The Importance of Being Principled


As a professionally qualified and registered social worker in Northern Ireland, my practice is always subject to the scrutiny of my professional association, the Northern Ireland Social Care Council (NISCC). Anyone whom I professionally engage with, can raise an objection to my practice if they feel that it has fallen short of the standards of my profession. For this reason, I fully appreciate the importance of complying with principles in my practice.

The following quote from the NISCC code of standards for Social Workers summarises the position: –

“Social workers are professionally accountable for their practice which means that they are responsible for ensuring their conduct and practice does not fall below the standards set out in this document and that no action or omission on their part harms the wellbeing of service users or carers.”  Northern Ireland Social Care Council – Standards of Conduct and Practice for Social Workers

In much the same way as the British Medical Association oversees the conduct of members of the medical profession, so NISCC protects the interests of service users who engage with social workers in Northern Ireland. If your practice is complained of and the complaint is upheld, you could be struck off and prevented from practicing again as a social worker, depending on the gravity of the breach of the standards expected. Social work in Northern Ireland is a regulated profession and this is underpinned by legislation. It is not the same everywhere else in these islands.

I mention this fact because in recent times I have been struck by the failure of some bodies that I have engaged with, to behave in a principled way. Given that much of my work is with faith communities or Churches, this revelation is even more disturbing. My expectation had been that Churches, who are value based organisations, would have understood the importance of acting in ways that complied with their foundation principles. From my experience, this should not be taken for granted and is often not the case.

Churches act in some circumstances as if they are secular bodies, like commercial businesses. The “bottom line” is what is important! It is not the right action that is sought; it is what can be done to limit our financial liability. I find this quite shocking and have shared that opinion with those that have employed me.

Because this attitude is so prevalent, in my experience those that speak to issues around finance and legal liability, often hold positions of great influence and power within Churches when matters relating to clerical sexual abuse are being considered. I recall on one occasion speaking to a senior cleric who was a bishop, and asking him about how he had managed his responses to the pastoral needs of victims of clerical abuse, which had happened in his diocese. His answer was simply that he had never spoken to a victim himself and left all that to his lawyers!

Most of my work with Churches has been with victims of clerical sexual abuse. The victims are always adults and have often endured many years of hurt and pain prior to our meeting. In many cases, what they have craved for is to be listened to, to be valued, and respected. They have wanted someone to say to them that what happened should not have taken place. They were vulnerable and deserved to be protected, and they were not. None of it was their fault. They want to feel that what happened to them is of concern to someone else and especially to those in authority in the Church.

When this is present in the engagement, the impact on the survivor can be life changing. There is release of stored up hurt and pain. There is growth in self-esteem and the process of healing begins. But none of this will happen if there is no sincerity or honesty present in the relationship. It is fragile, and it can be easily destroyed or hindered, if there is a lack of real engagement.

At the same time, I find people in authority within those Churches, being amazed and confused by the tide of angry survivors who are now finding their voices and seeking justice for the wrongs that they feel have been perpetrated against them. When you talk to those survivors, you find that they have never felt true pastoral concern from the Church, within the context of a secure and consistent relationship. This can lead to intense anger in them which can be just as damaging as the original abuse.

A fundamental error that is often made is that all survivors of clerical sexual abuse are only interested in receiving financial compensation for what happened to them. This is not consistent with my experience. On the contrary, many that I have met, have a much stronger interest in healing the hurt and regaining their lives than in simply being given money. The focus on finance is one they reach when the Church that has caused their pain, fails to respond to their need in a way that is meaningful to them. Their anger becomes focused on being appropriately financially compensated, but this has not generally been their starting point.

Churches have a responsibility to ensure that their actions when responding to survivors of clerical sexual abuse, are an effective witness to their beliefs. For that reason, I pose the questions to all Churches that have discovered that some of their clergy have engaged in child sexual abuse: To what extent has your response to the survivors of this clerical abuse been an effective witness for your beliefs? What more should you have done and why did you not take those action? 

The responsibility of Christian witness is an important aspect of the underpinning of our Churches. It is entirely right that there should be a focus on how well the response made to those who have been hurt by a Church, mirrors what are the stated principles upon which that body is based. In the same way, that I have specified standards against which my practice can be judged by my service users, so Churches should look at what they do and consider whether this is an effective witness for their beliefs.