Bridging the gap between kids, church and the law
Niki Hodson, Children’s Ministry
BA (English & Drama) UCT, BA Hons (Psychology) (Cornerstone)
At the end of last year, I attended a conference held at a local church on the Children’s Act (2005), and on the Church’s responsibility with regards to the Children’s Act. The conference was highly informative, explaining the ins and outs of the Children’s Act, which is a legal document created by the South African government to protect children and to provide a legal framework within which those who care for children can be regulated and held accountable. Anyone who has access to children in any way, whether it is direct or indirect, is responsible to uphold the directives within this Act.
At the conference, which was an open event and had representatives from many denominations, it became clear that many of the attendees did not fully understand their obligation to the Children’s Act. Some were surprised to hear about the fact that the church is not exempt from the legal protocols required for anyone wanting to work with children. Sometimes being in a church which has a different kind of system to that of the secular society makes it possible to forget that the church is not beyond the law in certain matters. The church often has a culture of trust, as we are a grace-filled company of believers who believe in extending second chances and allowing room for those in the beginning process of sanctification. We want to give the benefit of the doubt.
But, in a country where the rates of the sexual abuse of children are one in three, we cannot afford to give the benefit of the doubt in an undiscerning manner. And we cannot afford to ignore the fact that sexual predators are aware of this attitude in churches, which makes the children of our churches a target. Add to that the way in which churches have historically liked to deal with such matters internally to “protect” members (an irony, because the very victim is the one who is least protected when this happens), which only serves to further motivate predators to target churches.
So, as the church, what is your responsibility to protect the children in your care?
- Familiarise yourself, your leaders and all the volunteers involved with your children’s ministry / children’s church with the Children’s Act. I came across a fantastic book that helps bridge the gap between the responsibilities of the Children’s Act and the accountability of the church – Children, Church and the Law by Erica Greathead. It can be bought through the Warehouse Trust (warehousetrust.org.za). A copy of the Children’s Act can be found here: www.justice.gov.za/legislation/acts/2005-038%20childrensact.pdf. A helpful booklet that summarises the Act simply can be found here: https://www.unicef.org/southafrica/SAF_resources_childactx1.pdf
- Develop your own Child Protection Policy for your church, which all those involved in working with children can commit to following. This would include preventative measures such as the two-adult rule (two unrelated adults being present with a child at all times), and safety guidelines such as what do with sick children or during bathroom breaks. There are many online resources that offer suggestions for such policies. The important thing is to have one in place and to be vigilant in administering it.
- Make sure that you have followed the screening process for anyone directly or indirectly involved with the children at your church, as laid out by the Children’s Act. Indirect involvement extends to other kinds of service workers like gardeners and cleaners who are on the grounds while children are present. There are agencies who offer the service of screening on behalf of organisations and which provide training for in-house screening, such as Lexis Nexis (https://www.lexisnexis.co.za/lexisrefcheck/lexis-refcheck-verifications/criminal-checks), which is quicker and not much more expensive than the usual screening done by SAPS. It can also be arranged to have a police officer visit your church one day a year and screen everyone on site.
- Develop a list of criteria to adhere to in selecting those who are to work with the children of your church (skills, qualifications, disposition, spiritual maturity etc.). The Children’s Act details what makes a person UNFIT to work with children (anyone whose name has been added to the National Child Protection Register), but it does not detail what makes someone a “fit and proper” person. By default anyone who is not on the Register is considered legally fit, but some predators have simply not been caught yet and so this cannot be enough on its own.
As churches, we NEED to put these things in place – it is important that the church not be slack in this matter. In Peter 2:13, we are told to submit to those in authority: “Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority”, and in Romans 13:1 we are reminded that the government has been ordained by God and therefore we must honour its authority: “the authorities that exist have been established by God, consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted”. Also, God calls us to be “holy, as he is holy” (1 Peter 1:16) and if our government has set the standard on how to treat children in the Children’s Act, how much more should we go beyond the minimum requirements of the Children’s Act, not less! Let us be shining examples and show that we are just as vigilant in protecting our children as all other child-related organizations.