You have read the newspapers. You have seen the reports. We know that abuse happens in churches. According to the 2019 Abuse of Faith survey by the Houston Chroniclenearly 400 Southern Baptist leaders and volunteers — pastors, deacons, youth ministers and missionaries — have been accused of misconduct by more than 700 victims since 1998.
Guidepost’s recent survey of the problem of dealing with sexual abuse in the SBC demonstrated an urgent need for reform in abuse prevention training, volunteer screening and response to allegations. The APC this week released recommendations for equipping churches to deal with cases of domestic violence, demonstrating that violence does not discriminate by political regime, theological beliefs or denomination. But what do we do with it? How can we react when the scale of the problem seems to overwhelm us?
Our understanding of the biblical standards of Christian character and its requirements for how we care for vulnerable people must lead to changes in how we view abuse prevention.
Ministry leaders should take the time to mourn and mourn the abuses that have gone on for years. We need to think about how we can better care for those affected by violence, whether they are survivors or their loved ones. And every organization that serves children and other vulnerable people must develop a plan to prevent abuse and respond appropriately if an allegation of abuse is reported in their department.
This is where I want to focus in this article. Our theological convictions about the dignity of all people created in the image of God, our understanding of the Bible’s standards for Christian character and its requirements for how we care for the vulnerable must lead to changes in the way we to see the prevention of abuse and the protection of children.
3 key measures for child safety
How can your church begin to take steps towards a strong child safety ministry? Consider these three safety measures for children.
The best way to take child protection seriously in your church is to start at the top: with the leadership of your organization. As Evangelical Council for the Prevention of Abuse General Counsel Sally Wagenmaker says, “Child protection begins with good godly governance.”
If your leadership disagrees with child safety, staff and volunteers likely disagree about abuse prevention and reporting practices, and abuse will rarely be addressed appropriately.
If your organization works with children, the governing body must have a child safety program in place, and this program must require a rigorous screening process (including background checks, interviews, and reference checks) as well training for all Ministry of Children and Youth staff and volunteers. .
Require all volunteers to agree to a code of conduct, with discipline policies for those who violate it, and maintain a zero-tolerance policy for child sexual abuse. This means that the church will not allow anyone who has admitted or been convicted of child sexual abuse to work with children in any capacity.
Everyone who interacts with children needs training in how to recognize signs of abuse, grooming behaviors and abusive behaviors. They also need training on how to respond to abusive incidents that occur inside and outside the organization. In your church’s training program, emphasize a proactive stance toward children’s safety, rather than a reactive stance, so as not to react to situations after the harm has already been done.
Instill in staff and workers their responsibility as the front line of child protection. They will first detect indicators of abuse through conversations and interactions with children. Educate staff and volunteers about mandatory reporting laws in your local jurisdiction. You can find your state’s requirements on Mandated Reporter or in the US Department of Health and Human Services Mandatory Reporters guide. Encourage workers to report anything they find suspicious, with the assurance that individuals within the organization and the organization as a whole will not punish or sanction workers for reporting in good faith, regardless who they are reporting or whether the allegation is true or false.
For more training resources, check out Deepak Reju’s book On Our Guard: Preventing and Responding to Child Abuse in Churchespecially chapters 11 and 12.
Develop a written response plan before an incident of abuse occurs. The first 24 hours after reporting are often the most critical, so let all staff and volunteers know about the plan so they can access it quickly.
Make sure your response plan is consistent with law enforcement and child protective services investigation protocols. Be sure to include steps on how to care for the well-being of the alleged victim and require documentation of all response actions.
A good intervention plan covers the following topics: how to receive an allegation of child abuse; how to report abuse; mandatory reporting laws and reporting protocols, including contact details for jurisdictional bodies; contact details for legal counsel and your insurance company; and designated counselors or therapists for victims.
Churches should establish a crisis response team. This is an important step even for small churches and church plants, where the team will be mostly volunteers. An emergency response team is made up of people who are familiar with the response plan and who care for suspected victims and manage logistical needs.
Finally, leaders should be informed in the event of a report so that they can develop an internal care plan for the alleged victim, separate the victim from their abuser, and organize a communication strategy with the church and respond to any media inquiries. . .
Everything that’s necessary
Jenna Quinn, abuse survivor and advocate for victims, writes: “In the same way that there is a mental, psychological and physical impact of abuse, there is also a spiritual impact of abuse. . . . And when the abuse occurs in the religious environment, the impact of the survivor’s spiritual harm is often heightened. We must do everything in our power to remove the barriers faced by those who are abused.
God calls his people to care for the vulnerable and protect his church from those who would harm them (Ps. 82:3-4; Isaiah 1:17; Acts 20:28-30; 1 Cor. 5:9- 13; James 1:27; Jude 4). This may be your first introduction to the problem of abuse, and maybe it just seems too big to handle. But there are measures we can put in place both to prevent abuse and to respond appropriately, and there are plenty of ministries, Christian advocates, and even insurance agencies who would love to help! The witness of the church is strengthened when we work together and do whatever it takes to protect and care for children.
The Evangelical Council for the Prevention of Abuse is dedicated to supporting Christian ministries in child protection and abuse prevention through sensitizationaccreditation and Resources. The group has developed a set of child safety standards that have been designed to help ministry leaders make their organizations child-safe. The standards are divided into five categories: governance, child safety operations, screening, training and response.