For many of us, church feels good and safe. We were loved there as children and respected there as adults. In fact, we often describe our churches as “families” or caring communities where all are accepted. We trust one another and we feel confident that others want the best for us and our families.
But for some of us, church was not only unsafe, it was destructive. Abuse by a church leader or an adult in the church community impacts us forever and can drastically change how a victim/survivor understands God.
We know that at least 1 in 5 Mennonite Church USA women have experienced sexual abuse and 1 in 20 men. While this abuse hasn’t necessarily occurred in church settings, we can consider how much of our lives and our children’s lives are connected to church and church institutions like schools, camps and more.
No church or denomination is immune to an abuse crisis. It isn’t a “conservative church” or a “liberal church” problem. And if we’re not a part of the solution, we may be part of the problem.
The clear majority of victims/survivors know their offender as a family member or friend of the family. This gives new meaning to the “we’re like family” description. We don’t need to start distrusting everyone, but we should acknowledge that the higher the trust, the higher the risk that an offender may exploit our trust. “Stranger danger” is a myth that misleads and distracts.
Without diminishing the gifts that church offers for people of all ages, it is important to create healthy boundaries so that churches can remain safe spaces for everyone—especially children.
Fortunately, we can prevent abuse and learn how to respond well after a crisis. Your church can act now to keep kids safe tomorrow. Below are three main components of a safe church.
1. Create and implement a policy
A child protection policy communicates to everyone that children are valued by your church and it serves as a reminder that adults are responsible for keeping children safe. Avoid working on this alone. Instead share the load with a safe church committee made up of men and women—and perhaps a known survivor who is open to participating. Remember victims/survivors do exist in your church and can help lead the way in creating a culture of safety. In your policy, consider facility safety, supervision of children and the two-adult rule, screening and background checks for volunteers, social media/communication guidelines, transportation challenges, and the risks and benefits of mentoring programs. See our policy checklists in English and Spanish here or see Let the Children Come: Preparing Faith Communities to End Child Abuse and Neglect by Jeanette Harder.
2. Regular training for adults and children
While we can teach and empower children to say no or to talk to their parents when they feel unsafe, we can’t expect them to prevent grooming and abuse on their own. This is up to the adults and many adults need information and training to enable them to aid in these efforts. Ideally, your policy would require annual trainings for volunteers and staff working with children, but including all adults has many benefits. Bringing in local resource people from your community for these trainings helps build awareness and partnerships. The Dove’s Nest Speaker’s Bureau also provides these trainings. While sexual abuse is the most common form of abuse in church settings, teach about the other types of abuse—physical, emotional and neglect. Make it a goal to use Circle of Grace, a Christian safe environment curriculum, with students from pre-K to 12th. Remember that some adolescents also commit sexual violence against their peers or younger children. Christian Education can support a culture of safety. Also, be wary of using youth to care for children unsupervised.
3. Talk about boundaries and appropriate touch
Part of the work of a safe church committee is to create an atmosphere where all bodies are respected. Allow children to initiate affection, and teach adults that affectionate touch is best when observable and interruptible. Adults should feel free to decline hugs or other kinds of touch. If a youth says he or she feels uncomfortable with someone, take him or her seriously. Whether a touch is good, bad or confusing is determined by the receiver’s experience of the touch, not by the intentions of the person doing the touching. The pulpit and Sunday school classes offer valuable places for abuse to be named and to lift up children. Finally, remember that adult victims/survivors may be triggered when discussing abuse and prevention; if possible, offer support to victims/survivors on an ongoing basis.
Keeping children safe seems like something that everyone would easily agree about, but don’t be surprised when people question some parts of the policy or the renewed emphasis on safety. Unfortunately, many of us doubt stories of abuse or find ourselves skeptical of victims/survivors. So be prepared for pushback. Address cynicism directly and with care.
Here are some common types of pushback you may receive as you undertake this work.
“Policies and background checks are too much work.” Remind people at your church of Jesus’s command and our commitment to the well-being of the vulnerable. In Luke 18:16, Jesus says, “Let the children come.” He also directed harsh words at those who harm them in Matthew 18:6. In our desire for forgiveness and to love our enemies (or offenders), we may overlook that our priority is to protect the innocent. Abuse shatters individuals, families, and communities. The trauma of child abuse can lead to long-term emotional pain, addiction, and suicide in adult victims/survivors. It can even affect physical health. Take two middle-aged men who are both non-smokers, moderate drinkers, non-obese and reasonably fit. “If the only difference between them was that one had suffered physical or sexual abuse as a child, that man would be 45 per cent more likely than his peer to contract cancer.” (Barber, J. (2016). “The Hidden Epidemic.” University of Toronto Magazine. Autumn.) Also, research shows that victims of child sexual abuse are far more likely to be obese as adults.
“We don’t have many children at our church.” Fewer children often means less robust safety plans, so children could be at more risk. Young families will find church protection policies and practices appealing. Also, prepare for growth. For example, several refugee families started regularly attending one church and each family had four or five children. The nursery went from two or three children each Sunday to a roomful. A protection policy already in place helps provides for these unforeseen blessings.
“But we don’t want to scare people away from interacting with children.” The first thing is to educate adults in your trainings about what grooming is and is not. Grooming is not general friendliness to children. Grooming is finding ways to be alone with a child or showing one child special attention with the intention to take advantage of their trust and sexually harm them. For example, showing up to a child’s piano lesson regularly or insisting on being physical with a child could be grooming behavior. Encourage adults to talk to children and youth! Many youth want to be heard and to have genuine conversations with adults at their church. Affection and kindness can safely happen in public and be interruptible and still be meaningful to children and youth.
- If a child/youth discloses abuse to you, believe the child/youth and make a report immediately to Child Protective Services or the police. Remember: you don’t have to have evidence or proof. Do not do the investigation yourself—or anything that resembles that. Cooperate with professionals who conduct the investigation.
- After reporting, notify the pastor and/or child protection team.
- Immediately attend to the victim and his or her family’s safety and needs through church leadership and an outside agency, like a child advocacy center. Keep the victim’s needs at the center of any process.
- Immediately relieve the alleged offender from all responsibilities involving contact with children until the conclusion of the investigation.
- Consider the likelihood that there is more than one individual harmed.
- Within 48 hours, notify all parents whose children may have encountered the alleged offender. Let them know that allegations have been made and reported.
- Keep victims and offenders separated during the investigation. Support child victims in engaging in age-appropriate activities. If offenders are adolescents, find alternate activities for them.
- Inform area conference leadership or the equivalent.
- After the investigation, follow all legal implications for the offender. Inform the entire church. Secrecy not only makes children unsafe, it also does not help offenders.
- Even if the abuse is not confirmed, attend to the dynamics that prompted the allegations and carefully consider the degree to which victims and offenders need to remain separated.
- Make pastoral care available to all involved. Important: prioritize the needs of the victim over the offender.
- Communities themselves need healing from crisis. This can happen through informational meetings with time for Question and Answer sessions, circle gatherings to hear harms and feelings and formulation of a task force to do problem-solving for the future.
Anna Groff is executive director of Dove’s Nest: Faith Communities Keeping Children and Youth Safe. See dovesnest.net for materials, resources, blogs, and other recommended organizations.