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Safeguarding people in faith communities

Report of SCIE inter-faith breakfast meeting

Churches and faith-based groups play a vital role in the lives of many children, young people and adults. People who contribute to the life of faith-based communities and places of worship have a role to play in keeping people safe. They also play a vital role in responding effectively and compassionately when someone comes forward to share concerns or disclose abuse.

SCIE is working with a number of faith groups to enable them to improve their safeguarding practice. This is a summary of the SCIE Inter faith breakfast that brought together senior UK faith leaders to talk about safeguarding adults and children.

We have seen from recent high-profile inquiries the immense and long-lasting damage caused when abuse is perpetrated by someone in a faith-related role. We have also seen how ineffective, unprofessional or defensive responses are experienced by victims as re-abusive, sometimes worse than the original abuse itself.

The SCIE breakfast brought together senior faith leaders from across the country to identify what is helping and what is hindering safeguarding work, lessons learnt on individual journeys of improvement, and what more is needed to be done to remove the barriers to delivering the highest quality safeguarding to keep all children and adults safe.

Safeguarding is everyone’s business. For faith-based organisations and communities, getting this right can be challenging but it must be at the heart of everything they do. Recognising the risks and understanding that abusers can hide in plain sight is more than a tick-box exercise, it’s about culture and behaviour.

Paul Burstow, Chair, SCIE

The SCIE Inter‑faith breakfast was the first of a series of reflective learning events to create a platform for dialogue and share best practice in safeguarding. There were representatives from the Methodist Church, the Church in Wales, the United Reformed Church, the Catholic Safeguarding Advisory Service, Soka Gakkai International UK – Buddhism in Action for Peace, the Church of England, Quakers in Britain, Baptists Together, and the Jewish community (Reshet).

Participants on the day agreed:

  • How much they shared in terms of the challenges they all faced in progressing safeguarding practice, despite the differences between faith groups
  • How useful it was to discuss these challenges with people of faith, regardless of which faith

Setting the scene – key note speakers

Graham Tilby, National Safeguarding Adviser for the Church of England, opened the morning by giving an overview of the Church’s journey which began with first recognising that there is a problem and shared his view that safeguarding must be infused with theology to be effective. He then described how SCIE had helped the Church of England through its independent audits of dioceses and its research on the experiences of survivors of abuse of Church responses.

Shelley Marsh, Director of Reshet, a network of Jewish youth organisations, said that safeguarding is everyone’s responsibility and local forums for learning should be created to enable members across the community to come together to share their learning and concerns.

An evident theme across all the speakers and in consequent table discussions was that safeguarding is an issue that affects all faith groups. There was agreement and an acknowledgment regarding the level of resources and support internally and externally needed to successfully meet safeguarding statutory requirements, both with new legislative requirements and evolving risks, for example technology.

Faith communities and safeguarding

It’s important to remember that safeguarding applies to both adults and children, and that while the focus in the media has largely been on sexual abuse, there are many different types of abuse which faith communities have a huge potential to identify and prevent. These include:

  • physical abuse
  • domestic violence or abuse
  • sexual abuse
  • psychological or emotional abuse
  • financial or material abuse
  • modern slavery
  • discriminatory abuse
  • organisational or institutional abuse
  • neglect or acts of omission
  • self-neglect
  • exploitive use of technology
  • spiritual abuse

Children’s safeguarding is shaped by the Children Act 1989, but the key statutory guidance for faith groups is ‘Working together to safeguard children’, which states:

Every VCSE (voluntary, community and social enterprise), faith-based organisation and private sector organisation or agency should have policies in place to safeguard and protect children from harm. These should be followed and systems should be in place to ensure compliance in this.

The Care Act 2014 provides the legal basis for adult safeguarding. Under it, adults with care and support needs at risk of or experiencing abuse and unable to prevent it themselves must be supported.

But faith groups tend to draw a much wider definition of what constitutes a vulnerable adult. For instance, the Church of England uses this definition in its disciplinary code:

‘Vulnerable adult’ means a person aged 18 or over whose ability to protect himself or herself from violence, abuse, neglect or exploitation is significantly impaired through physical or mental disability or illness, old age, emotional fragility or distress, or otherwise; and for that purpose, the reference to being impaired is to being temporarily or indefinitely impaired.

The breadth of people that faith groups serve, and who they may see as in need of safeguarding support, presents an enormous opportunity to help vulnerable people, but is also a challenge in terms of managing workloads and defining the role of safeguarding professionals.

Challenges and opportunities facing faith‑based communities

When discussing challenges and barriers to safeguarding in faith-based communities, common themes included:

  • The trust people have in religious leaders, which both creates opportunities for abuse, and makes it less likely that victims will be believed if they accuse a religious community leader
  • The difficulty people have in thinking that someone of their own faith would abuse another member of that same faith, tied with the desire not to damage the reputation of the faith group by exposing such individuals
  • An attitude of welcome and inclusion, which makes religious communities susceptible to people who wish to enter them in order to abuse. This can be tied up with issues of forgiveness and second chances
  • Blurred boundaries between adults and children, for example on pilgrimages and other trips
  • Reliance, especially at the level of individual congregations, on volunteers to handle safeguarding issues; volunteers who will have varying degrees of knowledge and confidence, and who can easily walk away if not properly supported
  • A concern for organisational reputation, stemming at least in part from the status of religious groups as morally good organisations. This status is threatened by abuse within the organisation, and appears to be a consideration in the repeated covering up of potential scandals in a number of faith groups. Community organisations/charities, faith groups – especially smaller ones – may have limited resources to devote to safeguarding
  • Community organisations/charities, faith groups – especially smaller ones – may have limited resources to devote to safeguarding
  • Many lack a culture of safe recruitment, supervision, human resources and other management structures which can lead to accountability and transparency
  • Tension between religious laws and customs and statutory requirements
  • How to best use limited resources

Key issues

Improving safeguarding practice in faith-based groups

While the participants at the breakfast were open about the challenges faced, a number of examples of good practice where highlighted.

