Readers are advised that this story discusses child sexual abuse in institutions and may be triggering for some people.
When I was CEO of World Vision Australia, I met people worldwide – mostly women and children – who had suffered abuse and were 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.
Abroad, I met Htay, who had been smuggled into China from Myanmar and escaped to find 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 her way to freedom and had no choice but to take the child into 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.
In Australia, we have many blessings. Fortunately, while the power and influence of the church in society are declining, Christians and our faith-based organizations in this great country continue to play a major role in caring for the most vulnerable in our community.
Sexual abuse of a minor is still the main reason churches end up in court.
Faith organizations in Australia represent at least 30 percent of our society, according to the Australian Charities and Not-for-Profits Commission (ACNC). This means that faith is at work daily in the community in churches, caring for the elderly and the disabled, health, sports, clubs, schools, and childcare. Many of you reading this will be involved in these ministries.
We also have better protection structures in Australia than in developing countries. Yet we still have a scandalous problem. Royal commission after royal commission (in institutional child abuse, disability, aged care) have told us that faith communities and secular organizations are not protecting their mission with adequate security controls, and the abuse continues almost unabated. One in three girls and one in seven boys are sexually abused before age 18.
It’s not just a secular problem. Sexual abuse of a minor is still the main reason churches end up in court. Twelve percent of churchgoers know someone who has been a rapist or a rape victim. (Hammers canon law and Tax).
Leaders in all institutions, companies, sports clubs, and associations set the example in what they do or do not do to make the organizational environment safe.
I am now the co-founder and CEO of Oho, a technology tool designed to help organizations build a children’s moat of defense. Staff, volunteers, and contractors are checked weekly by Working with Children Checks (WWCC) and other references to ensure that child safety standards are met and that “people remain fit”.
Oho was born out of the Royal Commission in Institutional Responses to Sexual Abuse of Children, as story after story showed gaps in record-keeping and destruction of evidence that allowed abuse to continue. Oho checks credentials every week because someone lo,ses their right to work –in almost every state across Australia, someone gets their WWCC card revoked every day.
So far, Oho covers 38,000 caregivers, but our mission is to constantly monitor the more than five million people who work with our society’s youth, people with disabilities, or any of us when we are most vulnerable. Over the past 12 months, Oho has helped our clients identify six people who were no longer suitable.
The safety framework starts with regular credentials checking – WWCC, Teacher Licensing, Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency, National Disability Insurance Scheme, etc. – but all the other elements depend on people doing the right thing. Unfortunately, we’ve seen repeatedly that people don’t do the right thing – not just the perpetrators, but also those who overlook behavior, hide data, fail to respond adequately to a complaint, or, at worst, warn of abuse or scams. Power, control, misguided trust, and, at worst, complicity are all good friends of Christian relationships.
Power, control, misplaced trust, and, at worst, collaboration 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 told us, “All the men here are over 65 and not interested in sex.” But suppose we want to protect our mission. In that case, we must ensure that controls operate independently and save the vulnerable if a relationship allows power to be exploited.
Hundreds of cases in the royal commission have proven that the assumption that you know people is a false hope. The first case heard in the commission was of a CEO who forged his WWCC card and abused multiple children, not 40 years ago but in the last 15 years.
For directors or organizations reading this, note that liability has shifted from the next of kin to you to prove that you have exercised reasonable care. If an organization repeatedly resists this form of protection, I strongly recommend that you ask yourself why. We have seen more than one faith-based organization choose not to use Oho or its equivalent, end up in court, and be vilified in the media.
Psalm 46:10, God commands us to “be still and know that I am God.” We often rely on this verse for comfort. I’ve recently discovered that it can be uncomfortable when I’m still with God because I/we fall short so often. Some questions you could ask: what would he say if we took our security practices to where we are still with God? We have all lost, but we have been given agency to be His people. Can we say we do our best as church and Christian ministry leaders?
Is the use of power inside and outside our organization healthy? Are we too dependent on relationships to determine if we fit in the team? How good is our administration? – Do we rely on spreadsheets that are prone to errors and which are not often examined as our source of truth? Do we expect our people and children to be our eyes and ears to those we could have identified and removed as unfit if we had had proper records?
It’s not enough (as the law says) to rely on your people to tell you there’s a problem.
Robert Fitzgerald, one of the commissioners of the Royal Commission on Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, asks, “Are these safe institutions for children and people with disabilities?”
Today, the Australian community should not believe that organizations that say they are safe are not unless they can demonstrate that they are.
My heart was broken many times at World Vision. Now it breaks my heart to see the unnecessary daily risks organizations take by not checking the team data. Oho can help you build a moat of protection around your ministry with children and the vulnerable and help you show the rest of the world what a compassionate, faithful, protected church 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 previously President of Ridley College, Melbourne.
If you find the topic of this article shocking, please see support in your area. If your life is in danger, call the local emergency services.