

21 November 2023

Anglican Communion Office

The cover of the new publication, Safe Church: How to start guide

The cover of the new publication, Safe Church: How to start guide

THE perception that safeguarding is a “foreign concept” being imposed by the West is among the challenges facing the Anglican Communion Safe Church Commission, it was revealed on Monday.

Three members of the commission, established in 2016 to promote the safety of people within Churches of the Communion, were present at a briefing to introduce a new publication: Safe Church: How to start guide. The chair of the commission, Garth Blake, an Australian barrister, said that the work was a response to requests from bishops at the Lambeth Conference. They had been asking: “Where do we start? We don’t have anything or we don’t have much. We don’t have any culture around safeguarding [but] a culture of silence. How do we begin?”

The commission produced guidelines that were approved by the Anglican Consultative Council in 2019 (News, 3 May 2019). The guide published this week is the first of a series of resources that will be available in written and audio-visual formats. It includes key definitions and suggestions about how to begin to implement safeguarding work

A South African member of the commission, Kim Barker, a safeguarding consultant, said that it was the result of a “very robust conversation” among the 17 members of the “diverse” commission. “Things that seem self-evident in a context where safeguarding has been around for a long time might be completely new and unfamiliar in a context where safeguarding is not known,” she said.

The aim was “opening up honest conversations about abuse in the Church”. The guide includes advice on how to develop a process for responding to abuse and preventing it. “One of the things that is very clear is that in Provinces and countries where safeguarding as a concept is not legislated or known, or part of the everyday language, it can be difficult to introduce the idea and it can feel like a foreign concept and something imposed from the Western world,” she said.

The commission was committed to “taking into consideration the breadth across all of the 165 countries of the Anglican Communion”, she said, “making sure that it’s not just a white Western approach; that actually we are taking into consideration traditional practices, indigenous practices, and thinking, what needs changing? . . . Do they keep people safe from harm? If they don’t, then we need to think about changing them.”

The guide was “asking questions rather than telling people what do to, because the important thing is that the ideas are grappled with within a particular context, within a particular worldview, within a particular way of life.”

Mr Blake emphasised that there were “challenges in every Province”, and that, “in some places, there is either no work, or it’s barely begun.” But, in other places, other problems had emerged. In Australia, for example, “there are at least some who think the issue has been done, ‘let’s get on with the next issue.’ Or there are some who have what you might call ‘issue fatigue’: ‘We’ve heard so much about this, we just don’t want to hear any more about it.’”

While there had been a Royal Commission in Australia, much remained to be done: there was “an enormous erosion of trust in churches generally” in the wake of the “profound abuse” uncovered.

The Bishop of Matabeleland in the Church of the Province of Central Africa, the Rt Revd Cleophas Lunga, another member of the Anglican Communion commission, said: “We have a responsibility as leaders to care for the faithful. Policies and procedures of Safe Church are good for all of us.” He warned that delays to implementation “may prolong and complicate interventions, and prolonging interventions and processes prolongs the pain of the victim, but also it does diminish the survivor’s hope of ever experiencing justice.”

He was aware of a “culture of silence” which could derive from “the inter-connectedness, the inter-dependency of families in the midst of few resources”, and also of concern that, if compensation was available, people might “frame” others to access it. He spoke of the potential for a “collaborative approach with traditional leaders”.

Mandy Marshall, the Communion’s director of gender justice, spoke of the need for a “survivor-centred approach”, which should include making sure that survivors were signposted to “professional services”. She acknowledged that “in some countries and some areas that won’t be possible . . . but the Church is there in the community, and can offer that place of safety and comfort for those that have been abused.”

There was also a need for a “trauma-informed approach”, she said, acknowleding that some survivors would not have a story that was “straight and aligned”, because of the trauma that they had experienced. “They might be all over the place when they are first disclosing.”

And she warned that there remained regions “that find it hard or difficult to believe that this happens in churches. . . ‘Aren’t we all transformed?’ It’s like, no, we’re not.”

She continued: “I think, sometimes, churches can be naive in saying, ‘No, a perpetrator has said he’s sorry, so therefore you need to reconcile and restore the relationship with the person.’ We have to remember that some perpetrators can be quite crafty, and use the church as a way to regain power and control over a survivor to then go on to re-abuse. . .

“People may say they repent and have said sorry . . . Have we seen that external reality in practice? And what does that look like? And are they willing to be held to account? So, we need to be wise, as churches, and not to ensure that there’s cheap grace, in essence, because it does no favours to the survivor, and also does no favours to the perpetrator. Because the Church is about true transformation and discipleship, and not just words.”

The briefing began with prayers for survivors (“Your power to the powerless, your fullness to the empty of spirit”) and for those who abuse (“Fill them with a hatred of the damage they do by bringing them to repentance and amendment of their lives”).

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