UK

The Christian Social Worker Who Protects Children From Christian Abusers

20/11/2014 11:40 GMT | Updated 20/11/2014 12:59 GMT

Throughout November, The Huffington Post UK is running its Beyond Belief series, chronicling the remarkable lives of Britons who've taken on their faith to create a force for change.

beyond belief

When a church leader was accused of a serious crime, Simon Bass was the man on the police speed dial.

Ordinarily, the softly-spoken Bass is robust in talking about the successes of himself and his devoted colleagues, who work for a charity that helps safeguard children in religious institutions that are sometimes slow to act to protect them. But this time he has to be careful.

Thanks in part to his success as a mediator, there is a court case imminent. Bass hints it is a "very insular" church that is wary of outsiders. A woman has accused one of the church's senior members of abuse. A detective and a Local Authority Delegated Officer (Lado) met with other church leaders seeking more information, fearing there could have been more victims, but made no progress.

"They were concerned there were other victims out there but concerned they weren't going to get anywhere, because it's very much a closed shop, and felt frustrated," Bass says.

He was invited to attend a second meeting to see if he could be of any help. "I spent time with two of the other leaders. They didn't want to talk to me about what we were there to discuss. They wanted to know about my churchmanship. What church did I go to? What did I believe? What's my understanding of what they believe? We engaged in that conversation. They then felt confident in that meeting - this is where that bridge is - to defer to me, to ask questions.

"It came to a crunch where, the police, they wanted some information. The police asked these two leaders for it and they said 'can we retire from this meeting? We want to discuss it with Simon'." Bass met them over lunch where it was agreed he and his charity could be intermediaries between the church and the authorities.

"We reconvened (with the police and the Lado). That was all agreed and at the end, the police came up and said 'thank you, that was totally different atmosphere' to the previous meeting that they had." So what were the details?

"Information was exchanged and that will ultimately result in children being protected and made safer," he said. "I can't say too much. I've not given any details but be careful how you report this - there's ongoing police work happening and a court case imminent. But it gives an indication that the work we do can get results."

simon bass

Simon Bass, chief executive of the Churches Child Protection Advisory Service

Bass, 51, is a former textile worker who underwent a dramatic change, becoming a devout Anglican relatively late in life for a religious conversion, and whose job as a social worker saw him join, and then rise, to become chief executive of the Churches Child Protection Advisory Service (CCPAS).

Its remit and his work are broad. CCPAS helps groups, primarily churches and religious institutions, protect children in their care or among their community. It runs a 24-hour confidential helpline for those who suspect abuse, mentors churches to guide them towards always reporting their suspicions and gives seminars teaching bishops, pastors and lay people how to spot the danger signs of child abuse, from sexual assault and excessive physical discipline, to most alarmingly, abuse of those accused of demonic possession or witchcraft.

He describes CCPAS' job as bridging "a massive gulf" between social workers and the police on one side, and faith organisations who fear damaging their flock by revealing criminality within it, or not having their beliefs respected by those who would investigate it. "Sometimes it's difficult for churches to know about these things," he tells Huffington Post UK from his home in the northwest, during a period of what is meant to be time-off: "I wouldn't want to give an impression that churches are always negative, very often they just don't know what to do."

He divides his time between Kent and Blackburn, where CCPAS has offices and is constantly visiting churches or faith organisations - he was due to travel to meet one in Manchester two days later and says he is "invariably" travelling to visit new ones across the country. Bass’s work all too often involves dealing with - 'confronting' feels too strong a word for the softly-softly approach he advocates - other religious people, including fellow Christians, who are either not doing enough to protect children or, in the case of witchcraft allegations, possibly encouraging abuse.

It is a bold career for someone whose parents had "no faith affiliation whatsoever" and who only began attending church in his teens. He grew up in Nottinghamshire, and when he was 11, lost his mother to breast cancer. When he was 14, his father died suddenly of a heart attack and he and his two sisters went to live with their paternal aunt, who also was not religious, but said they should all go to church "as a mark of respect for a few weeks".

simon bass

Bass with MP Meg Munn, Chair of Westminster's All Party Parliamentary Group on Child Protection

He became a regular churchgoer but says it was a "faith of convenience," something he only did because he "found a good community" there, making friends in the youth group and joining his sisters who started going regularly. He stopped going when he was around 18, saying friends had left for university and it had "lost its appeal." He didn't follow his friends to university, instead rising through the ranks of a knitwear factory. By his mid-twenties, after years of not setting foot in a church, he said he "just knew" there was something missing. He described feeling at a low point in life, despite not wanting for anything material.

