Think the Unthinkable
by Captain Teresa Everett, International Headquarters
Captain Teresa Everett, International Headquarters
You are my shield, my protector.
I can lie down,
Go off to sleep,
Knowing you're watching over me.
Help me to trust you forever.
I need not fear
'Cos you are near,
I can lie down and sleep in peace.
based on Psalm 4:8
The 21st century seems to inundate us with news about children who suffer mistreatment, abuse, trafficking, violence, neglect ... and the list goes on. The Church has been caught up in allegations of child abuse and its reputation for giving moral guidance has been tarnished. This article raises awareness of the issue of keeping children and young people safe in our care.
Scriptural basis for child protection
Jesus makes his passion for the well-being and safety of young people evident: 'If you give one of these simple, childlike believers a hard time, bullying or taking advantage of their simple trust, you'll soon wish you hadn't. You'd be better off dropped in the middle of the lake with a millstone around your neck' (Mark 9:42 The Message).
Even in Jesus' time people needed the reminder to value, respect and welcome children (Matthew 18:5, 6). Churches have a unique opportunity to stand with children and young people in the face of a culture that still regards them as possessions.
The Church needs to keep child abuse at the forefront of its concerns. Child safety programmes require intentional efforts by leaders to provide a safe environment where children and young people can be loved with the love of God. What an honour that God entrusts Church leaders to care for his children and be held responsible for the safety of his children!
As a church, we declare with our standards that children and young people are safe when attending our programmes.
To authenticate what we say, we need to be aware of the issues and put into place preventative measures in our areas of ministry, such as:
- ensuring that all we do matches up to the high standards expected of us,
- raising our own awareness and best practice,
- learning how to safeguard ourselves when around children and young people.
It is of paramount importance that we protect children and young people in our care and in doing so protect our mission.
Children are trusting by nature
I remember when I believed in Father Christmas. I trusted my parents implicitly and did not question how Father Christmas entered our home even though we had no chimney for him to come down. I just accepted my parents' word. Children trust adults. Through that trust their capacity to trust in their heavenly Father grows.
Mark 9:42 states that God holds everyone accountable in building a child's will to trust. We must do all we can to maintain that trust. The uniqueness of our activity in the church allows us the privilege of giving spiritual and moral guidance to children and young people.
Learn from the past
There appears to be some naivety that abuse or allegations of abuse will never occur in our programmes. With this frame of mind we make ourselves more vulnerable to abuse and false allegations. Sometimes we need to allow ourselves to think the unthinkable.
We do not want our passion for keeping children and young people safe to be fuelled by an incident that would require us to improve our practices - all too often, this is the case.
We hear and learn from tragic stories like that of a nine-year-old girl who sustained 128 separate injuries at the hands of her carers. She was taken to several different churches during the 10 months she was in the UK. Tragically, she died from abuse-related injuries; most likely, the people in the churches she had visited did not recognise the signs of abuse.
Who are abusers?
An abuser can be anyone! Abusers appear no different from any other man, woman, boy or girl. They come from every part of the social strata. Researches of trends in child abuse have said that 86 per cent of abusers were a relative or someone known to the child or young person. Only 14 per cent were abused by strangers.
Child-Line, a helpline started in the UK and now in more than 14 countries, provides a 24-hour free emergency telephone service for children, young people and concerned adults in abusive situations and concerns. Their statistics show that 95 per cent of physically or sexually abused children know their abuser.
Abusers within the church building
Abusers have the right to enter a church, just as others have easy access. They enter and hear a message of forgiveness and acceptance. In the UK, 75 per cent of abusers attend a church.
At a child protection training event I attended, the trainer remarked that women especially have a keen sense of discernment when something is not quite right. You may have heard it said, 'I felt that something wasn't right.' The trainer went on to say that more often than not, that instinctive 'feeling' has been proven authentic.
You may have had this feeling in your own life. Perhaps a child for whom you were concerned was abused and you wished you had responded proactively in the situation. Do not second-guess your instincts. As we work towards managing safer environments for children, it is vital that we respond to perceived abuse and keep child protection a priority. Always be prepared to think the unthinkable.