Safeguarding for faith-based organisations

Safeguarding has never been more high profile and a wave of recent reports and inquiries have led to an intense spotlight on how faith-based organisations (FBOs) manage both recent and historic allegations of abuse.

Is safeguarding a particular issue for faith-based organisations?

Safeguarding is a huge challenge for all charities, but perhaps especially so for FBOs. The Independent Inquire into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) has shown the endemic nature of historic abuse that existed in the church and other religious institutions.

There is also now a focus on whether the particular characteristics of religious organisations mean it is appropriate to develop a separate category of harm known as “spiritual abuse”. With victims also much more likely to report allegations in the light of the #metoo movement and other trends there is huge pressure on the faith sector to improve its safeguarding culture.

What exactly does safeguarding entail?

Safeguarding lacks a single, uniform definition.

Keeping Children Safe in Education defines safeguarding children as:

  • Protecting children
  • Preventing impairment to health
  • Ensuring safe & effective care
  • Taking action for best outcomes

The Care Act 2014 describes safeguarding vulnerable adults as:

  • Protecting an adult’s right to live in safety free from abuse and neglect
  • Promoting wellbeing

There is also the Charity Commission’s own definition of safeguarding which can be summarised as:

  • Taking reasonable steps to protect from harm those who come into contact with your charity

All these definitions have potential relevance for FBOs and it is important to know which applies in any given situation.

What safeguarding guidance should faith-based organisation consult?

Working Together to Safeguard Children is the key document setting out the way in which all the different agencies and types of organisations are meant to work together co-operatively to safeguard children e.g. local authorities, police, health agencies.

Its key message is that safeguarding is everyone’s responsibility. It is statutory i.e. legally binding. There is an important section for charities, voluntary organisations and FBOs which states that every FBO (no matter what size) needs to: comply with CC guidance, have safeguarding policies in place, ensure all practitioners (paid and volunteers) know their responsibilities, how to respond to concerns and how to report to police / Children’s Social Care if necessary.

Keeping Children Safe during Community Activities, After-School Clubs and Tuition is a relatively recent piece of guidance and, for most charities, is the one document they should read in full. It is non-statutory so not everything is legally binding but it does helpfully set out where organisations do have a legal duty as well as what might be considered best practice for both large (5+ staff/volunteers) and small organisations.

For any faith-based schools, Keeping Children Safe in Education will be their key document. The most recent edition includes lots of changes with a particular focus on peer-on-peer abuse in the wake of the Everyone’s Invited movement.

The Charity Commission’s safeguarding guidance is also a must read for every FBO which is a charity.

Additionally, there may be specific safeguarding guidance in place from the FBO’s own network e.g. the Church of England has its own safeguarding policies and procedures.

Does safeguarding extend beyond children and vulnerable adults?

Yes, safeguarding is now a much wider concept. The Charity Commission’s safeguarding guidance states:

Protecting people and safeguarding responsibilities should be a governance priority for all charities. It is a fundamental part of operating as a charity for the public benefit. As part of fulfilling your trustee duties, whether working online or in person, you must take reasonable steps to protect from harm people who come into contact with your charity. This includes:

  • people who benefit from your charity’s work
  • staff
  • volunteers
  • other people who come into contact with your charity through its work

This extremely broad definition can potentially encompass anyone who comes into contact with a faith-based charity.

What is spiritual abuse?

There is no legal definition of spiritual abuse. The most commonly used is that supplied by the independent safeguarding organisation 31:8:

Coercion and control of one individual by another in a spiritual context. The target experiences spiritual abuse as a deeply emotional personal attack. This abuse may include:- manipulation and exploitation, enforced accountability, censorship of decision making, requirements for secrecy and silence, pressure to conform, misuse of scripture or using the pulpit to control behaviour, requirement of obedience to the abuser, the suggestion that the abuser has a ‘divine’ position, isolation from others, especially those external to the abusive context.

This is a contested idea within the faith community with some arguing that existing categories of abuse e.g. emotional, psychological abuse adequately cover the harms described. Others have suggested that different labels e.g. “pastoral malpractice” might be more appropriate. There are also concerns that the idea is inherently nebulous e.g. one person’s “misuse of scripture” might be another’s faithful interpretation.

Nonetheless, whatever labels are used, it is vital that all FBOs have robust safeguarding mechanisms in place and are alive to the unique safeguarding challenges present in faith-based environments.

Safeguarding issues rarely arise in isolation. Frequently there will be disciplinary processes that need to be convened, complaints/grievances to respond to and data protection or reputational issues to address.

Careful thought will also need to be given as to any necessary reports to regulators e.g. a Serious Incident Report to the Charity Commission.

What are practical safeguarding tips for faith-based organisations?

It is important that FBOs have safeguarding policies which should be regularly refreshed and updated. However, the most vital thing to focus on is safeguarding culture.

Almost all the well-known safeguarding failures have not just involved allegations about the individual but also allegations of wider cultural blind spots and weaknesses: powerful leaders not open to challenge, weak trustees, cultures of secrecy and a priority given to “protecting the network”.

It’s vital that FBOs create healthy, transparent organisations where staff/volunteers have the belief “it could happen here” and the confidence to ask questions about things that are concerning or don’t seem quite right.

Trustees also need to be aware of their responsibilities and prepared to take the lead in championing safeguarding. They are ultimately the ones with primary legal responsibility.

How Moore Barlow can help

Safeguarding is serious, complex and it’s more than ever vital to get it right. If at all unsure, do seek advice, whether from a lawyer or a safeguarding specialist.

Contact our expert team today