According to Christianity Today’s Church Law & Tax, one of the top five reasons a religious organization finds itself in court is sexual abuse of a minor. Churches and other youth-serving organizations must wake up and realize that abuse of minors happens far too often in our ministries. However, fear of liability exposure should not be what drives the Church to protect her people. The Church should strive to protect its congregants as Psalm 82:3-4 calls us, to “give justice to the weak and the fatherless; maintain the right of the afflicted and the destitute. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.” The Church should prioritize protection of its congregation because God hates abuse, and we are called to care for and protect the vulnerable.
Start with policies for the young
In formulating protective policies for your church, start with your child and youth protection policies. Children’s and youth ministries are the most vulnerable because of the volume of workers it takes to run them and because the participants are young and not fully capable of recognizing inappropriate behavior or protecting themselves.
A church must think broadly about the why and how of a protection plan prior to putting policies on paper. Our vision should be working toward creating a community that is free of abuse and is a safe haven for those who have suffered abuse. In doing so, a church must be committed to all aspects of the protection plan.
A church must be willing to learn about abuse—the prevalence, the types, the signs, the grooming process, and the profile of abusers. In addition, the church must have policies and procedures that make it difficult for an offender to reach the target. Child abuse statistics are staggering, and churches must recognize that according to some surveys, 90% of child sexual abuse victims know the abuser, and often, that abuser is in a position of trust or authority. In addition, 80% of the incidences of child abuse occur in isolation—one-on-one settings. And finally, the research suggests that abuse is vastly underreported.
So, what does this mean for the Church and our approach to protecting children?
- We must be aware that abuse is not something that happens “out there,” but rather it happens within the Church. It is very likely that you know of and have individuals under your care who are being abused or have suffered from abuse in the past.
- If the most likely scenario for abuse is in one-on-one interactions, the Church must evaluate those instances where one-on-one interactions are taking place and look for alternatives or ways to make those interactions safer. This includes one-on-one interactions between adults and children and child to child.
- The Church must be prepared to talk about and educate the community on the dynamics of abuse, as well as the policies the church will be following in order to lower the risk. If your people do not understand the prevalence of abuse and know the policies, then they cannot be participants in promoting accountability and adherence to the policies. Protecting individuals in your church is a community effort.
In a prior post, we talked about forming a child protection committee. Before getting into the nuts and bolts of a protection plan, your committee should consider your objectives for adopting a child protection policy and the working definitions within your policy. In addition, the committee must have a working knowledge of the ministry areas and their programming.
Your policy should have objectives that align with your church’s mission and vision for ministry. In thinking about a vision for a protection plan, even in our broken world, the Church should be working toward a community that is free of abuse. While this is not totally within the Church’s control due to evil, it is a goal worth aiming for in order to create a safer community with healthy boundaries and expectations.
First and foremost, the policy should be in place to protect children and youth and keep them safe. The individuals in our ministries must be our primary concern. If anything comes before this objective, we are essentially checking off boxes to prevent liability exposure and putting the institution over the flock that we are called to serve. A protection plan is not the answer to ending abuse and harm to the children and youth in our ministries, but it is a step in the journey to lowering the risk.
When you think about offenders, we must remember that we do not have control over the criminal intent of the perpetrator; we only have control over the way our ministries operate. Policies that address the interactions between our workers and those they serve, as well as policies that cut down or cut out situations that create isolation and opportunity are key to lowering risk and making your church less appealing to an offender.
The secondary objectives should include protection of employees, volunteers, and the church. In seeking to protect the employees and volunteers, a child protection plan provides them with a clear framework for the expectations of serving in ministry and working with children.
Defining key terms
Your child protection plan must define the key terms related to abuse and child protection. As you draft your plan, take time to consider how your state defines crimes against children and how it defines child abuse. Make decisions on whether you will go with those definitions or decide to be more “strict.” Listed below are key terms that must be defined, as well as suggested starting definitions for your policies:
- A child: any person under the age of 18 years.
- Physical abuse: actual or potential physical harm inflicted by another person, adult or child. Examples may include hitting, kicking, shaking, poisoning, drowning, and burning.
- Sexual abuse: forcing or enticing a child to take part in sexual activities that he or she does not fully understand and has no choice or legal standing to give consent. This may include, but is not limited to, rape, oral sex, penetration, or nonpenetrative acts such as masturbation, kissing, rubbing, and touching. It may also include having a child view sexual images, pose or produce sexual images, watch sexual activities, or encourage a child to behave in sexually inappropriate ways.
- Neglect: a persistent failure to meet a child’s basic physical or psychological needs. It includes the failure to give proper care, supervise, protect from harm, or provide for nutrition, shelter, and safe living conditions.
- Emotional abuse: persistent emotional maltreatment of a child. Emotional abuse includes acts such as restriction of movement, degradation, humiliation, bullying, threats, or discrimination. In addition, emotional abuse can also be found where an abuser controls and manipulates information so that the victim carries a distorted view of reality.
Talking about objectives and defining abuse will help you understand and create a policy that is informed and one step closer to protecting the children and youth in your church from perpetrators and abuse.
This is part two of a five-part series. Part one can be found here. Visit caringwell.com to learn more about the Caring Well Challenge and help make your church safe for survivors and safe from abuse.
The content of this post is provided for general informational purposes only, and may not reflect the current law in your jurisdiction. No information contained in this post should be construed as legal advice. Please seek legal counsel from an attorney licensed in your jurisdiction.