After a 14-year-old girl was groomed by her youth pastor to trust him, he began sexually abusing her. He continually told her she was the cause of his sin and that it was her fault. He said she would never amount to anything, never graduate from college, never be loved, and never be married. He threatened her to keep her quiet. She reached the point where she couldn’t bear it any longer and spoke with her pastor, someone she thought could help, only to have that pastor pick up where the last perpetrator left off. This was the grievous situation that Susan Codone, a survivor of clergy sexual abuse in a Southern Baptist church, experienced. You can read her written account here.
As the testimonies of survivors and the statistics have demonstrated, many men and women who sit in our church pews are survivors of sexual abuse. Churches have not always been safe places for the vulnerable. This should not be. As Russell Moore has written,
This is a primary issue, one that Jesus himself warned us about from the very beginning. The church is a flock, he told us, vulnerable to prey. That’s why, he said, the church would need shepherds who would know both how to feed the flock with the Word of God and also to protect the flock from predators who would tear them apart (Jn. 10:10-14) . . . Churches should be the safest places in the world for vulnerable people.
Many pastors and churches have seen the need to do more to protect and care for survivors, but have questions on what needs to be done or how to do that. What do you do when someone discloses abuse to your church leadership? How can you develop policies to better protect your most vulnerable members? How can you screen and train your staff and volunteers to improve the safety and security of your ministries?
What is the purpose of The Introductory Guide to Caring Well?
In a continued effort to help make churches safe for survivors and safe from abuse, the Southern Baptist Convention Sexual Abuse Advisory Group (SAAG) in conjunction with the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission created The Introductory Guide to Caring Well. This free guide was written to help churches who desire to faithfully care well for survivors of sexual abuse and to implement policies and procedures to prevent abuse.
This guide is just a starting point to raise questions and direct churches to issues they should be thinking about. It isn’t comprehensive legal advice for every church. The reality is, caring well for those in your care means working through these issues for your church, your context, and your ministries. Copying and pasting information from a guide or from the internet won’t make any church a safer place.
Who is the guide intended for?
This guide was created as a resource for the Caring Well Challenge (CWC). The CWC is a unified call to action on the abuse crisis in the Southern Baptist Convention. The goal is to equip churches to be safe for survivors and safe from abuse. The challenge provides churches with an adaptable and attainable pathway to immediately enhance their efforts to prevent abuse and care for abuse survivors. This resource will help churches walk through step six of the challenge which is to prepare by reviewing and enhancing prevention practices, policies, and procedures. If your church is not already participating in the challenge, you can register here.
We can and must do everything we can to protect the vulnerable and care for the survivors among us.
Whether a church is reviewing existing care policies or creating them for the first time, this guide will provide assistance to church leaders who are working to implement effective policies and procedures in their congregations. This practical guide aims to present a foundation of topics to consider, sample language and policies provided by leading sexual abuse prevention advocates, and links to further resources to help dive deeper into each area of prevention and care.
What does it cover?
Along with several other important aspects to prepare for prevention and care, the guide covers screening, best practices and preventative policies, and preparing for a disclosure.
The report explains how important it is to have a screening process for staff and volunteers:
It is critical that churches have a rigorous process of recruiting and screening employees and volunteers within child- and student-serving ministries for compatibility with the church’s values and child protection policies. A rushed recruitment and search process for volunteers or staff to meet a staffing shortage can place children and youth in danger (7).
While background checks are necessary, they are insufficient on their own. The report covers additional areas of screening including an application process, reference checks, interviews, social media reviews, orientation, and training. It also provides resources such as suggested questions for written applications or reference checks and discusses what to consider when choosing a background check provider.
Best Practices and Preventative Policies
As former prosecutor and attorney, Samantha Kilpatrick, has expressed, “Policy is not something that is created and sits on a shelf. Policy is your guide and what you live by, not what you aspire to, but what you actually do—it is who you are” (12). Our policies matter and should lead to practices that help prevent against abuse.
When determining the specifics of policies to implement in your church, it is important to understand the increased responsibility when working with children. The report emphasizes this and goes on to say, “When working with children and youth, we recommend that at a minimum, churches meet the national standards promulgated by the Centers for Disease Control for youth-serving organizations” (13). As Victor Vieth, an advocate on this issue, has written, “Indeed true Christian witness would shatter these minimal standards and also implement policies to address not only sexual abuse within the church but also sexual abuse in the home, as well as physical abuse, neglect, emotional abuse, and witnessing violence.”
The report discusses the following important policies for churches to consider: check in/out procedure, hall monitor, two-deep policy, parents and classroom participation, workers under 18 years of age, “known to your church” rule, open doors, social media and communication, transportation, overnight policy, and respect for a child’s privacy.
Preparing for Disclosure
It is an incredibly courageous thing for survivors to share their stories, and that is often done with great difficulty and cost to them. When a survivor discloses sexual abuse, are you prepared to meet his or her disclosure with compassion and action? Among other things, the guide speaks to how to develop a team of caregivers to walk along the survivor, knowing local agencies that work with survivors, and being prepared to report to the appropriate authorities in compliance with state law, so that you can care well for those who share their story.
The guide not only provides practical steps to prepare for a disclosure, such as knowing reporting laws, having the contact information for civil authorities, understanding the reporting process, and making sure your leadership and team know their obligation to report and are prepared to report, but it also gives further understanding of the surrounding issues. “The church should not act as an investigative body in criminal matters. When abuse is disclosed and investigation is needed, local law enforcement should be called” (17). Additionally, in reading the guide, you will learn more about prioritizing the needs and agency of the survivor and protecting the survivor’s confidentiality. These are important things to know as you prepare.
When Susan Codone shared her story, she wrote the following:
It takes a movement to change the culture, not a mandate, and movements begin with the undeniable burden that things are not right the way they are and must change. In this movement, we are not an autonomous group of 47,000 churches; we are accountable as one body and capable of leveraging our enormous collective power to topple the culture of indifference. Sexual predators won’t stop just because we start paying attention. We will never rid ourselves of their evil, but we can reduce the risk and protect our own Do you feel the conviction that things are not right the way they are? I have lived it deep in my soul for over 30 years. We have a path forward that is within our collective power. Will we take that path and fight this evil, together as one?
We can and must do everything we can to protect the vulnerable and care for the survivors among us. The Introductory Guide to Caring Well is a resource to help churches who know things are not right the way they are and who are eager to do everything they can to care for survivors and to prevent abuse. Take a step on the path of fighting the evil of sexual abuse, and prepare your church by reading the full guide here.