The aggrieved person

It may be a difficult thing for an individual to make an allegation against someone in a position of authority, be it real or perceived, or indeed against any person in the church. It may be equally difficult for an individual to make a complaint within an organisation like a church, because of its structure and our sincere wish to believe the best of those that work within it.

It is because of this imbalance of position and power that our procedure must be scrupulously fair and start from a position of compassion. This attitude must be present even when it is not yet certain that the allegations are accurate. This attitude in itself does not pass judgement or prejudice the rights of the accused person, but it does acknowledge that the aggrieved person may be a victim of abuse, which is extremely important to that person’s well-being.

Sadly, many aggrieved persons have been badly hurt when they have taken a stand against abuse and made an allegation, only to have faced disbelief. 

Safe Church is intended to give aggrieved persons a sense of justice through providing a procedure that: 

  • seeks the truth,
  • acknowledges the pain of the people involved,
  • is compassionate,
  • provides protection for those at risk, and
  • provides accountability.

In the event that the truth of an allegation has been substantiated, whether through admission of the offender, a finding of a court (either a court of the church through the Code of Discipline or a secular court), or another recognised procedure, the church shall respond to the needs of the aggrieved person in such ways as are demanded by justice and compassion. When a complaint is substantiated justice must be sought for the primary aggrieved person

Where the truth of an allegation has not been substantiated, the church may still offer assistance to the aggrieved person in the form of counselling or pastoral care. This will not be considered to be an admission of any liability.

In the event that a conclusion is reached that an allegation is unable to be proven at the time of determination, the aggrieved person will be advised as such. Any support person appointed to provide support for the aggrieved person during the process will, as far as possible, clearly inform the aggrieved person of the type of information or evidence that would be required to reopen an investigation and make a determination. Assistance may be offered in the form of counselling or pastoral care without this being considered to be an admission of liability.

No aggrieved person will be required to give an undertaking which imposes upon them an obligation of silence concerning the circumstances which led them to make a complaint, as a condition of an agreement with the church.

 

The alleged offender

There may be times when an allegation is false, misconceived or vexatious. That is why it is imperative for the alleged offender that our procedure is scrupulously fair and that in implementing the procedures and preventative strategies of Safe Church we aim to create an environment that is focused on justice. 

“It is a fundamental rule of the common law doctrine of natural justice expressed in traditional terms that, generally speaking, when an order is to be made which will deprive a person of some right or interest or the legitimate expectation of a benefit, he is entitled to know the case sought to be made against him and to be given an opportunity of replying to it.” Mason Jin Kioa v West (1985) 159 CLR550, 582, quoted at para 122

If a Police investigation, a court process or a Safe Church investigation procedure makes it clear that the alleged offender did not commit the alleged offence, whatever steps are necessary will be taken to restore the good reputation of the alleged offender and this will be expressed without admission of any liability.

Where an allegation has not been satisfied the impact of the investigation procedure on the individual will be considered and what further assistance may need to be provided, such as pastoral care or counselling, will be given.

When the investigation has needed to be public and is subsequently determined to be misconceived, false or vexatious, a public statement of exoneration by the church body involved in the allegation of the alleged offender is essential.

In the event that the church body reaches the conclusion that an allegation is unable to be proven at the time of determination, the alleged offender will be so advised. Where relevant, they will clearly be informed of the possibility of the church body reopening the matter and making a determination at a later date. In the exercise of any relevant pastoral or other powers, the church body may impose some conditions before reinstating the alleged offender

 

The offender

If guilt has been admitted or found through due procedure the response must be appropriate to the gravity of what has happened, while being consistent with our Christian beliefs. Account will be taken of the severity of the breach, the degree of harm and the likelihood that such behaviour could be repeated.

Offenders may not be given back the power of authority that they have abused.

We have a serious role in seeking to ensure that offenders are held accountable for what they have done, come to a true appreciation of the enduring harm they have caused, seek professional help and do whatever is in their power to make amends. 

