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IICSA Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse

Child protection in religious organisations and settings Investigation Report


D.3: Safer recruitment

32. A central aspect of keeping children safe in any organisation (including religious organisations) is the use of safer recruitment. Safer recruitment includes, for example, having application processes that focus on child protection and rigorous examination of references and history, interviews that ask about values, attitudes and approaches to child protection, and applying for relevant checks of an individual’s criminal record or suitability to work with children.

33. As the NSPCC stated, the purpose of safer recruitment is “to build as complete a picture of each applicant as possible and to identify and eliminate unsuitable applicants”.[1]

Guidance on safer recruitment generally

34. According to Working Together, voluntary and faith-based organisations should have in place policies and practices for the safe recruitment of “individuals whom the organisation or agency permit to work regularly with children, including policies on when to obtain a criminal record check”.[2] It also states that these policies and practices “should be followed and systems should be in place to ensure compliance in this”.[3]

35. There are a number of sources for religious organisations and other voluntary organisations to draw on in preparing their own tailored safer recruitment policies.

35.1. The Charity Commission states that “commitment to safe recruitment, selection and vetting” are “essential inclusions for a child protection policy” for registered charities, and provides guidance to charities on what safer recruitment entails.[4]

35.2. The NSPCC’s Introductory guide to safeguarding and child protection for the voluntary and community sector recommends that organisations have a written policy on safer recruitment and induction, as well as on the recruitment of ex-offenders.[5]

35.3. Keeping Children Safe in Education is designed for use by schools and colleges when carrying out their duties to safeguard and promote the welfare of children.[6] It is not directly applicable to religious organisations but many such organisations do refer to it because it contains detailed guidance on Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) checks, pre-appointment checks, employment history and references.[7] While this provides some helpful direction, most of the content is not intended for religious organisations which are largely volunteer-led.[8]

Disclosure and barring

36. An important part of effective safer recruitment practice is checking that individuals who wish to work with children (in either a paid role or on a volunteer basis) do not have convictions that would make them unsuitable for such work, as well as ensuring that there is no intelligence about them suggesting that they should not work with children (‘vetting information’).

37. Under current legislation, it is a criminal offence for an individual to seek to undertake ‘regulated activity’ (explained below) with children if they are on a DBS list of those barred from doing so (the barred list), or to permit someone who is known to be on the barred list to undertake regulated activity.[9]

Different levels of DBS check

38. The type and level of check (‘DBS check’) that an organisation can undertake varies depending on whether or not someone is carrying out regulated activity. The DBS has the power to issue four types of certification:[10]

  • Basic certificates: these are for any position or purpose. They include details of convictions and conditional cautions that are considered to be unspent under the terms of the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974.[11]
  • Standard certificates: these are for those working in certain roles specified in legislation as a regulated activity (for example, those involving the teaching, training, care or supervision of children) and include unspent and spent convictions, cautions, reprimands and warnings.
  • Enhanced certificates: these involve the highest level of check and are for anyone working with vulnerable groups and in other positions involving a high degree of trust. They include the same information as standard certificates but also information that the local police force reasonably believes is relevant and ought to be disclosed.[12]
  • Enhanced certificates with barred lists checks: these are for those working in regulated activity with children or vulnerable adults. They include the information in enhanced certificates, and also a check of the children or adult barred lists.

Regulated activity

39. The highest levels of checks are only possible for those who are seen as being engaged in regulated activity.

40. Regulated activity is defined in the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act 2006, as amended by the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012.[13] The majority of organisations involved in this investigation expressed concern about who should be checked in a religious organisation, because of the complexity of the definition of regulated activity. There is a genuine and widespread lack of understanding about this issue felt by a number of organisations.

41. Those within religious organisations who are teaching, training or otherwise instructing children are only considered to be carrying out a regulated activity if this is sufficiently regular (ie on more than three days in a 30-day period, or overnight between 2.00am and 6.00am with contact with children).[14] There is no basis on which someone who is in a position of power or trust over a child in a religious organisation, but who may not teach, train or instruct them directly, would automatically be considered to be undertaking regulated activity.

42. Furthermore, those who are volunteers and are supervised by someone who has an enhanced DBS check will not need to be checked. Given the significant number of volunteers in most religious organisations, this could lead to many of those working with children not requiring enhanced checks, depending on what is understood by supervision. The Charity Commission, the Home Office and the Department for Education all provide guidance on this issue for all organisations but the evidence we received was that some religious organisations still struggle with the notion of regulated activity notwithstanding the guidance.[15] The Charity Commission indicated during the hearing that it would be helpful if the current framework for regulated activity could be revisited because of its complexity.[16]

43. In the experience of Reshet (an organisation providing training and guidance to Jewish religious and youth organisations), there remains confusion about the definition of regulated activity. Ms Shelley Marsh, Executive Director of Reshet, did not “think it does what it was set out to do”.[17]

