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Abuse of Trust

Relationships between children or young people and their leaders take many different forms, but all of them can be described as ‘relationships of trust’. The leader is someone in whom the child or young person has placed a degree of trust. The trust may be because the leader has an educational role, is a provider of leisure activities, or even is a significant adult friend.

In every case, however, that relationship is not one of equal partners and there is the potential for the trust to be abused by the leader, who is in a position of power over the child or young person. It is important for all those in positions of trust to understand the power this can give them over those they care for and thus the responsibility they must exercise as a consequence of this relationship. It is now acknowledged that the imbalance of power that means that it is wrong for a teacher to develop a romantic relationship with a sixth former or for a doctor to enter into a romantic relationship with a patient, can exist in other nonprofessional contexts. All voluntary organisations are now expected to have a policy which sets out the boundaries of such relationships. Such policies are intended to protect young people over the age of consent but under 18 years of age where a relationship of trust with an adult looking after them exists.

It is always wrong for a leader to enter into a sexual relationship with a young person. Whilst young people aged 16 or 17 can legally consent to some types of sexual activity, they may still be emotionally immature. Their vulnerability could be exploited, either deliberately or unwittingly. Where a relationship of trust exists between a young person and a youth leader it does not make any difference whether or not the sexual relationship is consensual. The imbalance of power makes it an abuse of trust, and therefore wrong.

However abuse of trust does not only take place when a relationship develops into a sexual relationship. It is also not acceptable for a leader to form a romantic relationship with a young person with whom they have a relationship of trust. Such a romantic relationship (even if consensual) would not be a relationship of equal partners - the leader is always in a position of power over the young person and exploitation is almost inevitable, even if unintentional.

These principles apply irrespective of sexual orientation. It is important also to recognise that women as well as men may abuse a position of trust. The inappropriate nature of romantic relationships is obvious where the leader is a mature adult, but less so when the leader is also a young person (eg a 19 year old leader with a 16 year old member of the group). However, if such a romantic relationship did occur, there would still be a confusion of the roles of leader and romantic partner. Normally in these circumstances the leader should cease either the relationship of trust or the romantic relationship with the young person.

Policies should make it clear that those taking on work or already working with young people must be aware that they are in a position of trust and the responsibilities this brings with it. The policy should:

  • aim to protect the young person from an unequal and potentially damaging relationship

  • aim to protect the person in a position of trust by preventing him/her from entering into such a relationship deliberately or accidentally by providing clear and enforceable guidance on what behaviour is acceptable

The Government-recommended good practice establishes that a clear statement be made that any behaviour which might allow a sexual relationship to develop between the person in a position of trust and the individual or individuals in their care should be avoided; and that any sexual relationship within a relationship of trust is unacceptable so long as the relationship of trust continues.

For further information see, Caring for Young People and the Vulnerable? Guidance for Preventing Abuse of Trust (Home Office 2003). 

We believe that it would be good practice for churches, when appointing young leaders, to consider not appointing young leaders to lead the peer group immediately below their own, but always to leave a gap of at least one peer group. If this principle were to be followed, a sixteen year old being given leadership experience would not be placed in a leadership role with the 13 – 15 year olds, but at least one age group below. A nineteen year old would not be given leadership responsibility for the 16 – 18 year old group, but always with a younger group of children and young people.

Case study

A group of young people has grown up together within your church. The age profile of the group is between 16 and 20. For a number of years they have ‘hung out’ together at church and at other social events. Jon is 19 and has started going out with Helen who is 16. Jon is a leader in the youth group that Helen is a member of; however, they have been friends for years because they are in the same friendship group.
  • Is there a problem here?

  • Is this or could this be abuse of trust?

  • What steps can be taken to ensure that there is no abuse of trust?


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