THE CHURCH’S RESPONSE
In 1994, the Wood Royal Commission into the NSW Police Service was given a specific reference to investigate and report on paedophilia and pederasty in New South Wales. The churches came under the spotlight in the Commission’s investigations, and were in the most part found wanting in their failure to protect children from abusers in the church. The Presbyterian Church of New South Wales was commended for the policy already in place, known as Breaking the Silence.
Breaking the Silence was adopted by the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in New South Wales in 1997, with revisions adopted the following year. This represented a very significant step towards understanding and dealing with the problem of abuse within the Presbyterian church, with many other States subsequently adopting and adapting these editions of Breaking the Silence.
In 2003, it was decided that the CPU would be established. At this point, it was called the Child Protection Unit. Since then, there have been significant developments in legislation and our understanding of church issues. In 2011, the name Conduct Protocol Unit was introduced, indicating the broadening of the scope of Breaking the Silence to cover abuse towards people of any age within our church communities.
Further developments in child protection legislation, mandatory and voluntary reporting procedures arose in subsequent years, including the participation of offices such as the Office of the Children’s Guardian in monitoring investigations of allegations, the involvement of government departments responsible for caring for children, and the development of Commissions for Children and Young people in various States and Territories.
In 2012, the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse began its five-year inquiry, during which thousands of individuals shared their stories of childhood abuse.
In 2017, the final report was released, outlining the full extent of this dark issue. 4029 survivors told the Royal Commission in private sessions that they had been sexually abused as children in religious institutions. 2.8% of these instances occurred within Presbyterian or Reformed churches. These findings brought to light the tragic reality of the harm that has occurred within church ministry.
The Royal Commission’s report brought about a number of recommendations aimed at making organisations safer for children. The Presbyterian Church has taken a number of steps to ensure we have taken these on board. In 2019, the General Assembly of Australia adopted the National Safe Ministry Framework (NSMF) to establish a uniform and consistent approach to the protection of children within the Presbyterian Church of Australia. This was adopted by the NSW General Assembly in 2020.
Breaking the Silence in its present form is intended to address these issues and provide all congregations, Presbyteries, organisations, and committees within the church with a comprehensive tool to meet our legislated obligations and the requirements of the Presbyterian Church of Australia’s Code of Discipline.
We do this, not just in response to legal and societal expectations, but more importantly, to ensure the safety of our ministry activities for all and to attain justice for those who have been harmed.
This statement applies to all persons holding a position of authority within the church, and all congregations, presbyteries, organisations, and committees within the church. It is our commitment to dealing with abuse within the church.
This policy statement relates to abuse as defined in Breaking the Silence. It does not apply to any other forms of abuse, grievance or personal injury claim.
- We commit ourselves to respect other people’s minds, emotions and bodies. We have established Breaking the Silence as the public criteria according to which the community may judge the resolve of the church to address issues of abuse within the church.
- We acknowledge and accept the trust granted to us by those who are taking part in church activities, their families, and the wider community. We therefore commit ourselves to striving to ensure that all our actions are morally upright.
- We acknowledge that, as a church, our responses to victims in the past have varied greatly. We express regret and sorrow for the hurt caused whenever the response has denied or minimised the pain that victims have experienced, or caused them to experience further pain.
- We are committed to establishing a process that strives for truth and confidentiality. We will ensure as far as possible that a compassionate response is the first priority in all allegations, even at a time when it is not yet certain that the allegations are accurate, through offering assistance, protection and care without passing judgement or prejudicing the rights of the alleged offender. We acknowledge that concealing the truth is contrary to the character of God, unjust to victims and a disservice to offenders.
- We understand and value the need for support to all parties involved in an allegation, including the aggrieved person and the alleged offender, and we actively seek to provide this support.
- We acknowledge the personal and public difficulties that a false, misconceived, malicious or vexatious allegation can cause for the person accused. We will take whatever steps are possible to address these difficulties.
- We are willing to know the full extent of the problem of abuse and the causes of such behaviour within the church. We will strive to be aware of our legal responsibilities and obligations in relation to prevention, reporting and processing requirements and seek to meet them at all times.
- We acknowledge that we have had to make changes in the way that we relate to children and young people and others, as a result, some good things have been lost, however we will bear this loss to ensure as far as possible that the vulnerable are safe.
- We will ensure as far as possible that all people in positions of authority within the church and/or working with children and young people are aware of the appropriate standard of conduct and boundaries. We require those who work on behalf of the church to indicate their agreement with this policy statement and work towards providing an environment that prevents abuse.
- We believe that churches ought to be places of safety and refuge for children, young people and others, where they should be and feel safe from any threat when on church property or involved in activities operated by the church, or accessing services provided by the church. We believe that the church should be a place where people can disclose abuse and have it dealt with effectively.
- As a church we are committed to the implementation of the Royal Commission’s Child Safe Standards.
- We will establish a prevention strategy that includes screening, sound recruitment and selection procedures, clear boundaries, risk identification and management, education, support, supervision and training.
- We acknowledge that the age of consent for sexual activity is determined by legislation. However, we are mindful that this must be read in the light of our moral and spiritual responsibility. All people in a position of authority within the church, be it real or perceived, paid or unpaid, have a moral and spiritual responsibility towards those over whom they have authority. In this situation it is never appropriate to take part in sexual activity of any kind, regardless of the person’s age. We affirm that sexual behaviour belongs in a marriage relationship only and that in this context it is a good gift of God.
- All allegations will be notified to the appropriate external authorities, overseen by the CPU, investigated thoroughly and determined as described in Breaking the Silence.
- Irrespective of any other action that may be taken by authorities outside the church, the church reserves the right to exercise its powers according to the Code of Discipline and Breaking the Silence wherever this action is deemed necessary.
The Presbyterian Church of Australia’s General Assembly met in September 2019 and has issued the following formal apology to victims of sexual abuse in the Church:
With deep sorrow the Presbyterian Church of Australia apologises to all who have been affected by sexual abuse through their involvement in the Presbyterian Church of Australia.
Sexual abuse of a child is appalling and wickedly violates Christ’s words, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.”
It is a breach of trust to those who have taken part in church activities, to their families, and to the wider community. We regret the hurt caused when our response as a church has denied or minimised the pain that victims have experienced or caused them to experience further pain.
The Presbyterian Church has taken steps to respond to child sexual abuse.
- Each State Church is participating in the National Redress Scheme, and we encourage all victims of child sexual abuse to make use of this scheme.
- The Church commits itself to making a timely and compassionate response to all allegations of child sexual abuse.
- The Church has adopted the National Safe Ministry Framework which seeks to be consistent with the National Principles for Child Safe Organisations.
- The Church commits itself to full co-operation with the civil authorities in dealing with accusations of child sexual abuse.
- The Church commits itself to processes of education and training in relation to response to child sexual abuse.
The Presbyterian Church of Australia in NSW is served by The Conduct Protocol Unit (CPU) and is fully committed to Breaking The Silence.
If you or someone whom you know has been the victim of abuse in the Church, contact the CPU on 02 96909325. Please be assured that you will be heard and that your confidentiality is assured\
*** Further information can be obtained from… CHILD PROTECTION LINK