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We are all about loving the lost but we’re not taking care of the found

Readers are advised this story discusses the physical and sexual abuse of children in institutions and may be triggering for some people.

When I was CEO of World Vision Australia, I met people all over the world – usually women and children – who had suffered all forms of abuse and were being rehabilitated in World Vision programs.

In remote Western Australia, I met Ali*, a six-year-old girl with fetal alcohol syndrome who was struggling at school.

Overseas, I met Htay, who’d been trafficked to China from Myanmar and escaped only to discover that while she was away her disabled daughter was abused by the local priest, and Nasrin* a 16-year-old girl who fled Sudan at night and was raped on the road to freedom and had no choice but to have the child in her Ugandan refugee camp.

The founder of World Vision once said, “Let my heart be broken by the things that break the heart of God.” My heart was broken many times over.

In Australia, we have many blessings. While the church’s power and influence may be waning in society, thankfully Christians and our faith-based organizations across this great country continue to play a huge role in caring for the most vulnerable in our society.

Sexual abuse of a minor is still the number one reason churches end up in court.

Faith organizations in Australia represent at least 30 percent of our civic society according to the Australian Charities and Not-for-Profits Commission (ACNC). This means that faith is at work in the community every day in churches, aged care, disability services, health, sporting, clubs, schools, and childcare. Many of you reading this will be involved in these ministries.

We also have better safeguarding structures in Australia than in developing nations. Yet we still have an outrageous problem. Royal commission after royal commission (into institutional child abuse, disability, aged care) have told us that faith and secular organizations alike are not protecting their mission with adequate safeguarding controls, and abuse continues almost unabated. One in three girls and one in seven boys will be sexually assaulted before their 18th birthday.

It’s not just a secular problem. Sexual abuse of a minor is still the number one reason churches end up in court. (Hammer’s Church Law and Tax). Twelve per cent of churchgoers know someone who is a rapist or is a rape victim.

In all institutions, companies, sporting clubs and associations, leaders set the example in what they do or don’t put in place to make the organizational environment safe.

I am now Co-founder and CEO of Oho, a technology tool designed to help organizations establish a moat of protection for children. Staff, volunteers and contractors are monitored by Working with Children Checks (WWCC) and other credentials every week to ensure child safety standards are met and “people remain suitable”.

Oho was born out of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse because story after story showed gaps in recordkeeping controls and the destruction of evidence that allowed abuse to continue. Oho monitors credentials every week because every week someone loses their right to work – in fact, every day across Australia in almost every state someone has their WWCC card revoked.

So far, Oho covers 38,000 carers, but our mission is to see constant monitoring of the five million-plus people who work with our society’s young people, those with a disability, or any of us when we are at our most vulnerable. Over the past 12 months, Oho has helped our clients identify six people who were no longer suitable.

The safeguarding framework begins with regular checking of credentials – WWCC, teachers’ licences, Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency, National Disability Insurance Scheme, etc – but all other elements rely on people doing the right thing. Unfortunately, we have seen over and over that people don’t do the right thing – not just the perpetrators but those who overlook behaviour, hide records, don’t respond adequately to a complaint, or at worst warn those abusing or grooming. Power, control, misguided trust and at worst complicity all are close friends of Christian relationships.

Power, control, misguided trust and at worst complicity can all be close friends of Christian relationships.

The most common excuse I hear from faith leaders for not putting this moat in place is: “Oh, we don’t have anyone like that here. We know everyone here.” One organization even said to us: “All the men here are over 65 and not interested in sex”. But if we truly want to protect our mission, we must make sure there are controls in place that operate independently and protect the vulnerable in the event that a relationship allows power to be exploited.

Hundreds of cases in the royal commission have proven that the assumption of truly knowing people is a false hope – in fact, the first case heard in the commission was of a CEO who faked his WWCC card and abused multiple children, not 40 years ago but in the past 15 years.

For directors or organizations reading this, take notice because the liability has shifted from the survivor to you to prove that you took reasonable care. If an organization repeatedly resists this type of protection, I strongly encourage you to ask yourself why. We have seen more than one faith-based organization that chose not to use Oho, or an equivalent, end up in court and vilified in the media.

In Psalms 46:10, God commands us to “be still and know that I am God.” We often read on this verse as a comfort. I have recently found when I am still with God, it can be uncomfortable because I/we fall so far short so often. I wonder if we took our safeguarding practices into the place where we are still with God, what would he say? We are all fallen, but we are given agency to be his people in the world. Can we honestly say that we as the Church and leaders of Christian ministry are doing the best job we can? Some questions you might ask:

  • Is the use of power inside and outside our organization healthy?
  • Are we overly reliant on relationships to determine suitability to be in the team?
  • How good is our recordkeeping? – Are we relying on spreadsheets prone to error and examined infrequently as our source of truth?
  • Are we expecting our people and children to be our eyes and ears for those we could have identified as unsuitable and removed if we only had good recordkeeping?

It is not enough (as the law says) to simply rely on your people to tell you there is a problem.

Robert Fitzgerald, one of the commissioners for the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, asks “Are these safe institutions for children and people with disability?”

Today the Australian community should not believe organizations that say they have are safe unless they can demonstrate that this is the case.

My heart was broken many times at World Vision. Now my heart breaks to see the unnecessary risk organizations take every day by not monitoring team credentials. Oho can help you put a moat of protection around your ministry with children and the vulnerable and help you show the rest of the world what a compassionate, faith-filled, safeguarded ministry looks like.

Claire Rogers is CEO and Co-founder of Oho, Director of Melbourne Business School, Payton Capital and MLC, Kew. Claire was the CEO of World Vision Australia and formerly Chair of Ridley College, Melbourne.

If you have found the subject matter of this article upsetting, please seek support in your local area. If your life is in danger, please call your local emergency services.

Some other support services that might be helpful are:

Relationships Australia services for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples (Australia)

reach out services for victim-survivors of sexual assault (Australia)

Australian Blueknot for survivors of child abuse who are adults (Australia)

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