One of the difficulties that faith communities appear to suffer from, is in misunderstanding the absolute need to ensure that those who have sexually abused in the past, are not allowed to abuse again through not being removed and withdrawn from further contact with those that they have harmed previously. This is an issue that arises too frequently within churches and for which they have been severely and rightly criticized by wider society.
At first sight, as I am a safeguarding practitioner, it is difficult to understand why such a decision would be made. A factor that appears too often to have had an influence is the offender asking for forgiveness for what they have done and pleading for clemency. Too frequently, these pleas are positively responded to, allowing the offender to continue in their contact with those they have harmed. To my mind, these decisions are flawed and need to be critically examined by those who are in leadership within these churches.
Church communities are drawn towards accepting and positively responding to the penitent sinner. If someone who has admitted to abuse, but who is now saying that they will never succumb again to the temptation of harming a child, churches will often take the view that they must be supported in this. We must defend the sinner and help them move forward in their lives at all costs! I disagree.
I see this line of thinking as being flawed. It has led to situations where known offenders have been allowed to remain in a role that gave them continued access to vulnerable young people. Churches should not confuse the need to support the repentant sinner with the greater need to protect the vulnerable child.
If all that was required for a sex offender to address their offending behaviour was an admission of guilt and a desire to be forgiven, the task of dealing with abuse within churches, would be greatly simplified. It is more complex than this.
Sexual abuse within faith communities has an additional dimension of harm that I have written about previously. It creates spiritual harm which often has the effect of separating the victim from the church and frequently also leads to a destruction of their faith. It is also an area of harm that most churches completely ignore leaving those who have been harmed in a position of being unable to engage with any other faith community and unable to stay within their present one where the abuse happened.
I find this lack of interest on the part of faith communities in the spiritual health of those they have harmed, to be deeply disturbing. The response to the discovery of abuse within a church setting should be different from that which would occur within a secular or statutory organisation. This difference arises through the fact that it should also include responding to the spiritual harm that the abuse has created in the survivor.
It is also the same for those that have committed the abuse. Their needs should be met but not at the expense of failing to protect others from harm. Risk does not disappear simply because someone who has offended says they are sorry and they will not do it again.
Sex offenders need to be held accountable for their actions and this must be done consistently and transparently by churches working in co-operation with the statutory authorities. Churches should not seek to act independently and determine for themselves whether an offender should or should not continue in the role that they held.
In my work with churches, I have met with examples of this line of flawed thinking. In attempts to defend the offender, people have described the abuse as having taken place, in part, as a consequence of the availability of the child combined with the presence of particular circumstances that arose in the life of the offender. I find all these references to be deeply distressing and completely misguided. There are no circumstances to my mind, which can be thought to justify the sexual abuse of a young and vulnerable child. This includes the misuse of alcohol, the accessibility of the child, the emotional health of the offender, or whatever. The sexual abuse of a child is a totally abhorrent event and those that commit it must be held fully accountable for their actions.
Churches need to be welcoming places for those that wish to reform their lives. I fully accept that and would support that view. However, they cannot allow this commitment to lead to a situation where they fail to hold the offender to account and expose others to potential future harm. This is a risk that my experience has led me to believe churches are particularly vulnerable too. They need to address it and minimise it by engaging independent, trained, and experienced people to guide them. They need to work in closer co-operation with the statutory authorities who hold responsibility for child protection in society.