Churches across the nation are diligently working to minister in the midst of COVID-19. As churches determine their method of meeting for the fall, some may attempt to establish in-person meetings, some will continue virtual gatherings for an extended period, and others have developed hybrid plans for gathering similar to school district programs. Regardless of the meeting venue, churches should be as diligent about guarding against sexual abuse as pre-COVID-19. 1“Child Abuse Statistics,” Darkness to Light, accessed August 21, 2020, http://www.d2l.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/all_statistics_20150619.pdf.
Several well-established measures to prevent child sexual abuse are easily transferrable to virtual gatherings. Implementing the following protocols help reduce the risks in online meetings.
- Screening. The church should not relax its standards related to screening volunteers and staff. The screening process should include a written application where the applicant cana provide necessary information and answer specific questions connected to past accusations and convictions related to sexual abuse. Vetting a leader includes thorough reference checks.
The application should contain a statement authorizing the church to check references the applicant provides and references obtained indirectly. The applicant should consent to a criminal background check and a personal interview (whether face to face or online). Applicants in a personal interview should briefly remove his/her mask for identification purposes. Churches sometimes conclude that a criminal background check constitutes an effective screening of potential leaders when, in fact, the background check is simply one component of vetting leaders. You can learn more from the Caring Well Hiring Guide.
- Sexual abuse awareness training. In 2018, I launched a research survey for my doctoral dissertation at a conference for church leaders in Nashville, Tennessee. We collected 316 completed surveys representing leaders from 36 states. The survey’s focus was to compare church leaders’ understanding of the preventive measures of child sexual abuse with the implementation of those measures in the local church.
Results from the survey showed that while 76% of respondents agreed that training related to the prevention of sexual abuse in the church would be helpful, only 39.6% of churches provide training.2Charlotte Faye Scott, “An Examination of Child Sexual Abuse in Churches: The Relationship between Understanding by Leadership and Preventive Measures” (EdD diss., New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, New Orleans, 2019), 120, ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global.
All applicants should be required to participate in a sexual abuse awareness training before beginning to serve with minors. The Introductory Guide to Caring Well offers links to organizations providing awareness training.3“The Introductory Guide to Caring Well,” Caring Well, accessed August 19, 2020, https://caringwell.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/Introductory-Guide-to-Caring-Well.pdf.
- Rule of 3. Online meetings with minors should follow the same protocol as in-person meetings with minors. A minimum of three persons (preferably two unrelated adults and one child) should be present in all sessions. The Rule of 3 should require that the two adults are not related (family member or spouse). This policy protects both adults and minors. First, it protects minors from being isolated with an adult, which can help protect against abuse. Second, should an accusation be brought against an adult and the only other witness is a relative, the testimony may be deemed prejudicial or not allowed as admissible.4Studies show that only 1-7% of accusations of child sexual abuse are false. As The Caring Well Report says, “Thus, when it comes to accusations involving children, it is wise for us to receive disclosures as credible until outside professionals demonstrate otherwise. Assuming innocence can endanger children.” Every accusation must be taken seriously. “Caring Well Report,” Caring Well, accessed August 25, 2020, https://caringwell.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/Safe-Churches_081220.pdf.
- Social media policy. A church would never dream of giving a predator unlimited access to children in a physical setting. Yet, it may unwittingly be lulled into a false sense of security, thinking that no harm can be done online. The church should implement policies prohibiting leaders from private personal interaction with minors.
Communicating with minors should follow the Rule of 3. When texting or messaging a minor, a leader should always include another unrelated adult, preferably a parent, in the message. Leaders should avoid using social media that cannot be traced at a later time. Avoiding such venues assures parents that all communication with their children is straightforward and not intended for harm.5The 2018 survey included an analysis of the social media policy. Results revealed that while 76.3% of church leaders who completed the survey agreed that churches should have a policy prohibiting employees from “friending, following, interacting, or private messaging children (under twelve years) utilizing social media” only 15.2% of churches surveyed implement a social media policy.Ibid., 125. Churches with no restrictions on social media interaction may, in essence, give unmonitored predators direct access to minors.
- Six-month policy. An individual may not apply for any volunteer position with minors until he or she is involved in the church for six months. Requiring an individual to become involved in the church allows others to interact with the individual, gauge his ability to communicate well with others, comply with established protocols, assess his level of commitment, and judge if his temperament is suitable for working with minors.
While predators are often patient in building a trustworthy reputation to gain access to potential victims, some potential abusers will choose to flee elsewhere where there are less requirements. Abusers are looking for quick access to potential victims, so churches need to have the necessary processes in place to act as roadblocks.
- Communication with parents. Advise parents of any meeting (online or face to face) between adult leaders and minors. The church should communicate schedules, policies, and expectations to parents. Parents cannot monitor interactions between leaders and students when they are not aware of the meeting schedule. Predators look for situations where they can control the victim, and unmonitored meetings with minors is a breeding ground for grooming. Communicating the expectations of participants to parents helps reduce the opportunity for inappropriate behavior. Clear communication unites both parents and leaders.
