A few weeks ago, I participated in a mini conference on the topic of preventing and responding to abuse in the church. A goodly number of our students were in attendance and are continuing to study this issue in a summer course that extends into an on-line context. One of their recent assignments was to list what they thought were the top five prevention actions/policies church leaders should enact. While the order of the prevention actions varied, most students gave some variation of these 5 important steps.

1.  Background checks for all paid staff and volunteers working with children

As nearly every student noted, background checks only catch those already with abuse backgrounds. However, it does send a message that churches aren’t going to give predators a blank check. With background checks, we may uncover “old” criminal behavior. Leaders will need to decide whether certain crimes of violence against others disqualify for life. Without giving a one-size-fits-all answer, every church should at least (a) call the arresting authority on vague crimes to ensure the crime confessed to is the real crime (and not just a plea deal), and (b) not whitewash crimes committed “before Christ.” Consider not just the “rights” of the would-be leader but also the experience those they serve.

2.  Limitations and regulations on child-adult leader contact

It is much harder to abuse children when leaders aren’t allowed to have private contact with children. Read the accounts of those who were abused by Catholic priests and you will see parents who thought it was safe to let their children go camping, on trips, or hang out with priests. While the vast majority of priests did not abuse this privilege, those who did had no oversight. Requiring two or more non-related leaders for every child contact provides protection for the most vulnerable. Does a child need a ride home? Find a way to have more than one adult in the car. The matter of on-line private contact also ought to be explored. Youth leaders should CC parents or use public areas of Facebook when communicating with children. Texting is commonplace, but every church leader should know that their communications with children will be reviewed from time to time.

3.  Speak up about the problem of abuse and the reasons for protection

If you want your church community to recognize the problem of abuse and the reason why the church must work to protect the most vulnerable, then abuse better be a frequent subject of discussion from the pulpit to the weekly small group meeting. Talk about the biblical and legal reasons for child protection. In addition, the church family needs to know how predators tend to function and how emotional and spiritual abuse has many faces. Check out this link for my 2 reasonswhy every church needs a response policy.  

4.  Have a response plan; practice it

I’ve read statistics that say some 40% of churches do not have child abuse protection policies. It is my experience that many more fail to have abuse response policies. Most wait to devise a plan after an accusation has been made. Waiting until a community receives an allegation of abuse to set a response plan ensures that something will be missed. Reactive responses almost always lead to blindness to some important concern. Who will handle the complaint? Who will ensure authorities are called in the case of abuse of minors or the elderly? What ministry to victims, offenders, family and community will be considered? While these questions are fairly easy to resolve, questions about ambiguous complaints against leaders can get muddy fast. Without a plan and without training (more than an annual, uninspired abuse prevention session), it is easy to develop a reason to allow special exceptions for someone we really respect, and thereby render our plans useless.

And if you have a plan?  Practice it. An unpracticed plan is not likely to succeed.

5.  Consult with experts outside the church

Common grace gifts all people with bits and pieces of wisdom. Some of this wisdom comes in the form of special knowledge and skills in the care for victims and perpetrators of abuse. It is important for every church to consider outsiders who may be well-suited to offer advice and guidance as the church builds care plans for the entire community. These outside experts may be able to train church leaders regarding reporting policies, social service options, etc. Let us not be so proud that we cannot learn from others.

The Biggest Barrier to Implementation?

In another assignment, students are asked to consider barriers that keep churches from implementing these policies. As expected, they have uncovered many reasons why we fail to respond well to abuse. The biggest barrier? Inaction—having knowledge but failing to act on what we know. Of course, there are many reasons why we fail to act and these need to be explored in greater detail.

It is heartwarming to hear from several students how they have decided to review their own church policies and offer gentle suggestions for improvement. If you are wondering what you can do, offer to review your own church policies for child protection and abuse response.

Phil Monroe is Professor of Counseling & Psychology and Director of the MA in Counseling program at Biblical Seminary. He maintains a private practice with Diane Langberg & Associates. You can follow his personal and professional musings at www.wisecounsel.wordpress.comor read more about it at http://www.biblical.edu/index.php/phillip-monroe.


0 # Andrew J. Schmutzer 2012-08-17 09:57
Thanks for the quality pointers, Phil. The last observation--the barrier of INACTION--I think should be seen as a frightening cause, the effects of which are inexcusable. I also think it's interesting to note, as you do, that most churches KNOW these things, so what really is the problem? I see another piece coming.
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0 # Tom 2012-08-17 15:56
Good not-complicated list. From personal experience, it would help to elaborate on point 1. Background checks can feel like a virtual rectal exam when implemented by contracted 3rd parties. A lot of people are concerned about id fraud, etc. and I suspect they scare off a lot of good people. And, like you say, they only catch those who have already been caught. What about personal, frank interviews by sensitive, trained people who lay out the high-stakes and ask probing questions? I've seen some material on this - can't remember where though.
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0 # Anonymous 2012-08-18 10:40
Thanks for this. I would like to expand on point #2. It's not just youth leaders or priests who could have potential contact alone with a child. Parents/churches MUST be vigilant about NEVER letting an adult Sunday school teacher have alone time with kids. Even if changing a diaper! There must always be at least TWO adults present at all times. And non-related is better.

I am sad to say that I was a member of a church without a prevention plan or reaction plan. I no longer attend this church.

Thanks for the blogging this
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+1 # Philip Monroe 2012-08-20 11:09
Thanks for the comments all. @Tom, It is true that background checks can be invasive. But, a personal, frank interview may be even more invasive, "When was the last time you viewed pornographic materials?" However, remember also that predators are exceptionally good at convincing others that they are are fine. @Andrew, the problem of inaction is likely rooted in fear and pride. Fear of retaliation, fear of loss of comfort, fear of being wrong.
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0 # R. Todd Mangum 2012-08-22 09:36
Good counsel, Phil. Wish we could come up with "airtight" policies that would prevent abuses in a failsafe manner. Actually, I wish we didn't need policies at all! But, that circumstance awaits the better life ahead. . . .

These five points are not as "common sense" as we might think. Thank you for putting these out in clear, easily digestible form.
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0 # Becky Bowersox 2012-08-22 18:27
Do you have specific background checks you recommend (i.e. Child Abuse, Criminal, more extensive 3rd party, etc)? How often do you recommend re-running the background checks? We've been debating this in our ministry.
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0 # Detective Jones 2013-11-22 09:33
Background checks are a must in certain situations. This list is comprehensive and to the point - love it!

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