"Many people would've said 'you've got it made'. I had come through a dark period in my teens," he said. "The low-point was purely wanting to answer those questions: 'Who am I? Why am I here? Is there something else?"

"I was out running and I just said 'God, lord, if you're real, make yourself known to me'. There was tremendous sense of peace and acceptance. I just knew that God was real. People say 'how do you know?' You know it or you don't know it. I just had that sense that 'Yes, God, I know you are real'."

Newly inspired, he left the knitwear factory, feeling he wanted to "put his faith into action." Wanting to work with people, he studied social work and spent time on different placements. One of them, a nursing home he worked at after finding it in the Yellow Pages, was where he met his wife, who worked there as a cook. They got engaged three weeks after they met and wed the following summer. More than 20 years later, they have two sons aged 20 and 17. "I can obviously look at my path and see that God had a hand on all of the decisions I made," he says.

He and his family all attend church together in Chorley, where he is relieved to worship like any other Christian and briefly put work out of his mind. "It's good sometimes to receive rather than to give," he says. "The work can be intense".

CCPAS is busier than ever. As child protection has climbed up the national agenda, the number of churches and organisations who are members has increased 16% in a year - to around 7,000. The charity is a crucial partner in the Metropolitan Police's Project Violet, the fight against child abuse related to allegations of witchcraft and satanic possession, the most famous examples of which have taken place within the UK's African-majority churches. In the last year alone, the Met received reports of 27 such crimes, the most ever. Bass says the crime is "hidden" and he expects the number to continue rising. The allegations include two claims of rape and a child being swung around and smacked in the head "to drive out the devil".

Detective Superintendent Terry Sharpe, London's most senior police officer charged with tackling child abuse related to witchcraft allegations, who describes himself as "not particularly religious" and knows Bass, said CCPAS' work was "vital" to overcoming distrust, because they were people of faith but also because they were only a charity, rather than the authorities themselves.

He told HuffPost UK. "A lot of people in these churches are from parts of the world where there's a lot distrust of police. Sometimes we'll carry out an investigation, and the families disappear. They fear authorities are going to come and take all the children away.

Horrific child killings centred around the practice have stunned the nation. One of them - which triggered a public inquiry - reflects the cruelty of the practice but also, Bass says, the change CCPAS can help bring about. Victoria Climbié, who was born in the Ivory Coast, died aged just eight in 2000 after being beaten, burned with cigarettes and forced to sleep in a bin liner by her great-aunt and her boyfriend who believed she was possessed by evil spirits.

During her short time in the UK, the girl was taken to the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God Help Centre, where the pastor believed she was being abused but did not report it. She was only taken to hospital by a taxi driver who picked up Climbié and her guardians from the church, and saw the condition she was in.

victoria climbe

Victoria Climbié, aged eight, who was abused by her aunt and died from hypothermia after being forced to sleep naked in a bath

Around two years later, Bass visited to give a seminar at the church on safeguarding, encouraging people to report what they believed to be child abuse.

"Hardly anyone turned up," he said. But CCPAS kept working with the church and he and Bob Pull, an ex-detective who retired from the Met to join the charity, went back years later in 2010, when they had the ear of a new bishop.

The Universal Church had around 30 satellite churches, with a total congregation in the thousands. "This time, 800 people turned up. We've never trained so many people. That's because the bishop, Pierre Dessaint, took this seriously and, three-line whip, told them 'you will be there'. There was a Q&A. We asked people to put [the questions] on post-it notes and some asked 'what do you do if you suspect a church leader of abusing a child?' Now, this was a church where churchgoers nodded their heads in reverence to the pastors as they went by. Where people would carry the bible of the pastor and feel that was a privilege. I'm trying to give you an understanding of the dynamics."

The bishop saw the questions about church leaders and asked Bass for his answer. When he said people should "respond in the same way, as you would for anyone else" and report it, the bishop asked if, during the session, he could read the question out himself.

Bass continued: "He read it out, I gave the reply. You could sense in the room, there was a breaking of something, like the breaking of a wave. It was as if, they now had permission to act in the right way." For two weeks after that, CCPAS's phone rang with calls from safeguarding officers from the church, wanting advice about suspicions brought to their attention.