Moreover, we believe that God is eager for all people, offenders included, to come to repentance, to be reconciled to Him and those they have offended, and to grow in the grace of the Lord. 

Therefore, we will seek an outcome that allows church authorities to have some contact with offenders and some form of influence over their conduct. An ongoing pastoral relationship will be sought that allows us to reach out to them with the hope of the gospel that forgiveness is possible, both from human beings and from God, and that change is possible.

A person may be disqualified from pastoral ministry once conviction of sexual misconduct has occurred. A minister or office bearer of the church who perpetrates sexual misconduct could be charged with an ecclesiastical offence of conduct inconsistent with Biblical principles.  The Code of Discipline deals with the relevant procedures and includes provisions for suspension in the case of a minister or other paid office bearer.  It should be noted that any member of the church may be disciplined for improper conduct. 

On a personal level, the offender may have the following outcomes:

  • anger at disclosure and fear of further disclosure,
  • guilt about betrayal of those under his/her care, colleagues and calling,
  • damaged reputation,
  • removal from position and loss of livelihood,
  • damaged family relationships, 
  • counselling costs, and
  • legal costs.

If there is any hope for any of us then there is hope for an offender. God, in His great mercy, sent Jesus to die for us even when we were still His enemies. He came for the sinful, the unclean, the unlovely and the unloved. 

In ministry to offenders we as Christians can hold out the hope of the gospel, that they might confess before God, repent, ask for forgiveness and be saved. We can encourage offenders to seek to make restitution to those they have wronged. We can stand by them as they seek reconciliation with God and with those they have abused.

The gospel of Jesus Christ is open to all who truly seek it, and it would be a terrible thing for the church to turn away offenders. However, this does not mean that we have to leave ourselves open to the possibility of abuse. Those ministering to offenders need to be aware that:

  • offenders are practised at deceit: both of themselves and others,
  • offenders may re-offend unless they get professional help,
  • offenders have often manipulated systems and people to hide their abusive behaviour, and
  • all things are possible for God.

For their sake, and for the sake of others, we need to make sure that we remain alert and actively seek to create an environment where abuse is not possible.

Where an offender is to remain part of the church, there are a variety of protective measures that should be put in place. On an individual level, protective measures will vary from situation to situation, however they may include: 

  • agreeing steps to be taken for confession, repentance and acknowledging the harm caused, 
  • restricting the activities in which an offender may participate, 
  • restricting the physical areas into which an offender may go, 
  • providing a system of accountability where an offender must remain with a certain person/s during some activities or at certain locations, and/or 
  • agreeing to submit to the authority of the church

The presence of a convicted offender in the church community is an exceptional circumstance, and warrants measures that are unusual. A written covenant, signed by the offender and the Session, can be put in place to make the protective measures clear. The offender should be held accountable for adhering to the agreed conditions through regular meetings with the church leadership. Congregations entering into such a covenant need to remain perpetually vigilant as there is a tendency to reduce accountability and let covenants lapse over time, which places the church at risk.

 

Others

When allegations are made against people within the church many other people are affected besides the aggrieved person and the alleged offender. There may be significant effects of on organisation to the needs of others in the situation. These may include:

  • the investigator,
  • the church body,
  • families of the aggrieved person and the alleged offender,
  • the congregation, group, school community etc, 
  • the wider church
  • the wider community,
  • the insurance underwriter, and
  • the Trustees.

Where an investigation involves the leadership of a congregation it may result in:

  • shock, grief and disbelief,
  • public embarrassment for those involved,
  • feelings of being betrayed by the abuser,
  • a loss of confidence in leadership,
  • confusion between the aggrieved person’s personal experience and the wider community’s public experience,
  • temptation to blame the aggrieved person,
  • legal and financial liability,
  • temptation to engage in inappropriate ways of responding, and/or
  • secrecy about abuse and past failures to respond adequately.

During the procedure, the church may need to determine among other things the outcome in relation to:

  • leadership,
  • pastoral care,
  • reorganisation or allocation of duties, and/or
  • steps that need to be taken with regard to the provision of information, training and education for all those involved.