These principles set out the intent and philosophy of Safe Church, policy, procedure and practice in relation to concerns that are raised.
Confessions and disclosures
Confession is the open admission of guilt before God and those before which such an offence has been committed. A disclosure is the voluntary telling of previous or current behaviour to another person in the church - often the person who hears the disclosure will be a minister or elder.
However, it is wise to bear in mind that some offenders may seek an opportunity to confess and ask forgiveness in order to walk away believing that everything is fine. Some offenders may make a disclosure of a history of abuse against others, including children, and expect the church to accept the disclosure as assurance that the offender will never repeat the behaviour in the church. Confessions and disclosures may be honest, with real remorse and an authentic desire for forgiveness, but in some instances they are also seen by the offender as the “easy” way out. Sometimes, offenders believe that confessions and disclosures will enable them to stop the abuse (if they are still engaged in this behaviour) or be allowed to hold leadership roles or roles working with children in the church.
Confession is necessary, but not sufficient. Confession needs to be followed by true repentance. In some instances, facing the appropriate civil procedure is an element of repentance. Accepting that there are consequences of confessions and disclosures of an abusive past is also a key sign of repentance.
If an adult in the church makes a confession or disclosure that they have sexually abused a child in the past, whether they were under 18 years of age or not, and whether the abuse was familial or not, this is not information that the listener can keep to themselves. This kind of disclosure must be reported to SCU, as individuals with sexual abuse behaviour in their background are understood as individuals who carry risk to the safety of children.
“There is a tendency to minimise or dismiss young people's sexually abusive behaviour as experimentation or play, or as a 'phase' that will pass with age…Such minimisation belies the seriousness of the abuse and the harm that is caused to the victims…[There are well-established] clear boundaries about what constitutes sexual abuse by young people - coercive or forceful sexual behaviour with children (or with peers) is always abusive, and should not be regarded as 'normal' adolescent behaviour.” (‘Young People who sexually abuse: Key Issues’ by Cameron Boyd and Leah Bromfield, 2006, Australian Institute of Family Studies)
When it comes to these kinds of disclosures it is no longer the case that church leaders can keep such information to themselves and take no action in the form of risk management measures. When church leaders know such things about people in the church and take no risk management measures churches become places where children are at greater risk from sexual abuse. This approach led to thousands of children being sexually abused in churches across Australia. Further, legal duty of care and specific Victorian legislation make this approach such that the Church will be legally exposed.
It should be noted that disclosure and risk management are not inherently inconsistent with pastoral care and ministry if the process is handled well and with compassion.
For the offender, repentance must not merely be a matter of confession, apology or the intention not to repeat the offence.
Sadly, confession and the intention not to repeat the offence are often used by offenders to minimise any consequences that may be arise for them. We need to be just and merciful in our procedures when it comes to determining the outcomes for an offender, but we also need to bear in mind that many offenders are skilled at deception: both towards themselves and of those around them.
We must look for true repentance. To repent means to turn around, to change one’s behaviour and/or one’s life so that one will never repeat the offence. Repentance is seen when the offender:
- takes the steps necessary for justice, making amends for the abuse, including restitution, acknowledgement, voluntary disclosure to external authorities etc,
- identifies the beliefs and attitudes that lie behind his/her abusive behaviour, and finds acceptable ways of meeting those needs - this may well involve seeking professional counselling or psychological support by professionals who specifically work with offenders
- identifies the conditions that allowed the abuse to happen and changes those conditions to prevent future abuse (including making clear and accountable decisions to avoid places, activities and relationships which tempt them to repeat the offending behaviour) and
- is humbly willing to submit to restrictions placed on him/her by others to prevent recurrence. In Christian churches today, this means accepting that safe inclusion of him/her requires clear documented boundaries of their participation in the life of the church via an agreement between him/her and the leadership
We must never forget that:
“If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, but only a fearful expectation of judgement and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God.” Hebrews 10:26-27
“Reconciliation means to bring together that which should be together in right relationship, to renew a broken relationship on new terms, and to heal the injury of broken trust which has resulted from an offence inflicted by one person on another… forgiveness alone or repentance alone cannot accomplish reconciliation…” Marie M Fortune
People involved in situations where there are allegations of abuse may struggle with the concepts of repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation that are so much a part of being Christian.
“If your brother wrongs you, reprove him; if he repents, forgive him. Even if he wrongs you seven times in a day and comes back to you seven times saying, “I am sorry,” you are to forgive him.” Luke 17:3b-4
Many people ministering to victims of abuse encourage them to forgive their abusers. Some even go to the extent of saying that this is a necessary part of being Christian, and demand immediate forgiveness. Before making this demand, there are some things that should be considered.
