This article was originally published by The Mennonite

Child Safety: A cautionary tale

A true story about the dangers of unsupervised Sunday school teachers of young people.

It all started so innocently. As parents, as a Mennonite faith community, we were so naïve. Now I realize this is what a sexual predator has in his favor.

Our son Brad (real names and some details have been changed), a seventh grader, was eager to participate in activities at our church for many reasons: His friends were there, it was fun and there was a friendly, energetic junior high youth sponsor and teacher who loved spending time with the kids. We parents were grateful for a chance for Brad to connect with this faith community and pleased with the eager leadership of Dan.

However, as the months progressed, I noted that I felt uncomfortable with some of the scenarios being played out in the context of junior high ministry. I didn’t have a language for what I felt, just a prickly reaction to some things I observed.

The Sunday school class room for the seventh graders was in a loft space, removed from the rest of the classrooms and the flow of traffic and accessible only by foldout stairs. The kids thought it was cool to have their own room, isolated from the rest of the church.

On many Sundays after church, Brad asked us if he could go with Dan to a movie or to the local arcade to play video games. We always said no, as it seemed inappropriate. Other parents said yes.

One Friday night, Dan and his wife scheduled a sleepover at the church. We were given little information as parents, and we questioned Brad about the plans, but since all the other parents had approved, we sent him, too. We found out later that the girls slept in one room with Dan’s wife, and the boys slept in another room with Dan. There were no other adults present, and again I had a prickly feeling.

One Sunday after the adults’ Sunday school class ended, several of the parents of seventh graders were waiting around for their kids to be released from the loft. No one was there. A few minutes later, Dan rolled up to the church in his van, and the kids all piled out. They were excited that they had been invited to Dan’s house to play video games during the Sunday school hour. As parents, we felt frustrated that we had not been notified that the class was being transported off the church grounds. We were also disappointed that the activities that morning had not been connected to Christian faith formation. But no one said anything to Dan, because he seemed like such a good guy.

He played in the worship band; he ran the church sound system and was a ready and willing volunteer with lots of energy and a friendly, can-do disposition. It seemed wrong to question his behavior or doubt his motives. Our trust blinded us.

It was into this climate, this church, this Mennonite community that our son was being groomed for sexual abuse. And although we felt occasional discomfort, we did not know how to put words or actions to our feelings. We did not yet have a language for what we were observing. The church did not have any safeguards in place to protect our son or his peers. In fact, the other parents, lay leaders and the pastor seemed oblivious to the risks of abuse as well. The grooming process (see box on page 22) of a sexual predator was happening right before our eyes, and we did not recognize it as such.

One evening after supper, we dropped off our son at the church to work on a project with Dan to upgrade the church’s sound system. It was prearranged that Brad begin learning the ropes of the sound system, and we liked the idea that he would find his own niche in the church. After 30 minutes, Brad called us to say that Dan hadn’t shown up. I called his home, and his wife simply said he was not around and would not be able to go to the church that night. We picked Brad up and wondered what had happened.

The next day we found out that the previous night, all things came crashing in around Dan. He had been arrested for sexual abuse of minors and online child pornography. Although Brad had never been abused by Dan, some of his peers had.

Finally, we realized that our discomfort had been justified. We also discovered that Dan had been fired from his three previous jobs, all ones where he had easy access to children and youth: a library, a day-care center and a restaurant.

My view of ministry with children and youth has never been the same. This experience has led me to care a great deal about the child-protection policies we can put in place in our congregations. I have concerns, however, that other parents and church leaders might be as naïve as I once was.

Here are some of my wonderings:

  • When I hear a youth worker use inappropriate phrases such as “you little hottie” when talking to a 4-year old, I wonder …
  • When I see parents casually let their preschoolers run around the church fellowship hall with only underwear on, I wonder …
  • When I notice a 20-year-old man play hide-and-go-seek in the dark halls of a church with 5-year-olds, I wonder …
  • When I watch a group of young children playing unsupervised on a church playground that is just blocks away from a busy highway, I wonder …
  • When I observe church leaders dragging their feet on placing windows in all classroom doors, I wonder …
  • When I know that a church determines it is riskier to ask a long-time teacher to abide by child-protection policies than it is to implement the policies for the sake of the children, I won­der …
  • When supervision and accountability take second place to opportunities for isolation and secrecy, I wonder …
  • When churches refuse to do background checks because of cost or the nuisance factor, I wonder …

I wonder, are we still enveloped in ignorance? Are children still being put at risk for sexual abuse? Or is the light slowly seeping in? If we don’t protect our children, who will?

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