A Community of Care
The policies that are found in Safe to Grow need to be set in the context of a desire to see the church as a community of care for all. A community created and shaped by the risen Jesus will be a community which breaks down barriers, and which embraces people with a wide variety of needs and experiences in a community of care. We are called to live out the new commandment of Jesus in our life together: ‘I give you a new commandment that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.’ (John 13.34) The reality of child abuse, and the enormous harm it inflicts on individuals, on families and on communities, challenges our capacity to create a true community of care within the church.
The complex and often painful issues require us to exercise the greatest wisdom in fostering a climate of pastoral care in which the needs of different groups of people are fully met. It can sometimes feel as if the claims for sensitivity and understanding by these groups compete with each other.
There is, first, the demand to create a safe environment for our children. The good practice contained in Safe to Grow is not a reluctant response to government guidelines. These are responsible measures to enable our children to grow and develop in a community where they will not be threatened with harm. These proposals are all about the proper and appropriate care of children and young people, allowing them to grow and develop in an environment that engenders trust and security.
Also requiring our pastoral care in this context are those who were themselves abused as children. Many ‘survivors’ of abuse will never have been able to tell their story to others in the church. It would be too painful. They may not know how their story will be heard and received. Their experience may be of people not wanting to know. Those who abused them may have been loved and respected members of the church fellowship. One thing is certain: a church fellowship which speaks too tritely of the forgiveness and restoration of the child abuser will appear to trivialise the deep hurt and pain that survivors carry with them throughout their lives. Similarly, a church fellowship that treats the safeguarding of children and young people as an inconvenience and a hindrance to their work, will give an unwelcome message to the survivors of abuse.
Next there are those against whom accusations are made. Whenever an accusation of child abuse is made the individuals concerned are deeply hurt and a community is often thrown into turmoil. Taking an accusation seriously while offering appropriate pastoral support to the accused is fraught with difficulties. Because all allegations must be followed up with the utmost seriousness it can sometimes feel as if the person who is being accused is being treated as guilty before they have a chance to answer the charges. All of those who work with children in whatever context are vulnerable to this eventuality. When accusations are made appropriate support needs to be available.
Finally, the church also has a responsibility of pastoral care towards the person who has offended in the past, even in the most horrid and degrading ways. Child abuse must not be perceived, through our actions and attitudes, to be the ‘unforgivable sin’. We must find ways of enabling the person who has offended in the past to find their appropriate place in the fellowship of the church. We will also need to help them when they struggle with a sense of vocation to ministries which, because of their past, they cannot pursue.
The challenge to the church is to seek to develop such a community of care that children find in the church a safe community, survivors find in the church a healing community, the accused find in the church a supportive community and abusers find in the church a redeeming community. This will be the distinctive nature of the church – that it works seriously at what it means to love in a broken world and that it works seriously at being a community that is truly inclusive. ‘By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another’ (John 13.35). In this sense Safe to Grow is very much about the mission of the church in the context of a world that is sometimes loveless and harmful.