A church should be a refuge from the dangers of the world. Unfortunately we hear all too often about children who have been abused at church by those entrusted to guide and protect them.
Although many high-profile cases of sexual abuse deal with stranger abduction, molestation typically occurs within a long-term, ongoing relationship between the offender and victim, writes Laura Ahearn, executive director of Parents for Megan’s Law and the Crime Victims Center.
“Sexual predators are smart, extremely cunning and often individuals you least expect would commit such crimes,” Ahearn said on her organization’s website. “Sometimes they are the well-respected pillars of the community. They develop elaborate schemes and go to great extents to do anything to get access to children.”
That’s why prevention efforts must focus on screening and supervision, said Chip Smith, an associate in the office of LeaderCare and church administration at the Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions (SBOM).
Screening in the form of background checks is the first step churches should take when it comes to allowing any person to work with children. Before hiring staff members, churches should do a complete background check on the potential employee, including criminal, credit and motor vehicle records.
For volunteers, the process does not have to be that extensive, Smith said. A Child Abuse and Neglect report from the Child Protective Services division of the Alabama Department of Human Resources (DHR) will suffice. Form 1598, known as a CA/N (“can”), is available on the DHR website, dhr.alabama.gov.
“A DHR check can tell you if there have been any reports made on that individual,” Smith said.
A DHR report is free and churches who have never done them can start with current volunteers, then do checks as additional volunteers come on board, Smith said. No one should be exempted, he added.
“The most common question I hear from pastors is do we have to screen everybody that works with children,” Smith said. “The answer is yes for both staff and volunteers. Churches shouldn’t grandfather anyone in either. If you do that, you’ve lost the effectiveness of the process.”
Most people are going to be fine with the background check, Smith said. Failing to screen in order to avoid hurt feelings not only puts the church at risk of lawsuits, it puts children at risk of abuse.
“If something happens, parents are going to want to know if the church tried to prevent this from happening,” Smith said. “Doing something is better than doing nothing.”
Pastors also are mandatory reporters, which means if they receive a credible report of potential abuse or neglect, they must tell child protection services. If no concerns are found in an investigation, pastors are not liable. However, if a pastor fails to report a concern and the child is further abused, the pastor can be sued for nonreporting, Smith said. It’s just something pastors and leaders who work with children must do.
“You’re looking after the welfare of children,” Smith said.
Supervision during church activities is the second key to prevention, especially in youth ministry, which is considered a high-risk situation for sexual misconduct allegations, Smith said.
“Youth workers are often closer in age to the teens they work with, they’re often unmarried and they spend a lot of time with youth, sometimes off-premises or at overnight activities,” Smith said.
Youth ministry teams can be helpful, as can policies that prohibit spontaneous unsupervised outings, Smith said. It also is important that only adults be allowed to chaperone youth ministry activities. Chaperones should not be younger than 21 and ideally they should be 25 or older.
“In Alabama anyone under the age of 18 is considered a child, and anyone supervising them should be a legal adult,” Smith said.
James Dew, vice president for undergraduate studies and academic support at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina, also suggests the two-person rule. This policy states that two adult workers must be present during all children and youth activities, especially those that occur off church premises or do not take place during normal church hours.
“In best cases, at least one of these workers will be a woman, particularly when changing diapers or assisting children with restroom breaks,” Dew said. “Teens or preteens who help with the nursery, children’s church or ministries like AWANA should not count toward the two-person rule.”
Other simple steps churches can take to increase supervision of children’s activities are to put windows in doors and to have someone walking through the children’s area when children are present. Other simple steps, like strategically placing mirrors and video cameras and locking unused rooms, can be deterrents to sexual abuse situations as well.
When activities take children’s groups off-site, precautionary measures should include adequate adult chaperones, frequent roll calls and little unsupervised time.
Such strict policies may seem excessive but a church must do everything possible to keep kids safe at church, even if it means challenging the comfort level of the congregation.
“Precautions, individually or taken together, will not provide a 100 percent guarantee against child predators,” Dew said. “However, these simple guidelines give practical and effective layers of protection to our children, our churches and to the name of Christ. All of us want our children to be safe, but that won’t happen if we aren’t deliberate and aggressive to pursue such protection. Our children and our mission are worth the cost.”
5 to ease concerns about child safety at church
Talk: Talk often with your child and set a tone of openness. Talking openly and directly will let your child know that it’s OK to come to you when they have questions. If your child comes to you with concerns or questions, make time to listen and talk to them.
Teach: Teach children the names of their body parts so that they have the language to ask questions and express concerns about those body parts. If your child is uncomfortable around a specific adult, pay attention to their discomfort. Teach your child that if someone ever touches them inappropriately, he or she should tell a trusted adult immediately.
Empower: Your child should know that he or she has the right to speak up if they are uncomfortable or if someone is touching them inappropriately. Teach them that it’s OK to say “no” even to adults they know, including family or church members. Empower them to have healthy boundaries and to understand that it is almost never okay for anyone to touch their private areas (any part that is covered by a swimsuit).
Implement: Make sure there are safety protocols and policies in place to protect children both at home and church and that these policies are enforced. Protocols and policies are worthless if they are not implemented.
Educate: Educate church members, staff members and yourself about the warning signs of child sexual abuse. Educate them about what to look out for and prepare them for the best way to respond to potential situations.
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