This article was originally published by Mennonite World Review

What about sexual violence by adolescents?

Dove’s Nest has heard from churches that are struggling with situations of abuse in which an adolescent is the offender. These situations are terribly painful and complicated, but not terribly uncommon. An estimated 23 percent of reported cases of child sexual abuse are perpetrated by individuals under the age of 18.

So what can we do to prevent sexual violence by adolescents in our church communities? The key to prevention of sexual violence by adolescents and children is fostering a church culture and environment that promotes safe churches and healthy sexuality and relationships between people of all ages. The Safe Church guidelines and practices suggested in the Dove’s Nest Resources are the starting point. Here are some additional prevention efforts specific to adolescents.

Christian Education during Junior Youth and Youth Group Years. Christian education plays a key role in promoting Safe Church culture. First, it is important to recognize that the family is the primary place for education about human sexuality and healthy relationships; however, families often appreciate when congregations have this topic as part of their Christian education curriculum. And adolescents sometimes find it easier to talk and learn about this topic away from their parents. Thus, congregations can be an ideal setting for more education.

At multiple intervals during Christian education classes, lessons should tackle the topics of self-esteem and love for oneself, body image, friendships, romantic relationships and the sexual self, and communication. Social media and the Internet are essential topics here in promoting wise use of sites, how to communicate in healthy ways, how to protect oneself from being bullied, and privacy issues to avoid stalking or inappropriate adult involvement. Studies on power, violence and oppression (at the individual, group and societal level) also promote learning and integration of the concepts of respect, personhood and power in relationships. Junior youth and youth, a time frame which spans seven years, is a stage teeming with physical, emotional, spiritual and sexual development. Visiting these types of topics a minimum of three times for a short series of Sunday school classes is reasonable. Click here for some resources to consider.

Using Adolescents in Childcare or Christian Education of Younger Children. It is important that we aren’t naïve when we allow adolescents to provide childcare or supervision to younger children, for example, thinking that the 14-year-old girl who loves to do nursery duty “wouldn’t possibly hurt the toddlers.”

That being said, adolescents are an important segment of church life and can have meaningful roles in the childcare of younger children. Adolescents who provide childcare or help with Bible school should receive training (just as the approved adults do) on child protection and Safe Church policies and practices. They should also sign a child protection covenant to help the adolescent understand the importance of their role as a caregiver. Parents of adolescents can also be integrated into the covenant so that Safe Church is a commitment of the family, not just the individual adolescent. (For churches who have mentor-mentee programs and an adolescent interested in childcare, doing this training together might be a great activity for new pairings.)

Most churches have a policy that requires two “approved” adults in a setting with children. If the church chooses to have one of the “approved adults” be an adolescent, it is important to think through how to provide protection for the adolescent from the approved adult. This is where “floating adult supervisors” can be critical to stretching the number of approved caregivers to meet all the needs for childcare.

Support and Accountability Groups for Adolescents Who Have Known Inappropriate or Illegal Sexual Behaviors. Occasionally, congregations have an adolescent with a known history of inappropriate sexual behavior. These situations raise multiple issues unique to adolescents. First, because the adolescent is a minor, their parents or guardians need to be involved in any planning for the adolescent’s participation in the church community. If parents are not participating in the church community, the pastor or a Child Protection Committee (CPC) representative needs to have communication with the parents or guardian.

Sometimes inappropriate adolescent behavior has been brought to the attention of authorities like the Department of Children and Family Services (DCF) or the police, but charges have been dropped or the parents of the adolescent have been charged with negligence but the youth has received no charges. Regardless of the legal status or involvement with DCF, the church leadership and CPC need to respond carefully and thoughtfully. The church’s response needs to weigh how the community provides a welcoming atmosphere of love, protection and meaningful participation while providing protection to the other children in the community. Support and accountability groups are important. The support group is especially important, as many adolescents with inappropriate behaviors are struggling with emotional problems, difficulty in peer relationships, and lack of basic problem-solving and conflict-management skills. Church can be a critical place for the adolescent to experience positive peer relationships as well as encounter adults who model helpful, supportive, and effective relationship skills.

Promoting Safe Church culture and, thus, increasing the safety of children in our congregations is best addressed by thinking about it broadly, across different age groups. Adolescents — because of their perpetual changes and development in this period of life along with their ability to take on responsible, meaningful roles in the congregation — merit unique attention.

Dr. Trudy Good is a clinical psychologist who has worked extensively in community mental health in Illinois and Massachusetts. She is the director of Good Havens: Safer Places. She participates in the Mennonite Congregation of Boston as well as St. Ignatius Catholic Church.

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