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Christian leaders fired for things they did not do

BST alumnus, Paul Tuxworth

A Christian mission recently fired eight of its leaders for things they did not do. Technically they did not use the word “fired”, rather “terminated from active membership”, but it means the same thing. These events make compelling reading for current or aspiring Christian leaders.

Close to 30 years ago, Dr David Parker at Brisbane School of Theology introduced me to the concept of sins of omission. I am constantly reminded of this phrase as I investigate cases of possible child abuse on the mission field: “If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them.” (James 4:17)

Being “terminated” for something they did not do sounds unjust, that is until you hear more about what the mission leaders did not do. They did not protect children entrusted in their care from child abuse. “Failure to report child abuse and failure to otherwise protect” was the phrase used. We all know this doesn’t only happen on the mission field.

Closer to home, Dr Peter Hollingworth recently apologised to child victims of sexual abuse in the Anglican Church in Brisbane and admitted, he failed to protect them when he was the archbishop. “I am extremely sorry that the church and I failed to protect you,” Dr Hollingworth told the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. It has been said that his “failure to protect” them cost him his job as Governor General.

Your job might not be the only cost if, as a Christian leader, you fail to protect children in your ministry. Some mission organisations are facing multi-million dollar lawsuits and possible bankruptcy. New Tribes Mission recently settled a five-million dollar lawsuit for failing to protect and to report the abuse of one of their children.

These costs pale to insignificance when we consider the possible costs of abuse on child victims and their families: anxiety; depression; dissociation; difficulty concentrating; withdrawn and/or difficulty connecting with others; flashbacks; increased hypervigilance; difficulty sleeping; sexually transmitted infections or diseases; eating disorders; drug use; risky sexual decision-making; self-harm; troubled sleep; suicide; loss of belief in God. Many child victims they say, it was the lack of response and disbelief they received from Christian leaders and sometimes their Christian parents that hurt the most. It was that failure to protect.

Dr Hollingworth told the Royal Commission that since that time, he has “gained an enriched understanding of the emotional and psychological toll such abuse took on victims.”  Wouldn’t it be great if all our Christian leaders started their ministries with an “enriched understanding” of the toll child abuse has on victims, and the potential costs of failing to protect the children entrusted to their care. This would motivate Christian leaders to ensure that “failure to protect and report” was not going to occur on their watch. This could result in ministries (and other organisations) that:

  • Create an open and aware culture regarding child abuse;
  • Understand that prevention is everyone’s responsibility and that this value flows from the top down;
  • Have a shared understanding of the definition of child abuse;
  • Have strategies to allow their members to identify and manage the risks that lead to abuse;
  • Have written child abuse policies and procedures covering both prevention and response;
  • Know how to respond to “people of concern”;
  • Have clear boundaries for acceptable and unacceptable behaviour with children, detailed in a signed code of conduct;
  • Have a recruitment process for those wanting access to children including criminal history checks, second level reference checks and interviews with child abuse specific questions, and a minimum membership period;
  • Have staff feeling supported and appropriately supervised;
  • Provide children and young people with age appropriate child abuse awareness and prevention training;
  • Provide management, staff and parents with the child abuse awareness, prevention and response training they need to do their jobs;
  • Make everyone aware of the process to handle child abuse related concerns /allegations of abuse, as contained in their policies and procedures;
  • Understand and follow the moral and legal child abuse mandatory reporting responsibilities (to appropriate civil authorities);
  • Have a plan to assist child abuse victims with follow up support (counselling, medical and their costs) and how it will be funded;
  • Are only mentioned in Child Abuse Royal Commissions as examples of positive role models.

For the past 11 years, my ministry has focused on assisting Christian organisations (churches, missions, Bible colleges and schools) to prevent and respond to child abuse through: awareness raising; prevention and response training; policy development; professional supervision and assistance with investigations.

Paul and his wife Ruth studied at BST in the 80s and were missionaries in the Philippines. For more than 25 years, Paul has worked in the area of abuse prevention and response, the last 11 years in international child abuse prevention and investigations in Christian communities. We hope that his insight into preventing and responding to child abuse has been helpful. Paul would be happy to discuss any questions this article might raise for you and your ministry. To contact Paul Tuxworth please email paultuxworth@gmail.com.

In 2021, BST is offering a new course, ‘Child Abuse in Christian Communities: Prevention & Response’, 10 February – 26 May with Paul Tuxworth, Richard Gibson and Kelsey Fitz-Gerald. You can find out more www.bst.qld.edu.au/safeguarding-children.

*Original article published in 2015
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