On Wednesday last week, my newspaper published three stories with safeguarding themes. First there was the court case of Carl Beech who is alleged to have made false claims of child abuse against prominent figures. Secondly was the report of two further football coaches sentenced and imprisoned for abusing teenage boys. Finally there was a piece about Stan Lee, the founder of Marvel comics being financially abused by his manager. I began to wonder what regular readers must make of these very different stories.
They are similar, however, in one obvious way – the question of belief, and the deeper question of what is truth. In the case of Carl Beech, his original allegations were reportedly believed by the police and acted upon, before their enquiries took them down another route. In the case of the football coaches, the claims made against them by the boys, now men, were believed by a court. In Stan Lee’s case two sets of beliefs are on trial.
So in this era of ‘fake news’ what do we believe when we hear of a concern or learn of a specific allegation? What frame of reference do we use to shape our thinking? Our safeguarding training stresses the presumption of belief when we receive a disclosure but is that always easy to do? Are there dynamic factors that we take into account, so that consciously or unconsciously, we make a judgement about the extent to which we believe? What direction do our prejudices take us in?
This column does not purport to be a treatise on the nature of truth. But for people that have been abused and hurt, their truth is very real, and their stories stand as a testament to their pain. So as safeguarders, our first response must be to believe what we are hearing as this then establishes the basis for us to provide care and support to the victim and then take action to prevent further abuse. This is sound preventive and protective practice. But we are also reminded about respectful uncertainty and keeping an open mind and this will ensure that we are careful and thoughtful about what we do next.
The X Files encouraged us to believe that the ‘truth is out there’. It’s not further defined so it could be that there is extra-terrestrial life or there isn’t. Who knows? What we do know however is that the impact of abuse is serious and life-long. We know abuse happens in our churches. We know it’s hard for some people to accept that it does. So our first response has to be belief. And then comes the necessary action.