Managing allegations of historic abuse in the charity sector

16 March, 2017
This article has been reviewed and is up to date as of 16 March, 2017

In the last few years, and in particular since the launch of Operation Yewtree, media reports of allegations of historic abuse against children seem to have, sadly, become more frequent.  So much so, that it is now easy to associate these sorts of allegations as being made against specific individuals, such as those in the public eye.  However, bodies and associations who work with children, such as educational establishments, can equally be at risk of such claims, and now, in a time where any allegations are taken more seriously than they may have been in the past, it is important that these bodies are prepared and have rigorous procedures in place to manage any such allegations that may arise.

The Charity Commission provides some guidance on what charities can do to ensure they are safeguarding the children and young people in their care.  However, it is also the Charity Commission’s responsibility to act as regulator and to investigate, by way of statutory inquiries, any alleged wrongdoings by a charity, and the Commission therefore also provides guidance on dealing with such inquiries.

By way of example, in December 2016, the Charity Commission launched an inquiry into the St Laurence Education Trust and Ampleforth Abbey over the charity trustees’ approach to safeguarding and handling allegations of sexual abuse at Ampleforth College.

There had been widespread media coverage of allegations of historic sexual abuse at the College which, together with further consideration by the Charity Commission of information provided to it by the trustees, led to the decision to open this inquiry.  It is important to note that the inquiry will not include any investigation of the allegations themselves, but rather focus on the charity’s response to, and handling of, the allegations and whether there was any misconduct or mismanagement in this area.

Dealing with allegations of child abuse

So what should schools and educational charities be doing if any such allegations are made against it?

Preparation is key.  As noted above, the Charity Commission has published general guidance on safeguarding children and young people, as well as on relevant organisations’ requirements to comply with the government’s statutory guidance on “Working together to safeguard children”.

Trustees must act in the best interests of the children they work with and ensure they take all reasonable steps to prevent them from harm – in cases such as these, prevention is always better than cure.  This includes ensuring from the outset that:

  • the organisation has a child protection policy in place, as well as procedures for dealing with any issues of concern or abuse. Full guidance as to the content of these policies and procedures is available from the Charities Commission;
  • those working in the charity are aware of the existence, content, and procedures in these policies and procedures; and
  • the policies and procedures are followed and enforced.

Even with the requisite policies and procedures in place, allegations of abuse may still be made.  The immediate reaction to such an allegation will most likely be one of horror that anything of this sort can have occurred, followed by anxiety about what the organisation’s members will say, and indeed the outside world.  Any and all such allegations must be taken seriously.  In particular:

  • Immediately refer back to any policies you have in place. Check them against the Charity Commission guidance to see if they are still up to date.  If the Charity Commission guidance refers to additional procedures beyond the scope of the charity’s existing policies, make a note of these and (provided they do not conflict with the charity’s own policies and procedures) try to follow them as well, as far as possible.
  • All correspondence and other communications must be carefully recorded.
  • All actions take at all stages of the process should be clearly and systematically documented.
  • Don’t throw anything away!

As scary or embarrassing as it may be at the time, dealing with the situation head-on will be better for the charity in the long run, rather than ignoring it and hoping it will go away!  Having full records, and being able to show that the charity has responded in the most appropriate way and in accordance with its own procedures and the Charity Commission’s recommendations will help reduce the risk of allegations of misconduct or mismanagement from arising in what is already a difficult situation for the charities and its trustees, and protect the charity’s reputation in the long term.

Who should we tell?

Sometimes it will be necessary to make an official report of the allegation and its subject matter.  Timing for making such a report to the Charity Commission, or indeed the police, can be critical, and can itself be subject to scrutiny.  A charity trying to manage the situation internally before reporting the incident (which is not uncommon) will frequently result in criticism of the organisation by the Charity Commission for its handling of the situation, as well as more public accusations of trying to bury the bad news from the media.  The making of any such report will also need to be noted in the trustees’ report in the charity’s annual accounts.  While it is tempting to simply note “we have dealt with it; he has left the organisation”, this will not ultimately be an adequate response.

Early consultation with an objective legal advisor can help bring the matter into perspective, an give a steadying hand in helping  the charity manage the situation in the most appropriate and pragmatic way and steering the organisation through a very delicate situation.

How to deal with a statutory inquiry

In the case of Ampleforth College, it was the application of the charity’s policies and procedures in handling the abuse allegations that prompted the Charity Commission statutory inquiry.  A statutory inquiry is a serious step for the Charity Commission to take, and will usually only arise in serious cases of abuse and regulatory concern.

It is important to note that an inquiry is exactly that – an inquiry.  Other than in extreme circumstances (where other remedial steps will usually have been implemented at the same time), there are no preconceived expectations of guilt or wrong-doing.  If the causes for concern turn out to be unfounded, the inquiry will say so.  If any misconduct or mismanagement is found, the Charity Commission will also work with the charity in question to try and resolve such problems.

If an allegation escalates, and if your charity becomes subject to a statutory inquiry:

  • Don’t panic!
  • Co-operate fully with the Charity Commission and its requests for documents and information, including any deadlines
  • Communicate fully and honestly with the Charity Commission
  • Keep full records of how and when you have complied with Charity Commission requests
  • Seek legal advice

Again, preparation is key.  Having the right processes in place from the start, and ensuring that they are being followed, in conjunction with prompt legal advice, should either prevent an inquiry taking place, or at least provide a strong defence to help maintain the reputation of the charity should an inquiry proceed.