The desire to establish what the reality of past safeguarding practice has been within a number of different Churches is a matter that has attracted a lot of recent attention. In some cases, it has been forced upon an unwilling Church leadership through pressure from their members or from external sources. This has led to a variety of responses that are all described as safeguarding reviews. Some of these would, in my view, fall far short of what is required. Within this paper I want to set down what I believe are the essential requirements of an effective safeguarding review process that seeks to reveal what practice has been in the past.
In many cases, those who are in leadership in Churches today may not have first-hand experience of the full breadth of allegations or known incidences of abuse that are known to that body. They may be reliant entirely on what they have been told by others or what they may have discovered for themselves. The possibility that abuse may have taken place in the past and not been appropriately responded to, may fill them with a combination of anger and also a certain amount of dread. They may wish to preserve the reputation of previous occupants of their post and fear that the review may damage this. The fact that information may have been withheld from them or situations misrepresented to them, must be seen as a real possibility no matter how remote they may view it to be. Experience has shown that such situations can occur all too often within Churches just as they can in wider society.
Any Church leader that commissions a review of past safeguarding practice has to be willing to confront all of these possibilities and put into place a review process that will provide them with the answers to these and other uncomfortable questions. The temptation to exert control and influence over the review process in response to their fears of what it might reveal, will be strong. Just as will the desire to hold findings that reveal past bad practice confidential thereby possibly limiting any potential fallout from the process of review. All these pressures have to be resisted and set aside. If they are not and succeed in having an impact on the way in which the review is approached, they will devalue it and potentially render it worthless. The critical judgement to be made by any interested observer seeking to assess the value of any safeguarding review is:- How transparent is it and how sound is the methodology that the reviewers have used?
Let me provide a hypothetical case that illustrates the point that I am making. Let’s suppose you moved home and wished to form a judgement as to how good a particular school was that is close to your new home. When considering where to send your child, you are provided with a review of the school’s performance that is glowing in its praise. This may have a positive effect on you. If you then discovered that the review was undertaken by the school principal alone, I suspect that you would then have some questions raised in your mind as to its value. If you made further inquiries with regard to the data accessed or how that data was assessed by the reviewers and were then told that this information was not available to you, I suspect that you would end up setting the review findings aside completely and seeing them as being valueless.
This example is not that far removed from the position taken by many Churches who commission safeguarding reviews. They do not make explicit from the outset what the methodology of the review process will be. They do not specify the access to data, the way in which it will be processed, by whom, against what standards, and for what purpose. And at the end they mistakenly believe that the findings will be seen as credible.
It may seem that I am being overly critical of Churches here as the desire to critically examine past practice should be supported and welcomed. This is undoubtedly true. However, for it to have any real value it has to be approached and undertaken in a way that gives it the best chance of producing credible, worthwhile results. If it is not, then it does no service to the body that has commissioned it or to those who have undertaken it. It is sadly the case that there are many professionals who have collaborated with these defective review processes and not pointed out to those who have commissioned them, the limitations of the process that they are engaged in.
In my view, an effective safeguarding review begins with the body that is commissioning it providing answers to a number of critical questions. These include clarity as to what the purpose of the review is. If information is to be examined and assessments made, what is to result from these findings? Those who are to undertake the review need to confirm the methodology that will be employed, and have established answers to all of these questions before they begin the process of the review. As I sought to illustrate by example, the independence of the reviewer is critical. They need to have the authority to access information regardless of where it is held and by whom. Where this is not possible, this information should be made explicit in the review findings. If you are presented with the findings of a safeguarding review but are not told what data the review was based on and whether it was complete or only partially revealed, you are in a very weak position when trying to decide if the process had some worth. If you were acting as a witness in a court case and when being asked to take the oath, you answered by saying that you intended to tell some of the truth! What impact would that have on the jury?
In the same way, Churches that commission safeguarding reviews have to have clarity with regard to why they are undertaking the review. They have to realise that the value of the findings will be determined by the objectivity and independence of those who undertake the review. They also have to realise that the greater the transparency, the greater the potential worth of the findings. A robust, standards based methodology may be uncomfortable to accept in the short term but it gives the best chance of providing credible results which can help the Church to grow in its safeguarding practice. Is this ultimately not the only worthwhile reason for undertaking reviews in the first place?