Theological leadership

Promoting an understanding of safeguarding as a positive and integral part of the particular faith’s beliefs is at the heart of good faith-based safeguarding.

Faith groups share a desire to protect children, and to be a place of welcome for everyone who shares their beliefs, including children and adults with particular vulnerabilities.

Recognising that safeguarding is therefore at the heart of theology, rather than a secular, tick-box add-on is important in the effort to win hearts and minds and change culture.

Valuing safeguarders

Senior leaders in a faith can take the time to publically back, thank and reward the volunteers who help keep safeguarding going in congregations. This can go a long way to maintaining people’s enthusiasm and commitment.

Appropriate and accessible training

Faith groups need to get the safeguarding message out to a wide variety of people, in diverse roles, and with different levels of safeguarding awareness. Tailored training for people in different roles that fits in with their busy lives is vital to making sure that the message is received.

Committing to electronic DBS checks

Managing DBS checks for the many people who make faith groups tick can be arduous if not done electronically, and can lead to a sense that safeguarding is a purely bureaucratic concept. Signing up to electronic DBS systems can remove a headache for hard-pressed volunteers at ground level.

Monitoring and learning lessons

Knowing what is happening in safeguarding can be a challenge, so systems that allow for audits, surveys, visits and other tools to keep an eye on what’s going on are really helpful. Even more useful is then learning from what has been discovered, so there is an ongoing cycle of improving practice.

Independent oversight and expertise

We have discussed how a faith group can instinctively find it hard to accept that abuse may occur in its midst. Employing expert safeguarding professionals, or using them in a scrutiny role – e.g. on a local safeguarding panel – can help shed a knowledgeable and independent eye over what is taking place.

Linked to this, external scrutiny – such as benchmarking, auditing and reviewing, can be an important tool in safeguarding improvement.

Engaging in inter-faith practice sharing

Participants spoke about the sense of isolation you can feel when faced with a safeguarding issue. There was a strong sense of wanting to learn from each other at the breakfast and an informal commitment was made to fostering dialogue with each other and sharing both best practice and learning from mistakes. Faith leaders should explore opportunities to build learning networks and practice sharing opportunities between people of different faiths with safeguarding roles.

Need for more examples of good practice

In many areas of safeguarding practice, there is now an abundance of good practice and guidance, but most participants at the seminar felt this was lacking for faith communities. There was a desire for there to be a directory of good practice, templates and signposts to expert advice.

Leading by example

Members of the breakfast seminar spoke passionately about not only wanting to protect the members of the communities and meet the requirements of current legislation, but to lead by example, as one representative said: ‘Safeguarding should be a light that shines in every part of the community’.

Church has the unique potential to respond well to those who have been harmed by abuse and those who pose a risk to others, as it seeks to welcome all.

Graham Tilby, Church of England.


Faith-based communities and places of worship have a huge part to play in keeping people of all ages protected and safe. There is a huge amount going on in all the faith-based organisations we are working with to strengthen leadership, systems, skills and practice to create safer communities of faith.

Faith communities are in a wider network of organisations involved in keeping people safe, such as local authorities, the police, the NHS and schools. They are also part of a wider network of faith-based organisations, including those representing different religious communities.

A key message from SCIE’s breakfast event is that faith communities need to look outwards, and seek support, and opportunities to learn from others. They also need to focus on:

  • getting the foundations right – having good and well understood policies and procedures in place
  • creating clear leadership and governance structures, so that everyone connected to their communities knows who to go to for help
  • ensuring staff and volunteers are trained and confident, so that they understand what to be aware of and how to respond to concerns or issues.

Support from SCIE

SCIE’s knowledge and experience of safeguarding means that we are well placed to support your organisation on your safeguarding journey. Our collaborative approach provides organisations with the tools to learn from safeguarding incidents and put in place the right measures to improve safeguarding in the future.

SCIE’s safeguarding training was extremely well run and sensitive to our specific needs.

Avi Lazarus, Chief Executive Officer, Federation of Synagogues

Why work with SCIE:

  • SCIE has worked with a range of faith-based organisations and has developed a deep understanding of the context, sensitivities, issues and concerns relating to safeguarding.
  • SCIE knows that safeguarding applies to both adults and children and that abuse can take many forms.
  • Co-production is fundamental to what we do and we understand the importance of involving survivors, congregations and people who use services in that safeguarding journey.

SCIE works with faith-based organisations to support them through tailored programmes of learning and development and audit and review. We can work with your organisation to embed good safeguarding through:

  • developing and updating safeguarding policies and procedures that reflect latest legislation, good practice and your organisational context
  • Learning Together, a systems-based approach to support with statutory case reviews, routine audits and learning reviews
  • CPD-accredited, tailored, classroom and e-learning training courses for managers, safeguarding leads and frontline staff
  • free online resources for safeguarding adults and children.

Safeguarding people in faith communities