Forgiveness is not easy, it is costly. The only way we can forgive real hurt is to know that we are forgiven and safe in the Lord Jesus, and that we live in hope of final restoration.
“Forgiveness is a word which has become more and more meaningless in our society in that it is not clear what is meant when the word is used. Some people mean that they want to simply forget what happened – just put it out of mind. Others mean by forgiving that the offence or injury which occurred is okay, i.e. that somehow it becomes a non-offence.
Neither of these meanings is adequate to the experience of rape or sexual abuse. A person can never forget these offences. The memory of the event will always be in the victim’s consciousness. It becomes part of one’s history as do one’s most positive experiences. And nothing can ever make the offence a non-offence. It will never be okay that a person was raped or molested. It is forever a wrong done to another human being.” Sexual Violence: The Unmentionable Sin, The Pilgrim Press, 1983
So how can a victim forgive their abuser? You don’t need to listen to people’s stories for very long before you hear struggles about forgiveness: “Can I forgive the person who hurt me and my family?”, “How do I forgive when I can never forget?”, “Does forgiveness open me up to being hurt all over again?”, “How do I find forgiveness for my own past wrongs?”.
Victims of abuse face a difficult problem: should they forgive the offender, and if so, how can they go about it? This requires careful thought by the victim and people who are supporting him or her. Here are some important principles to keep in mind.
- Christians are committed to forgiving those who wrong them. Since Christians are people who know the forgiveness of Christ they are called to forgive others. Even when a victim is not a Christian, it is still appropriate for him or her to forgive a wrong doer. There is a vital connection between God’s forgiveness and our forgiveness of others. Jesus taught his disciples to pray, “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. (Matt. 6:12). This is the only part of the Lord’s prayer that Jesus comments on:
“For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins” Matt. 6:14-15
- Jesus’ dramatic story of the unforgiving servant (Matthew 18:21-35) underlined this principle. The New Testament letters show a similar pattern, that the forgiven must be forgiving (Col 3:13, Eph 4:32).
- Forgiveness of a terrible wrong is very difficult and will often take a victim a long time. A deep appreciation of God's forgiveness of them, and participation in a community in which forgiveness is experienced are important resources in developing the capacity to forgive. A victim should not feel that they are under pressure to reach the point of forgiving the offender.
- Many victims of all kinds of wrongs find that forgiving those who wrong them is a sign of their own healing and is also significant step in further healing.
- Forgiveness is not the same as reconciliation and reconciliation is not the same as the restoration of a relationship.
- Forgiveness involves a victim giving up the desire for revenge and being able to desire and pray for the good of an offender. The Biblical picture is that this is unconditional. Jesus spoke simply of forgiving our enemies (not only those who are repentant). Forgiveness does not mean that a perpetrator is released from the consequences of the wrong, nor from facing proper punishment. It does mean that the victim, while recognising the need for punishment, does not seek this as revenge nor want the offender harmed by any punishment. Forgiveness should never be used as a reason why a victim would not seek justice. Appropriate church discipline or criminal proceedings are part of the proper consequences of wrong doing.
- The following are some hard questions about forgiveness that we need to start to understand before we can encourage a victim of abuse to forgive the offender or indeed the people or organisations who may have contributed to the offence by failure to protect or intervene for the sake of potential victims.
- “Can I forgive the person who hurt me and my family?” Forgiveness is not easy, it is costly. The only way we can forgive real hurt is to know that we are forgiven and safe in the Lord Jesus, and that we live in hope of final restoration.
- “How do I forgive when I can never forget?” Forgiving does not mean forgetting - it means seeking good and not seeking revenge.
- “Does forgiveness open me up to being hurt all over again?” Forgiveness can be painful, but it does not mean I have to put myself in the same situation as I was before. Love for the person who hurt me may mean protecting myself.
- “How do I find forgiveness for my own past wrongs?” I can start with God, for in Christ all sin is fully and finally dealt with. Even when my wrongs are against others, they are also against God, who is their creator and Lord. Indeed with a God-centred view of the world all my wrongs are against him first (See Psalm 51:4). If my wrongs to others have been serious, then it is highly likely that they still have an effect and that my repentance will be healing. In some cases it may be better not to raise old hurts, though these would be rare cases. Sometimes the person I have wronged may be dead, or may refuse to forgive me. In this case I have to trust in God’s forgiveness and hope for a restored world.
