All allegations and disclosures of abuse will be treated seriously. All aggrieved persons will be treated with respect, and disclosures will be dealt with sensitively, promptly, and confidentially.
It is possible for any person in a position of authority within the church to become aware of abuse, have an aggrieved person disclose abuse or have an offender confess to abuse. In these situations it is extremely important that the situation is not compromised in any way.
The following procedure is intended to ensure as far as possible that we hear the allegation or disclosure and take appropriate immediate action with regard to the safety of those involved without compromising the evidence.
Anonymous allegations will be treated carefully. While we acknowledge that anxiety and fear may persuade some aggrieved persons not to reveal their identity immediately, all anonymous aggrieved persons will be clearly advised that the church may be unable to act on the complaint under Safe Church beyond this point unless the name of the aggrieved person becomes known.
When you become aware that someone has been abused by a person that you know it can be very difficult for you to refrain from showing disbelief. However, as difficult as it is for you, you should remember that the damage done to people who have been abused, disclosed the abuse and then not been believed is immense.
Listen, listen, listen… and do not add anything.
Listen and comfort by telling them that you understand what they are saying and that you take it seriously, stressing that their allegation will be taken seriously.
As far as possible, only ascertain the gist of the allegation. Do not ask leading questions (that is questions that put the answer as part of the question and most often can be answered with “yes” or “no”) as this may lead to difficulties in having evidence accepted in court at a later date.
Obtain appropriate details while being aware that at this early stage it is not appropriate to probe too deeply. Listen, take notes and do not add anything.
Clarify exactly what the allegation is and who is involved. You will need to know:
- the name and address of the place where the alleged offence took place
- the name of the person making the disclosure and his/her relationship to the person who has been abused
- the whereabouts of all those involved
- the details of the alleged abuse and how this knowledge was obtained
- the name of the alleged offender and his/her relationship to the person who was allegedly abused
- known details about other significant people, and actions taken and planned by those involved
Do not minimise the allegation or disclosure, or convey disbelief by anything you do or say. Remember, what may seem incredible may actually be true. Abusers are often cunning, secretive, manipulative and not immediately nor obviously identifiable. Assure the aggrieved person that, if the events are truly as stated, then abuse must be named for what it is.
Ask what can be done so that that the aggrieved person feels safe from further abuse.
When the allegation or disclosure concerns a crime allegedly committed by a person in authority within the church, explain to the aggrieved person and/or complainant that any procedure the church establishes cannot compel witnesses, subpoena documents or insist on a cross-examination of witnesses other than provided in the Code of Discipline 5.25(f) & (h) which relates to members of the church. It cannot impose the same penalties as a criminal court. Because of these serious limitations, the church has a strong preference that the allegation be referred to the Victoria Police and, if desired, the aggrieved person will be assisted to do this.
It is also important to tell the aggrieved person that some conduct must be reported (conduct that is classified as a crime under the Victorian Crimes Act) and you cannot promise to keep the disclosure or allegations to yourself.
If the aggrieved person, in cases where the conduct is not classified as a crime under the Victorian Crimes Act, indicates an intention not to take the matter to the Victoria Police, and the allegation concerns a person in authority within the church you should make a written record of this and ask the person to sign it. Unless and until the aggrieved person signs this document, the church cannot proceed with the allegation other than to provide appropriate pastoral care and support. This record should read:
“The Presbyterian Church of Australia in Victoria has strongly urged me to take my complaint to the Police or other civil authority. It has been carefully explained to me that any procedure the church establishes cannot compel witnesses, subpoena documents or insist on a cross-examination of witnesses other than provided in the Code of Discipline 5.25 (f)&(h) which relates to members of the church. It cannot impose the same penalties as a criminal court. Aware of these limitations, I still state that I do not wish to take my complaint to the Police or other civil authority at this time and I ask that a church procedure be established.”
If the allegation or disclosure involves assault and it is recent then the clothing worn by the person should be retained and they should not wash as a medical examination may be required for forensic evidence. Remember that with forensic evidence the sooner examined the better.
Where the allegation is in regard to a person in authority within the church and the complainant wishes to take the matter further
Advise that you will not be undertaking the investigation of the matter yourself.
Advise that you will not at this stage be contacting the alleged offender but that this may be required at some point in the future. You must not contact the alleged offender as it may endanger the complainant and may make Police investigations more difficult.
Promise confidentiality and that timely action will be taken. At this stage you should only talk to the SCU, or the Police or the local minister if that is not yourself.
Provide a copy of the Safe Church Policy and Code of Conduct and the SCU contact details.
Ask the aggrieved person to make a written statement for you. If they are unable to do so you should make a written statement for them. If you make a written statement for them you should have a third party present, make a written statement while the aggrieved person is talking, have the third party check the statement, read it aloud to the aggrieved person and make any adjustments, and then have all three parties sign the statement as a true and accurate record.
Advise that if the required details are not provided or the aggrieved person and /or complainant is unwilling to cooperate with any investigation then it will be more difficult for the complaint to be dealt with.
Clearly state that it is the right of the aggrieved person to seek legal advice and commence legal action on the basis of such advice at any point in the procedure and that this may mean that the church ceases to deal further with the complaint under Safe Church.
Say that you will be contacting the SCU immediately. The SCU will advise what further steps should be taken. This may involve contacting the Police. If for any reason the SCU is unable to be contacted and you feel that you should contact the Police you should do so immediately (for example, if the person is in immediate danger).
Where the allegation is in regard to a person in authority within the church assure the aggrieved person that all discussions with you will be confidential, as will the written complaint, except that:
- a copy of the written complaint will be provided to the SCU
- you will advise the SCU of any relevant matters as they arise
- a copy of the written complaint may be provided to the legal advisers, the insurance underwriters, the insurers and their legal advisers
- the written complaint and any relevant information obtained by you will be disclosed if required by law
- if the written complaint is required by law to be notified to civil authorities (for example, because it discloses serious criminal behaviour or involves a minor) the notification will be given in accordance with the law, and
- for the matter to be properly investigated and appropriate action taken the rules of procedural fairness may require that a copy of the written complaint be given to the alleged offender.
You should make the aggrieved person aware that should the final point become necessary they will be given the opportunity of either consenting to this occurring, consenting to the substance of the complaint being provided in an appropriately edited form, or alternatively withdrawing the complaint. If the aggrieved person does not consent to this, and it is necessary to ensure procedural fairness, then the matter cannot be dealt with by the church. The complaint will be held by the SCU until it can be addressed under Safe Church or until the aggrieved person provides the necessary consent.
So that the substance of details of the complaint can be notified to the insurance underwriters, you should make a written record of the aggrieved person’s consent to disclose the substance and/or details of the complaint to the insurance underwriters and ask the person to sign it.
This record should state:
“I consent to a copy of the written complaint being provided to the SCU, and understand that the contact person will advise the SCU of any relevant matters as they arise. I consent to a copy of the written complaint being provided to legal advisers, the insurance underwriters, the insurers and their legal advisers. I understand that the written complaint and the contact person’s report will be disclosed if required by law. I understand that if the written complaint is required by law to be notified to external authorities (for example, because it discloses serious criminal behaviour or involves a minor) the notification will be given in accordance with the law. I understand that for the matter to be properly investigated and appropriate action to be taken a copy of the written complaint may be given to the alleged offender and I consent to this being done.”
Write a detailed record noting all of the appropriate details. You should also sign and date this record and store it in a secure place.