44. The key issue within the Jewish community was that “you can be in a position of influence without necessarily having any kind of rabbinical status in the Jewish community”, and such individuals would play a significant role in the life of a Jewish child.[18] There are a number of people involved in working in synagogues who she believed ought to receive a level of check which they are not currently able to receive.[19]

45. Ms Rebecca Fetterman, Director of Youth and Designated Safeguarding Lead at Liberal Judaism, told us that it uses freelance rabbis. Although they may go into people’s homes where children may be present, Liberal Judaism is unable to obtain an enhanced DBS check with a check of the barred list for children for these rabbis under the current guidelines.[20] Likewise, in its religious schools, teachers may work alone with children but only for an hour once a month. They cannot undergo these checks, even if Liberal Judaism’s risk assessment concludes that they ought to.[21] As a result, Liberal Judaism takes great care in selecting the job titles that it gives its employees to frame them in such a way that they are eligible for an enhanced DBS check with a check of the barred list for children.[22]

46. Mr Peter Lynas, UK Director of the Evangelical Alliance, reported that some of its 500 member religious organisations and settings found the guidance around regulated activity to be unclear, with many of the examples “driven from the education sector and a more full-time working environment rather than a voluntary organisation setup”.[23] Its members “would like more discretion to check” a greater number of people. As a result, the Evangelical Alliance would support the extension of DBS checks to those “who are ultimately responsible for a regulated activity”, but thought that it may be difficult to define what is meant by ‘ultimate responsibility’.[24]

47. Ms Catherine Hopper (whose ordination name is Munisha) from Triratna said that, in deciding who within the Order met the definition of regulated activity, she found the guidance to be “incredibly unclear. I find it very difficult to get really clear standard advice on who is eligible”. She said that she had contacted the DBS for clarity but “couldn’t understand the answers”.[25]

48. Professor Keith Brown, Director of the National Centre for Post-Qualifying Social Work and Professional Practice, considered that all of those who are “involved in pastoral ministry of any type should be subject to vetting checks”, whether it amounted to regulated activity or not.[26]

49. Thirtyone:eight is the largest provider of DBS checks for the religious sector in the country, undertaking approximately 74,000 a year. Mr Humphreys did not believe that the current DBS system was effective in ensuring that those working with children within the faith sector are receiving the appropriate checks.[27] In particular, the concept of supervision poses a problem, especially with the use of volunteers:

“So how much supervision is required? What does that supervision need to look like? And how much contact in the context of that supervision means that somebody really needs to have one level of check rather than another?”[28]

As a result, Mr Humphreys did not think that the current definition of regulated activity captures the complexity of the activities that churches undertake with children in order to enable a comprehensive assessment.[29]

50. Mr Phillip Noyes, Chief Advisor on Child Protection at the NSPCC, thought there was often a mismatch between who the organisation thinks should be checked and who it is permitted to check under the definition of regulated activity.[30] Mr Noyes recommended removing the supervision exemption altogether. To do so would:

“much better fit how children actually relate to people. It would also, I think, actually clarify more of a commonsense way for many of the people that use the system, the relevance of the checks, which are felt to be really quite formulaic and actually quite difficult to understand.”[31]

51. Mr Daniel Greaves, Crime Director at the Home Office, thought the definition of regulated activity was “proportionate and a practical response to identify those at highest risk of harming children”.[32] He described the definition itself as “fairly simple and straightforward”, but that it was the “complexity of the world around us and how that is applied to different contexts” that creates the challenge.[33] He told us that the Home Office is committed to making the guidance around DBS checks as transparent as possible:

“if a significant overhaul is required requiring new legislation or a new balance between public policy objectives, of course that would be for ministers”.[34]

52. We anticipate that this is an issue to which we will return in the Inquiry’s final report.

Implementation of disclosure and barring checks by religious organisations and settings

53. Many religious organisations and settings do not consistently undertake DBS checks of those who may have contact with children, which is an essential prerequisite for adequate child protection.

54. SFI identified that, out of the 446 places of worship that had completed one of its ‘health checks’, only 37 percent had up-to-date DBS checks for all staff engaged in regulated activity with children.[35] The NSPCC Helpline received 142 contacts concerned about sexual abuse within a religious setting between April 2015 and March 2019, a significant majority of which related to Christian denominations. Among the issues raised was a concern that DBS checks and safer recruitment procedures were not being followed by religious organisations and settings.[36]

55. There are many reasons why such checks are not undertaken. Some religious organisations do not consider that their activities fall within the definition of a regulated activity.

55.1. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints does not routinely undertake DBS checks.[37] It believed that this is not mandated in law and considered that its “clear, robust and well-managed policies, procedures and arrangements for safeguarding children … minimise the risk of abuse and protect from harm the children and youth”.[38] Those procedures include that:

  • a person must not be given a Church calling that involves working with children if their record has an annotation of child sexual abuse;
  • at least two adults must be present when children are being taught, or at church-sponsored activities where children are present;
  • members of the Church are only recruited after being ‘called’ to serve within the ward in which they live, following a “thorough searching interview” with the bishop, and after their name has been presented and maintained by the entire congregation of the ward.[39]

The Church does undertake ad hoc DBS checking. For example, it undertook checks for all members who worked directly with youth of the Church during a ‘For the Strength of Youth’ conference in August 2019. The Church told us that it is considering how it can more fully make use of these checks.

