We, as a Church, can significantly reduce our risk of legal liability for negligent hiring (and thereby the likelihood that an incident of abuse will occur) by having every applicant for positions of responsibility (volunteer or compensated) complete a "screening application". A sample form is attached to this document for your consideration (see appendix 1). The application should be completed by every applicant for any position, especially those involving the custody or supervision of children and young people. The application should also be completed by current employees or volunteers.
Having an individual complete the form is in itself not enough to protect a church and its members. Significant protection only occurs if the church takes the following additional steps:
If an applicant is unknown to you, confirm his or her identity by requiring photographic identification (such as a state driver's licence). Child abusers often use pseudonyms.
Contact each reference listed on the application and make a written record of each contact. Show the date and method of the contact, the person making the contact as well as the person contacted, and a summary of the reference's remarks. A sample form for use in recording references' comments is attached to this document (see appendix 2). Such forms, when completed, should be kept with an applicant's personnel file.
Contact each church in which the applicant has indicated prior experience in working with youth, and discuss the applicant's suitability, ensuring that all comments are recorded and filed.
Be sure your entire staff (volunteer and compensated) is aware of the child abuse reporting requirements as outlined in Section 6 - Notification of Disclosures.
Finally, the church must treat as strictly confidential all applications and records of contacts with churches or references. Such information should be marked "confidential", and all personnel files should be kept in a locked cabinet for purposes of confidentiality. Access is limited to those so authorised, and the employee, who may view only their own personnel file.
Sexual Abuse of Minors
All churches need to recognise the problem of child abuse openly. All churches need to recognise that ministers and other church workers may sin in this way. Failure to openly recognise this reality has terrible consequences. Churches that don't believe that Christians commit serious criminal offences (ie. sexual abuse) become prime targets for people with a sexual interest in children. As a result children are less likely to be protected in these churches than they are in any other group in society. All churches need to have in place a clear and specific child protection policy for all those involved in children's work. Where cover-ups have occurred it is obvious that these churches are more concerned in avoiding scandal or litigation rather than protecting children.
Where churches have in place a clear and public child protection policy, people who abuse children will be warned off. An essential part of any policy is the careful screening of all church workers. This is the clear responsibility of the Session in each congregation. All members of the congregation should be made aware of these policies and all church workers should agree to abide by them.
All paid or unpaid employees of the Presbyterian Church of Australia and all volunteers should be required to declare, by way of a signed statement, that they have never been convicted of a criminal offence or done anything to endanger the safety of a child.
All cases of alleged child sexual abuse are to be reported to the civil authorities.
Any credible allegations of sexual abuse of a minor must be reported to the Department of Community Services (DOCS) or Police notwithstanding the fact that there is presently no legal obligation under the Act for churches to do so. [Children (Care and Protection) Act 1987] The Police are generally better able to investigate and deal with allegations of abuse of a minor than the church.
Sexual abuse of a minor will inevitably involve a breach of criminal law and any attempt by the church to investigate that abuse may prejudice a criminal investigation.
A church worker who becomes aware of sexual abuse of a minor should be obliged to report to the Police or DOCS.
All churches must treat all complaints seriously and ensure that they are properly investigated. The whole process needs to be victim-friendly with the presumption that they are telling the truth, while also holding in tension the presumption of innocence for the accused.
Churches must not investigate on their own.
A body separate from the local church or the denominational leadership has to make a judgement on the complaint. Independent investigation and action is recommended so that not only is justice done - but seen to be done. Any investigation and subsequent action should take into account the Code of Constitution, Procedure and Practice of the Presbyterian Church of Australia.
Churches must be absolutely transparent in their relationship with investigating authorities and must not cover up criminal offences.
Full co-operation with the Police and other civil authorities is required before alerting the alleged offender to the complaint. This will involve the Police obtaining a statement from the victim and gathering the evidence before confronting the alleged offender.
Good pastoral care needs to be provided for the alleged offender and the victim.
Any volunteer who is involved in children's work and who is accused of sexual misconduct will be immediately suspended from responsibilities. If the person is a paid employee or minister he or she must be given a hearing before suspension. It may be possible to restrict and/or reallocate their duties.
A person is automatically disqualified from pastoral ministry once conviction of sexual abuse of children or young people has occurred.
If there are unacceptable risks that persons may abuse children they must not be involved in children's ministry even if charges are not laid and prosecution may not proceed. If in doubt, protect the children.
The complainant must be kept fully informed of the process and the progress of the complaint.
Delay in processing the complaint should be avoided.
When a complaint is substantiated justice must be sought for the primary victim. This is by public acknowledgement by the institution that the injustice has occurred, together with action directed towards support and restitution.
When an accusation is not proven or found to be mischievous, a public statement of exoneration by the independent body is essential.
Protocol needs to focus on justice and mercy rather than protection of the institution.
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