Churches and other faith-based organizations that have children and youth programming have legal and moral obligations to protect the children in their care. Yet failure to provide adequate protection for children and youth is one of the primary reasons these organizations get sued, and victims carry lifelong scars. A strong child protection policy is critical to protect both children and faith-based organizations and is foundational to building a culture of safety for children.
While abuse in the Catholic Church has been in the news for years, the pervasiveness of sexual abuse in protestant churches is the subject of more recent news.
Sexual abuse inside and outside the church persists partially because of a cultural skepticism towards allegations of abuse and an impulse to protect organizational leaders. The problem is magnified in churches because people trust their fellow church members and, in many cases, there may be pressure to submit to spiritual authority and keep disputes within the church.
Combating abuse in the church is not simply an issue of the right policy; it is about building a culture of protection that acknowledges the reality of sin and embraces accountability measures to mitigate risk.
That said, a good policy is critical. A properly implemented policy reduces risk of abuse, facilitates training, builds culture, and helps reduce liability in the event something does occur. It’s also an opportunity for churches and faith-based organizations to make clear that they care about children and youth.
Too often, we see a policy limited to conducting one-time background checks and some language in an employee handbook about mandatory child abuse reporting laws. Churches can do better. Here are some things to consider when reviewing and revising your church’s policy:
- Distribution and training – the policy is given to volunteers as well as employees and there is regular training on it.
- Screening procedures – background checks, applications, interviews.
- Supervision and facilities – classroom ratios, sign-in/sign-out, two-adult rule, bathroom procedures, sleeping arrangements for any overnight activities.
- Appropriate boundaries – not just physical interactions with younger children, but also online interactions with teenagers and youth. Intergenerational relationships with youth can have a very positive influence on developing a faith that lasts, but a significant number of incidents we see are ministry workers or volunteers who have engaged in “electronic grooming” of teenagers. The conversations start out benign and slowly progress to the point of a digital crime (such a communicating with a minor for immoral purposes) or worse (rape of child, the legal term for when a victim is too young to consent).
- Reporting and response – what to do with suspicion of abuse, both internally within the organization and externally to law enforcement.
- Encouraging mutual accountability – encouraging people to gently identify and correct small policy violations. A good policy has a lot of components and no person will remember every detail; minor inadvertent violations will occur. When these are noted and corrected quickly, it builds a correcting culture of safety. But people are generally so wary of confrontation that minor mishaps or even inappropriate behavior can go uncorrected until something major happens.
- Sex offender attendance – conditions on participation when a known sex offender wishes to attend the church. Some of these principles extend to allegations that become known to the church even if the person has not been convicted of a crime.
Child protection must be a top priority for churches and other organizations that work with children and youth. We work regularly with ministry clients reviewing and improving their policies. If you would like to discuss review or development of a policy specific to your organization, please contact Nat Taylor or Abby St. Hilaire.