- Meeting spaces. With the advent of online classes for school and the number of children currently routinely using online resources, kids are more tech-savvy than ever. Parents have lowered their guard when it comes to online usage by their minor children. Precautions are often no longer enforced as parents return to the workforce (either face to face or working from home).
It is not uncommon for each room of the house to be occupied by parents and kids doing online work simultaneously. Parents trust that their kids will not visit unauthorized websites. Online predators are keenly aware that the rules have changed and that children are now easier targets. Encourage parents to participate and be aware of what their child is doing online.
Ask parents to set up the online meeting space in an area that is both observable and interruptible. Encourage children not to take the camera to their bedroom but to remain where other adults are visible and clearly within earshot of the call.
- Publication of meeting. To guard against hackers, publicize the meeting on public sites, but do not provide the link to the meeting. Instead, provide contact information to obtain the meeting link. The meeting host should never feel obligated to admit everyone who asks for access to the meeting. Confirm the identity of the person and connection to minors on the call before granting access.
- Provide training. Volunteers should know how to respond quickly to unexpected interruptions during online gatherings. Hosts should know how to quickly mute or disable the video of a participant who jeopardizes the integrity of the meeting. Leaders should feel confident in handling disruptions or blocking a participant should the participant’s behavior or anticipated behavior jeopardize the meeting’s integrity.
- Provide guidelines. Unacceptable behavior in a physical meeting is unacceptable behavior in an online session. Leaders should enforce the guidelines firmly but lovingly. Participants who consistently refuse to meet expectations may lose the privilege to participate, or a parent may be required to sit with the student for the duration of the meeting.
- No nicknames. Require participants to use their real names on the screen to ensure against accidentally allowing a hacker access to the meeting. Visibility of names on the screen also provides easy identification in the event of an online incident.
- Limit participants’ permissions. Online protocols should require the meeting host to limit participants’ ability to share screens, use whiteboards, or dodge in and out of the meeting. Churches may need to provide training to volunteers who will host sessions on changing settings on the hosting account. Notify parents that these restrictions are in place.
- Record meetings. Recording online sessions is equivalent to having cameras mounted in classrooms and may prove beneficial if an accusation arises. Footage on security cameras has proven to be valuable to churches in identifying inappropriate criminal actions or in proving the innocence of the accused.
- Mandated reporting. Online meetings with students can help develop stronger relationships as participants enjoy introducing leaders and classmates to their home life. As in most life situations, there is a downside to getting a glimpse into a student’s personal life. Should the host detect circumstances which create suspicion of abuse, a report must be made to appropriate authorities.6To learn more about reporting, see Lesson 2, 7, and Appendix A of Becoming a Church that Cares Well for the Abused curriculum. Online hosts should know the church’s protocol in reporting suspected abuse.
While many churches are not yet ready to meet in face-to-face gatherings, most are working toward a plan for physical meetings either now or in the future. Churches should contact parents and leaders for their input regarding this decision. Several factors play a significant role in deciding when it is safe for children’s groups to meet in person.
- Parent readiness. Parents may not yet want their children in a closed-in space with other persons, especially since it is difficult for younger children to observe social distancing. The church should communicate safety protocols utilized in children’s areas to reduce the anxiety of parents.
Each family’s decision regarding their level of comfort in returning to small group settings must be respected. Belittling or criticizing the family’s conviction will only result in discord within the congregation. Churches that adhere to the strictest safety measures will make the most significant strides in gaining the trust of both parents and volunteers.
- Availability of volunteers. Parents often serve as a strong volunteer base. Without parents who are ready to serve, the church may see a marked decrease in committed volunteers. If the appropriate number of committed, trained and vetted volunteers is not available, the church should keep the classroom closed or opt to host an online meeting. Do not allow desperation to compromise safety policies.
- Gather incrementally. To ensure proper safety standards, some churches are reopening preschool and children’s spaces in stages. They may begin with classrooms for infants through toddlers and ensure these rooms are running smoothly before expanding to another age level.
- Balance. Churches should allow volunteers’ availability coupled with families’ desire to return to personal meetings to determine the plan for reopening. Do not succumb to pressure to reopen to pre-COVID operations to lead to a compromise of safety standards. Conversely, do not allow the inability to fully return to pre-COVID operations to cripple the church’s ability to move forward.
In conclusion, do not be paralyzed by fear of the unknown. Be proactive. Make a plan. Establish policies. Screen volunteers. Provide training. Make decisions as you can. Amend plans as needed. Remember, there is no handbook for ministering to families during a pandemic. 2 Timothy 1:7 says, “For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but one of power, love, and sound judgment.” Following the principles in this verse allows churches to move forward in ministry to families safely.