55.2. The Jehovah’s Witnesses do not undertake vetting and barring checks on elders, ministerial servants (who provide practical help and assist the elders), or those who run the organisation regionally or at a national level.[40] This is because they consider that they do not separate children from their parents during religious worship, practice or when children are in the company of someone in a position of trust, and so such checks are not permitted by law.[41] This fails to recognise that the mere presence of parents does not prevent those in positions of trust from developing inappropriate relationships with children, or being able to groom both the children and their families.[42]

55.3. Before Guru Nanak Gurdwara in Smethwick was contacted by the Inquiry, its Granthis (volunteer leaders of prayers and communal worship within Sikh gurdwaras) were not subject to a DBS check, although previous employers were contacted for a reference.[43] Those references were “to ensure they lead an exemplary life and are respectable individuals”.[44] This is not the same as checking their suitability to work with children. Granthis are not required to undergo any child protection training.[45] At the time of the public hearing in May 2021, Mr Jatinder Singh Basi, one of the trustees of the Gurdwara and a member of the Sikh Council UK, told us that all volunteers and staff teaching at the Gurdwara now receive an enhanced DBS check.[46]

56. DBS checks may not be undertaken because smaller organisations or those without significant financial resources find the system for processing them too onerous.[47] Rabbi Levy thought that this was because of a combination of a lack of expertise or understanding about the process, a lack of funding to pay for the number of DBS checks required or, in some cases, a belief that a DBS check from another employer was sufficient.[48]

57. There may also be discomfort about asking volunteers to undergo such checks. In a 2018 position paper, Reshet noted that, in relation to the Jewish organisations it surveyed and spoke with, volunteers and trustees were:

“not all checked through the Disclosure and Barring Service prior to staffing youth activities. There are a number of organisations that continue to feel uncomfortable about asking volunteers … to undertake this process.”[49]

In Ms Marsh’s view, asking trustees to undergo DBS checks “can still be fairly challenging”, and it was an area that she thought required further work.[50]

Implementation of safer recruitment

58. In 2015–16, Reshet carried out a survey of Jewish organisations to assess those areas where organisations thought that they required further child protection training. Twenty of the 64 individuals who responded, from 45 different organisations, felt that they needed further training on safer recruitment.[51] In 2018, Reshet prepared a position paper following a voluntary review of the policies and procedures in place within a sample of Jewish organisations. It concluded that, although most organisations had some form of child protection policy in place, a number did not have safer recruitment policies, which are required to support effective organisational child protection.[52]

59. SFI assessed the child protection policies and procedures of 446 places of worship, the largest proportion of which were Islamic.[53] They found a “serious lack of the proper recruitment process” for teachers within madrasahs.[54]

60. Mr Humphreys expressed concern about the quality of available guidance on safer recruitment within religious organisations and settings.[55] In his view, there should be specific guidance on safer recruitment in the voluntary sector, including the faith sector, because there are clear operational differences, including resourcing, structure and focus, with most religious organisations being led by volunteers. He said that the expectations on the organisations needed to be different:

“frameworks that are applied to safer recruitment have to be sufficient that they can be flexed and scaled depending on the nature of the work, the size of the workforce.”[56]

61. There was little evidence of religious umbrella bodies and representative organisations taking decisive steps to assist their member organisations with safer recruitment. The United Synagogue is a rare example of a religious umbrella body providing support in relation to safer recruitment. Dr Steven Wilson, Chief Executive of the United Synagogue, explained how, in addition to DBS checking all of those employed centrally on a national level, there is a child protection coordinator who checks that local congregations are carrying out checks appropriately and chases them up when they are not.[57]

62. There were some organisations with more comprehensive safer recruitment arrangements in place. For example, the Methodist Church in Britain uses selection criteria to consider the child protection compliance and suitability of candidates for ordination, ie to become paid or volunteer clergy. This includes assessing whether they are likely to breach boundaries in personal and pastoral relationships, and to fail to accept the discipline of the Church (including its standing orders).[58] A circuit superintendent, who makes a preliminary assessment of a candidate’s suitability, will consider whether a candidate shows “an awareness of safeguarding, the discipline of the Church and a respect for the diversity of views within Methodism”.[59] As part of the recruitment process, a candidate must complete an application form and provide two references – one from the candidate’s most recent employer and the other from a ‘critical friend’ (ie someone close enough to the candidate to know about their “journey of discernment”, but also able to identify areas of development). The employer’s reference form specifically asks “Do you know of any reasons why this candidate should not work with children/young people or adults who may be vulnerable?[60] The Methodist Church makes use of compulsory psychological assessments, specifically including child protection.[61] All candidates must also obtain satisfactory DBS clearance prior to commencing training.[62]


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