One woman who attended said afterwards: “I feel more comfortable to speak about abuse I faced as a child having attended the course. I am now working as best I can to bring my abuser to justice after years of self-blame and fear because I have understood that it’s not just about me. If I say nothing, he could be harming other children." Bass said: "That illustrates - the churches we're working with, we have to journey long and hard very often. You don't just turn up on the day to give a seminar and leave. You work with them for years so we can then get into a dialogue about anything from discipline to witchcraft."

He added: "We don't go into a church and tell them what not to believe in anyway. We don't tell them they shouldn't believe in demons or that somebody can be possessed or anything like that."

That sentence will surprise many. They don't criticise the belief there is such a thing satanic possession? Anyone who has read The Crucible knows the idea of satanic possession is not new to Christianity. But religion, particularly the Church of England, has ditched ideas and principles that have obstructed its efforts to be a moral authority in a modern world.

Does Bass believe in it himself?

Uncharacteristically, he stammers slightly but, he recovers and doesn't seem rattled. He says that telling churches not to believe in witchcraft would technically bring them into conflict with the CoE, whose each diocese has a vicar with responsibilities for exorcism.

"In terms of personal belief, I believe there is a God and I believe there is evil," he said. In what sounds like an attempt to dodge the question, he began speaking about how Jesus addressed children "calmly" and scripture calls on Christians to do the same. But he quickly returned to his personal beliefs, saying: "Is there a yes or no to such things? I think it misses the point. For many people, churches are very broad and people's views will differ. That's why, we tend not to get into that. It's easier to take a broad brush and say - 'no culture, community or faith condones the abuse of children'."

Even for a devout Christian, it must challenge your faith and interpretation of it to see others behave so badly in its name. He said: "'Challenges' is a good word. It focuses my faith. It focuses exactly who I am and what I am about. There's nothing in the bible or any other religious text to suggest it's ok to abuse children.

“What I see is the completely opposite. When Jesus was talking of protecting and nurturing, he was talking about children as examples. He was counter-culture, where women were seen as second-class citizens and children non-entities. When people are [using religion to justify the] harm of children and branding them as witches.. is to me an anathema."

simon bass

Bass (second from the right) prays with others at the UCKG Help Centre

He paints a picture of gradual process of becoming closer to faith organisations to help nudge them on "the journey" towards habitually reporting their suspicions to the authorities. But have there been any failures? Has a gulf between church and law ever been too much to bridge? For the first time in the conversation, he sounded downbeat. "There are churches that have just struggled to get responses from. We continue and always have dialogue with them."

He pauses and sighs. "It would be wrong to suggest that every church puts the welfare of children first because clearly they don't. But, in the main, the churches we work with do take safeguarding seriously and want to do it right."

The most "heartbreaking" thing he has witnessed is not a specific case but how victims of sexual abuse, who know their abuser, are sometimes not supported by their churches, or even ignored at the expense of their culprit. Churches, he said, can provide sex offenders with "solace and acceptance," and welcome those convicted back into the fold without considering their victim.

"The person has served a prison term and then come back and they are the ones who are given the support and those who have been sexually harmed and abused by the perpetrator haven't received the support. Unfortunately, that's happened in the past. It's not to say not everybody should be supported, but where the support is given to those who have harmed, rather than those who have been harmed, that grieves me the most and unfortunately I've known that to happen in churches."

Whether it's majority-African churches enabling, or even encouraging abuse of a child suspected of possession, or one that does not want to divulge information about a serious alleged crime by a senior member, not all people of faith would agree with CCPAS's mission. The litany of abuse scandals at Christian institutions all over the world reflects that CCPAS' attitude is relatively new for the religion, which, like others, has historically sought to handle such things without involving outsiders.

Asked if he ever doubted whether CCPAS should do what it does, Bass said: "I never question our motivation. We're there ensure that children are safe. We're to ensure there's a safe church. It's important how we deliver that message but I've never questioned what we do because we meet so many who've been hurt in churches, often by people who are well-meaning but have got it so totally wrong. It's important how we do things but (have I ever questioned) the motivation? No."

As part of the Huffington Post Beyond Belief series we want to know how your religion goes beyond just a faith in a God or Gods, or a cultural association. How do you incorporate or use faith in modern life? Tweet us with the hashtag #HPBeyondBelief to tell us in 140 characters and we'll feature the best contributions.

BEYOND BELIEF