7 Questions About Your Church's Abuse Policy
Every church ought to have an abuse prevention and response policy. Not having a policy sets a church up for mis-steps should an abuse allegation come to light…not to mention increasing risk for legal liability. If your church has an insurance policy, it likely has some semblance of an abuse prevention policy.
But, how do you know if what your church has is adequate? If you are tasked to update your policy, consider these review questions:
1. Does your policy begin with biblical and theological reasons for protection against child abuse and for the care of victims, offenders and their families?
Policies that focus solely on limiting liability miss an opportunity for a much more powerful reason to protect children and vulnerable people. If Christianity is true, then protection of the most vulnerable is our first priority. James 1:27 doesn’t tell us that true Christianity is getting our doctrines right. Rather, protection of the vulnerable along with personal and corporate righteousness are marks of true Christianity. Take a moment and review your policy. Do you make it clear that we do this for the honor of Christ’s name and not just to avoid a lawsuit?
2. Does your policy detail prevention strategies beyond background checks, windows in doors, and two child care workers in every room?
Most churches I know do some form of background check on all childcare workers. However, I do know some who only do abuse/criminal checks on new workers and thus, older “trusted” staff and volunteers may not get evaluated. But even if you complete annual background checks on EVERY member of the congregation (and nobody should do this!), you will only catch those who have already been caught. As necessary as background checks and windows in church room doors are, your policy can do more. Do you follow-up on every “hit” on a background check, even if it doesn’t seem related to abuse? Do you require references and check them thoroughly? Do you interview all volunteers? Do you ensure that all child activities have enough non-related adult supervision? Do you limit private contact between child/youth workers and their charges? Should workers drive home an individual youth after an event? Do you educate parents and youth about the common behaviors of predators (who may be family) and warning signs of boundary violations?
3. Does your policy deal with the challenge of 21stcentury electronic communications?
Youth leaders and youth are likely more connected than ever before. Facebook status updates, private messaging, email, texting are some of the many ways our leaders can contact and interact with youth in our churches. Contacts like these do have positive implications. A teenager might reach out about something important via email or text that he or she wouldn’t say face-to-face. But, these private interchanges can also hide boundary violations. Does your policy address social media contact (e.g., require youth workers to cc parents when they email teens; clarify who reviews text messages sent by staff members, etc.)?
On a similar note, does your church policy deal with the matter of Internet access on church electronic equipment (filters, reports, scans, etc.)?
4. Does your policy provide a clear plan for how it will handle an abuse allegation?
Prevention is probably the easiest part of your church policy. What does your policy say about how an allegation of abuse will be handled? Who in the church body are identified as prepared to take an allegation (in much the way an organization handles sexual harassment complaints)? What happens if the person in charge of abuse prevention is the one who is alleged to abuse? What will happen to this information? How will leaders cooperate with outside investigators? Who will ensure that all reports are made to the proper child protection authorities? Who will have access to this information? Note that these questions of “who” should never be just one person but rather a small committee populated with both genders. What procedures are in place to deal with the typical space between allegation and findings by child protection authorities? Will there be any restrictions on the alleged offender? How will the congregation be notified?
Don’t forget to include information on the kinds of ministries in place for victims, offenders, and their families. Let the congregation know of the ways you plan to care for them should they be caught in the unfortunate position of being victim, offender or family member. Too often churches do the right thing in reporting abuse but fail to provide ongoing pastoral care. (For more on this, see some of my writing and presentations about spiritual care teams at www.wisecounsel.wordpress.com.)
5. Does your policy address the special problem of leader abuse of power allegations?
While much of this post is about child sexual abuse, it is evident that churches need to be prepared to address allegations of abuse of power (coercion, quid pro quo) by paid and volunteer church leaders. Does your policy address how you will handle such a complaint? Who will investigate? How will the leader be treated during the time? The victim?
6. Does your policy stipulate ongoing training requirements and church education plans?
If your church has a great policy but neglects educating the entire church about the policy, it probably will not function well in a crisis. Place in your policy the required ways the church will be trained and educated. Most churches hold an annual child abuse prevention seminar. But, sadly, these are poorly attended. Stipulate that these seminars are held during “high traffic” times such as teen and adult Sunday school hours or even during Sunday sermons.
7. Does your policy address the problem of known offenders in the church?
More and more churches face the prospect of having a known sex offender among their congregants. Some of these offenders may be returning after incarceration (whether for crimes committed in the church body or those committed outside the body) while others may be coming to get a “clean” start in a new community. Is your church prepared to handle the high emotions and strong opinions from the offender, victims, victims of other offenses, etc.? Will offenders be automatically “shadowed”? Will they be limited in access to church functions? If the victim attends the church, what special consideration will their comfort be given in making attendance decisions? Will the offender be offered church in a different location (e.g., small group in a home)? If a current member is an offender and wishes to leave for another church, what communications will be made to the new church?
I am sure these seven questions do not cover all that a policy should contain. Be sure to run your policy by your denomination officials and/or experts in the field of child protection. Be prepared that you will have some who will accuse you of being paranoid or overly restrictive. Accept that you might be but still be willing to err on the side of protection versus naive assumptions.