Julian Mann has been vicar of the Parish Church of the Ascension, Oughtibridge, South Yorkshire since 2000. Before ordaination he was a reporter for Retail Week.
Child care professionals in nurseries, schools, churches and various charitable and voluntary organisations could face a grave but so far not sufficiently recognised moral difficulty if the law is changed to make it mandatory for them to report any allegation of child abuse.
I cannot speak for other professionals, but we as parochial clergy are often responsible for both paid staff and volunteers who work with children. The official impression is unfortunately being given already that we as clergy are now legally required to report any allegation of child abuse against a staff member or a volunteer, and immediately to suspend the person against whom an allegation has been made.
Clearly, that mistaken impression about the current legal position is indicative of the power of the lobby that is pushing to make such reporting mandatory on professionals.
Child abuse is an appalling evil of which people calling themselves Christians have been guilty in our generation. We as clergy have a professional responsibility to work hard to make sure that our parish safeguarding policies are properly implemented. This is no easy task in the Church of England. Many Anglican churches, particularly in the north of England, have an active volunteer base of fewer than 70 adults.
It is by no means straightforward to find a suitable person to act as the parish church’s safeguarding officer, and in some cases this role is falling on the clergy themselves on top of all their other duties. But it is vitally important that we are vigilant for the sake of the children in our care and of the adults who serve them. The need for safeguarding and proper CRB checks is not in dispute.
But unfortunately sinful human beings, including those of us who attend churches, are also capable of inventing malicious falsehoods against a personal enemy when we know that it could damage them. In the current moral climate, it would be very helpful for us as professionals to know what legal redress under English law is available to those against whom false allegations are made. As well as rightly promoting child protection, organisations such as dioceses should surely inform their staff in plain English about the criminal and civil options open to potential victims of malicious falsehoods.
This is a separate question from the legal duty on anyone to report child abuse when they have witnessed it or seen its effects. This is about saving professionals from being forced to convey false allegations.
The will of Jesus Christ as revealed in the Christian Bible emphasises both the preciousness of children and the importance of telling the truth. If clergy become legally required to report all allegations of child abuse without being allowed to inform the accusers of their legal responsibilities or to advise the accused person of the options open to them, then we could be forced into acting as mouthpieces for malicious liars. A no-questions-asked duty immediately to report child abuse could force pastors into colluding with those who wish to bear false witness against their neighbours, contrary to the Ninth Commandment.
A change in the law on reporting would arguably see the victory of the prevalent ethos in the public sector which sees reporting allegations as a much more important imperative than the duty to safeguard a hitherto respectable person’s good name. But given the recent track record of various public sector workers in the police and in the NHS on truth-telling, why should their ethos be trusted to deliver progress on safeguarding?