Conference challenges culture of denial

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The inaugural Safe Place Services Professional Development Conference, “Transforming Church Culture,” held at Newport, Sydney, was attended by 85 delegates from across Australia and New Zealand. 

The conference was the first time that Church leaders, volunteers, and victim-support professionals and para-ministries of the Church, have come together with the sole purpose of addressing the topic of sexual abuse within the Church. 

The Conference has helped the Church across Australia and New Zealand realise how much we have changed over the last 10 years.

The conference affirmed the progress that the Church has made in challenging a “culture of denial” over the past decade and advocated the need for ongoing action to transform the Church’s culture into an intentionally ‘safe Church’ environment for all children, youth and vulnerable adults.

The Church began training leaders across Australia and New Zealand 10 years ago. Initially the focus was on pastors and teachers, then shifted to local Churches. Safe Place Services has also worked with other denominations to produce an inter-denominational Safe Church training manual for local churches. 

Safe Place Services and selected Conference Safe Place Committees now have the means through the new Safe Place Services website <support.adventistconnect.org> to offer training via webinars.  This will allow people in remote and isolated areas, and the many ‘time poor’ volunteer leaders in local Churches, to access important training in child protection and keeping the Church a safe place from anywhere they have have web access. 

“The Safe Place Services (SPS) conference was the most informative and powerful conference I have been to,” said Suzanne Hadfield, coordinator of Safe Places Ministry for the Greater Sydney Conference. “It not only addressed the useful ways that we are eradicating abuse but also empowered us with extremely respectful ways to give a voice and healing to those in the Church who may have been abused.”

The conference featured keynote presentations from Patrick Parkinson, Professor of Law at Sydney University and author of the book “Child Protection and the Churches” and Hetty Johnston, a well-known child protection advocate and founder of the Bravehearts organisation. “Sex offenders are everywhere in society,” said Ms Johnston. “We need to break the silence on this issue as one in four girls and one in eight boys is sexually assaulted in Australia.”

 
Hetty Johnston with Pastor Darron Pratt, director of children’s ministries, North New South Wales Conference.  

“Having participated in the Safe Places Conference in Newport, I really appreciated the presentation by Hetty Johnston,” said Ralph Luchow, executive director of Adventist Education for the North New South Wales Conference. “As an educational administrator on a professional level and as a grandparent on a personal level, I applaud the work of Bravehearts and Safe Places in raising the awareness of child sexual assault as well as providing support and ongoing for the victims and their families. The initiatives need to be embraced by our church entities.”

Church leader and president for the South News South Wales Conference, Pastor Bob Manners found the Conference insightful and challenging. “The conference reinforces the importance of our children and the God given responsibility we have in protecting and nurturing them for the kingdom,” he said.

Pastor Dallas O’Connor, educator and investigator for Safe Place Services said, “The Conference has helped the Church across Australia and New Zealand realise how much we have changed over the last 10 years. The attendees were inspired to continue working towards ensuring the church is a safe pace for children and everyone.”

The final day featured a Plenary Session, chaired by Pastor Ken Vogel, general secretary of the Australian Union Conference. The following resolutions were passed before the close of the Conference:  

Acknowledgements

We, the delegates of the Safe Place Services Professional Development Conference, Newport March 27 – 29, 2011, acknowledge:

  • That God’s call to justice and integrity provides the compelling motivation for protecting all people from abuse and harm
  • The genuine pain, grief and loss that victims of all forms of abuse, especially sexual abuse, experience within the Church, both by the original act(s) of abuse and the responses of congregations, leaders and administrators which can be insensitive to the effects of abuse
  • That it requires a sustained commitment to establish and maintain a ‘safe Church’ culture, characterised by an awareness of the dynamics of abuse, and does not remain silent or passive
  • That the efforts of the Seventh-day Adventist Church will always be inadequate and incomplete in isolation. The Church will find its greatest strength in collaboration with: other faith organisations, specialist government and community services, a network of supporting professionals and para-church organisations. Respond appropriately to abuse and harm
  • The tension between the Church’s call to forgive as well as to stand for justice and to protect the vulnerable

Affirmations

We affirm:

  • The progress that the Church has made during the past decade in building awareness and establishing strategies for a safer Church environment 
  • The ongoing commitment of the Church to dealing with the issues of abuse through the provision of resources, education, training and support
  • The courage of those who have spoken out about abuse and harm within the Church
  • The compassion of those who have listened, believed and treated victims of abuse with dignity and respect
  • The contribution of those who have assisted with their expertise and specialist knowledge to improve the Church’s policies and procedures in relation to abuse

Resolutions

The issue of abuse will continue to require focused action and vigilance by the Church in Australia and New Zealand. We therefore call upon:

  • The Australian Union Conference and the New Zealand Pacific Union Conference, along with local conference administrations, to ensure that Conference Safe Place Committees/Coordinators are empowered and adequately resourced to lead in the transformation of the Church’s culture through awareness, education, training, networking and in-service opportunities

We also call upon:

  • Local Conference administration to ensure that all pastors are trained in Safe Church ministry practices,

and further,

  • that Conference administration utilise and draw upon the role and advice of SPS and Conference Safe Place Committees in responding to situations of abuse or harm when they arise,

and further,

  • that they build a close working relationship between local Conference Safe Place Committees and pastors and encourage pastors to maintain a clear pastoral role as opposed to managing the crisis in isolation.