- “Can guilt and forgiveness be corporate and even intergenerational?” In the Bible sin is both individual and corporate, and can span generations. If I am part of a group who have wronged another group I may be able to offer my own apology for a group wrong, or even speak on behalf of the group (depending on my position). If I do this I am not necessarily admitting individual guilt, although I may be. Our aim must be reconciliation, and this will only ever be fulfilled in Christ.
- “Is forgiveness required if repentance is not forthcoming?” Luke 17:3b-4 and 1 John 1:8-10 raise this issue, however these must be read in conjunction with the other passages commented on earlier. Confession and Forgiveness: Professing Faith As Ambassadors of Reconciliation by Ted Kober has a useful section on this material.
- A Christian survivor states:
- Forgiveness is not a feeling.
- Forgiveness is not pretending you were not hurt.
- Forgiveness is not saying what was done was not wrong.
- Forgiveness is not about letting the person who hurt you continue to hurt you.
- Forgiveness is a decision.
- Forgiveness is an obedient response for a Christian.
- Forgiveness is ongoing, not just a one-off event.
Reconciliation & restoration
Reconciliation is the return of a relationship between victim and offender. Someone whose forgiveness is genuine will be open to reconciliation, however reconciliation requires repentance from the person who has done wrong. Indeed attempting reconciliation without profound and sincere repentance from the offender may result in further damage to the victim. Reconciliation involves the two people entering into a relationship in which there is some genuine giving and receiving. This may involve having some conversations in which they discuss the abuse and its impact and the offender expresses sorrow and repentance and the victim offers forgiveness. No victim should be forced to reconcile with their abuser, though they should be encouraged to do so. A victim should understand that he or she is free to determine the form of the reconciliation and the level of intimacy in the relationship.
Reconciliation and forgiveness are at the heart of the Christian gospel:
“All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God.”2 Cor 5:18-20
Reconciliation must be two-way and does not necessarily mean re-establishing a relationship on the same level as before. Reconciliation depends upon repentance.
Restoration is the return of the relationship between the victim and the perpetrator to something like their original relationship. This might mean a child returning to live with his parents, a wife living with her husband or youth group leader returning to leadership depending upon the circumstances. Reconciliation does not demand restoration. Restoration depends not only on genuine repentance on the behalf of the perpetrator but also a confidence from the victim and others that the restoration is safe for the victim. Restoration is never inevitable and it may often be that the victim and others are unwilling or unable to trust the perpetrator.
Restitution is the process of making amends for something. It is a necessary part of justice and while we do not claim that restitution can undo the wrongs committed it can form an integral part of an aggrieved person’s recovery.
Restitution by the church is the normal means of addressing the needs of an aggrieved person where an allegation has been sustained.
The appropriate church organisation will take into consideration the ways in which the church, where an allegation has been sustained, may make restitution. This may include provision of minor costs such as transport to attend hearings and the like and/or provision of ongoing professional support and counselling for the aggrieved person. It may simply involve an apology.
Financial assistance or reparation may also be paid to an aggrieved person where a criminal offence or civil wrong has been committed even though the church is not legally liable. Where restitution involves financial compensation it will be referred to the insurance underwriter, the Trustees and appropriate legal advisors for resolution. Financial restitution is not covered by this procedure.
The appropriate church organisation will take into consideration the ways in which the offender can be encouraged to make restitution to the offended party or parties. Acceptance of the need for such actions is an important part of the offender understanding how their actions have affected the aggrieved person.
Where facilitation is required in relation to restitution, the SCU will appoint an independent facilitator. The facilitator may be a support person and shall:
- make it clear to all concerned that this procedure will not deal with legal or other associated costs, or financial compensation,
- arrange and moderate a procedure for communication between the aggrieved person and the appropriate authority within the church, which may involve a meeting, under the direction of the facilitator, in which apologies can be offered and unresolved problems addressed,
- advise the aggrieved person that he/she may have a support person present at any such meeting,
- ensure that the presence of any other persons is subject to the agreement of both parties,
- seek to know the ongoing needs of the aggrieved person and the response of the church to these needs,
- seek to know the needs of the aggrieved person’s family and other persons effected by the abuse,
- seek to identify any outstanding issues where the aggrieved person is not satisfied with the response received and explore with both parties the best means of dealing with such issues, and
- ensure that there is a record of any agreement reached and any outstanding areas of disagreement.
The facilitator will provide the SCU with a written report of the outcome, including any recommendations for procedures or actions that would assist further in bringing the matter to a conclusion. A copy of this report may be provided to the insurance underwriter.