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A Charge for Church Leadership: Speaking Out Against Sexual Abuse and Ministering to Survivors, Part 2

Further Ideas and Recommendations

It is also important for leaders that we make as certain as we can that the church is a safe place, both to prevent victimization and to make those who have been victimized know they are emotionally and physically safe in our midst. Many churches have decided to address issues of safety in order to address liability concerns, but liability concerns should not be the church’s primary motivation. The primary reason for making certain that the church is a safe place is not to protect the church and its finances or to protect the church officers from lawsuits but to protect those who might be victimized from further harm.

Leaders need to be aware of ways in which the church may be a place where people are particularly vulnerable: the ease with which volunteers may have access to children and adolescents, for example, or the ways in which abusers in positions of spiritual au­thority may twist the meaning of Scripture to demand cooperation and silence from their intended victims. When churches begin accepting volunteers without adequate screening or supervision, we can put children and youth in great danger. When churches presume that people can be trusted simply because they are faithful attendees, liked in the com­munity, or willing volunteers, we put children in danger. When churches have no policies in place to respond to concerns or troubling signs, we put children in danger and the wounded in harm’s reach. Moreover, when we do not explain to children and youth in the church how they should report inappropriate touch or inappropriate comments, we put them in danger.

The issue of screening church workers is an important one. In some churches, a “criminal record check” is the only requirement before volunteers are permitted to work with children or youth. Although the criminal record check should always be a part of the screening process, it is hardly adequate by itself. More important are interviews with the volunteers that explicitly address issues of sexual and physical abuse, and (especially if the volunteer is not well known) references from previous ministry situations that express unqualified confidence that the individual is not a risk to those with whom they work. But it should be remembered that even the best screening process is of little value without adequate and carefully enforced supervision policies and procedures. Vulnerable persons in the church should never be alone with a paid or volunteer staff worker, and procedures should be in place for reporting and recording any reasons for concern. Thus, background checks, references, interviews, and supervision must all become intentional practices in our churches. But there’s more we can do.

Ministry workers need to be trained to know how to respond immediately when children or youth report concerns, and church leaders need to make sure such concerns are addressed quickly and properly. Churches also need to know how to respond when a known sexual abuser is part of the congregation and attending services—especially if his or her victims are also part of the congregation. Additionally, church leaders should know what to do when someone from their congregation who has been a sexual abuser decides to go to another congregation where people will not know of their past. Churches have a moral obligation to protect those who have been victims and to make sure that others are not victimized because of the silence of the church.

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Category: Ministry, Spring 2014

About the Author: Nancy Nason–Clark is Professor (and Chair) of Sociology and Director of the RAVE Project University of New Brunswick (Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada).

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