Peter studied to be a minister in the Seventh-day Adventist Church in his late 20s. By the end of the 1990s, he was ministering to two different churches in Australia. He was informed that one of the men of his congregation was a sex offender. Soon after this conversation, another member of the congregation came to see Peter.
‘A lady came to me and she said, “Something’s not right in the children’s division”, and told me that there was manipulative behavior. “You’ve got to give me a hug”, “You’ve hurt my feelings”, things like that … really alarm bell type [but] nothing overt in and of itself.’
Because the man was involved in children’s activities in the church, Peter told him he could no longer be involved with children. The man protested. Peter found negotiating these discussions very difficult because the elders of the church supported the man.
‘It just created a storm … Had meetings with my elders, forced the issues with them and basically, they were very sympathetic to him and … this raised … the relationships, the networks and the sympathies [of] people.
‘It’s funny you know, you hear people, they go, “Oh, paedophiles they should line them up”. The most outrageous responses that people want to do to them that are entirely inappropriate, but as soon as it becomes a family member or something … when it’s a mate or a loved one – “No, he could never have done that”. Without fail, I’ve seen that.’
The elders tried to downplay the man’s behaviour as not being ‘that serious’. Peter was ‘made to feel as though I was being unreasonable, and I’m going “Actually, I’m not”’. He withdrew from the church, moved interstate and rebuilt his life.
As Peter aged, he drifted back to the local Seventh-day Adventist Church. ‘It’s what I know.’ Recently, one of the young members had been convicted of serious sexual offences - ‘And rightly so’. But the minister had ministered to both perpetrator and victims and was uncertain of how to manage the situation.
‘The church was clueless. The minister didn’t know what to do. He came to me for advice – lovely, lovely fellow but it was beyond his competence. I said go to the conference first and go to Safe Place Services.’
The conference is part of the structure and hierarchy of the Adventist Church. Safe Place Services (now AdSafe) is an internal church organisation that educates members, receives complaints about child abuse and harassment, and supports victims and vulnerable young people in the churches.
Peter believes that the service ‘is probably a positive thing, and probably a different thing to back in  … There was probably some organisational progress in terms of trying to deal with these things.
‘[But] there is a real question here about the extent to which [protection of religious confession] should be … preserved … There’s a real question as to whether that’s a problem and whether ministers … ought to be mandatory reporters … I think they should’.
‘I can see the arguments against but at the end of the day why should somebody have the benefit of their conscience? … I think the issues at stake are too great … People confess things to ease their conscience and that’s fine but there shouldn’t be a refuge in religion that is somehow protected.’
Peter discovered that because the victim’s mother had gone to the police she was ostracised within the church.
‘There was a real backlash within the context of the congregation … I observed … that good upstanding people rationalise and protect the offender … it surprised me and overwhelmed me … In terms of the very serious nature of the offending, it’s not something to be protected and frankly the conduct of some of the elders … was … disgraceful.’
Peter found that, in all the churches he has been a member of, there was resistance to training and policies around child safe environments at all levels and that there is still limited education provided for the congregation generally.
‘The church has a regular magazine … it will advertise Sanitarium … that’s owned by the Adventist Church and things like that, and it kind of makes sense that … [AdSafe and child safe policies and practices] … need to be somehow projected into the regular face of people and … there’s something missing about that.’
He worries that if ‘there’s not the education at the level of the laity then it’s doomed’.
‘I don’t think it’s isolated. I think it’s very entrenched … People can sometimes think churches are immune but really people are people wherever you go … In some respects churches are vulnerable … They tend to believe anyone who says that they’re a Christian.’