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Churches, offending and trust

This month the BBC has reported on the conviction of a paedophile who had posed as a Christian volunteer to gain access to children in Malaysian communities. This year, there have also been convictions for a church youth worker who used his role at a Christian summer camp to groom girls, a church pastor’s son who used his position in his church to engage in sexual activity with a child, and a series of cases involving historic abuse by members of the clergy and church congregation members. The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse has selected both the Anglican and Roman Catholic Churches as areas for investigation around historic sexual offending. As TDI prepares a strand of work around the ways in which congregations can work to make their communities safer, we’ve been thinking a lot about the particular challenges which churches face in dealing with sexual offenders.

Churches as communities of forgiveness, trust and authority

There are a number of features of churches which make them vulnerable to the risk of sexual offending. One is that they exist as communities of forgiveness; Christianity is founded on the possibility of redemption, and congregations can be one of the few places prepared to accept an offender who wants to rebuild their life. Such acceptance, and the social networks which come with it, make important contributions to preventing reoffending by reducing the isolation and sense of helplessness which many offenders feel. The Centre for Criminal Justice Studies’ report A Life Sentence Really ,which looked at the support networks available for sex offenders released from prison, is eloquent both on the needs of offenders for support from the wider community and on the support they get from their faith communities.

Most churches have policies in place which seek to allow offenders to worship whilst protecting the rest of the congregation. The Church of England’s Meeting the Challenge, for instance, suggests a contract between the church and the offender which limits where in the building they can be and what activities they can attend. Whilst this can cause friction, as this story from 2015 shows, it provides a structure which allows the offender to involve themselves within the community whilst also being monitored by that community. There is a risk of harm, but one which is known and managed.

More difficult for churches is their nature as communities of trust. While any local congregation is a community unto itself, each forms part of a wider faith community, which tends to welcome members of that faith (or people who profess the faith) unquestioningly. It is easy for someone who wants to abuse to enter the congregation, build its trust and take advantage of the access this grants them to children or other vulnerable individuals. This was true in the case of the paedophile in the story above. It is often hard to believe that someone professing a faith could also be abusing individuals, a set of actions which go against that faith.

The risk that is posed by easily-granted trust is deepened by churches’ nature as communities of authority. Most churches and congregations have both formal and informal hierarchies of authority, based around either a position within the structure of the church organisation or the perceived depth and strength of faith. The case of the youth pastor above exemplifies this; not only did his formal position within the church give him access to his victims but it also placed him to a large extent beyond suspicion and beyond reproach. The trust his victims had in him as someone authoritative on matters of faith made it easier for him to commit his offences; the trust others had in him made it harder to see that offences were being committed.

TDI’s work with churches

TDI has been peripherally involved in work with churches for many years, helping to think through these issues and discuss how congregations and those with responsibility for them might reduce the risk of harm. In our work in other areas of society, such as our Leisurewatch scheme, we have provided training which aims to empower all individuals within a public setting or community to act to protect each other by raising awareness of both the situational and behavioural circumstances which enable offending to occur. More details of the courses we currently offer are available on our Training page.  We are currently exploring how Leisurewatch may be adapted for large churches and how our other training might be made useful to those caring for congregations in their work of making ex-offenders welcome.

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