By Lonnie Wilkey
Editor, Baptist and Reflector
As a parent and grandparent, one of my primary concerns always has been the safety of my children and now grandchildren. We go to great lengths to make sure they are safe at home, at school, on the ball fields, etc. We should expect them to be safe at church, but perhaps we take that for granted.
Last year we were attending church with our daughter, son-in-law, and two grandsons in South Carolina. The kids were singing a song to honor fathers on Father’s Day. As we scanned the children to catch glimpses of Parker and Eli, we did not see Eli. He’s our oldest and you usually see him first. He’s normally the one not paying attention and “doing his own thing.”
Naturally, his grandmother and I immediately wondered where he was. The children finished and came down. Our daughter asked where Eli was. The choir leader looked and to her horror she, too, discovered he was not there.
We immediately began looking and Eli had decided he would rather stay in the room and play with blocks than sing that morning. What concerned us most is that no one checked to make sure all the children were accounted for. After his grandmother’s blood pressure came back to normal, we could breathe easier. The leader apologized profusely and assured us that it would not happen again.
While that instance turned out fine, that’s not always the case. Children have been taken from church before and, sadly, it’s usually by a family member or someone the child knows well.
Sexual abuse also happens in church. We don’t like to talk about it. We put our heads in the sand and pretend it doesn’t happen, but it does.
A minister in Memphis recently admitted to a “sexual incident” while serving in a Texas church more than 20 years ago. He’s not alone. It happens in churches all the time. We cannot continue to pretend and hold on to “Christians, especially ministers, would not hurt or abuse children.” They do. Why? Because we are all sinners and sin happens daily.
Churches, regardless of size, have to be on guard to protect our children and youth when they are on church property or are entrusted to the church when on retreats or missions trips.
Mark Lemay, facilities/risk management specialist for the Tennessee Baptist Mission Board, cited a study of risks that churches face. In the 15 years the study has been conducted “working with minors” has been in the top three risks (along with how money is handled and property maintenance) each year.
Lemay recently observed that everything a church does should be based on this concept: “Never place a church family member in a situation where they can be accused.”
A few years ago, the Alabama Baptist Convention State Board of Missions published a document entitled “Protecting Children and Youth from Sexual Misconduct in the Church.” It encourages churches to seek legal advice before adopting any of the suggestions.
Most of the suggestions in the article are just common sense steps. Unfortunately, common sense sometimes succumbs to being politically correct. We don’t want to ask the tough questions or do background checks because “we trust” or don’t want to “offend” someone.
Ronald Reagan said it well, “Trust but verify.”
When hiring staff members or allowing volunteers to work with children, check them out thoroughly.
The Alabama Baptist document suggests that when churches hire staff they need to check five references and three that were not listed on the resume. Call directors of missions where they have served or former churches. The document rightly states you should not call people in the person’s current church without permission.
In addition, read resumes carefully. If there are gaps in ministry, find out why. Interview the candidate and spouse. Do background and criminal checks. The Alabama document suggests you obtain written permission to do the background and criminal checks. If the person hesitates or is reluctant to do so, that might be a major red flag.
Develop church-security procedures for preschool, children’s and youth ministries and then FOLLOW them. The document produced by the Alabama State Board of Missions also suggests:
- Age-group ministers, division directors, hall monitors, greeters, and/or program directors should be present in or near the children’s classes. As they do their work, they should also observe teaching units (departments or classes).
- Establish a two-adult rule: Reasonable effort should be made to have two adult workers present or nearby with preschoolers, children, and students during church activities. Also ensure that one adult is not left alone with one minor. A husband and wife working in the same room should be considered as one adult.
- It is a good practice to install view windows or open doors for every teaching unit (department or class).
- Establish a security system (check in/check out) for preschoolers and younger children. An example of how this might work: parents bring their child to the room, sign in their child and receive a card, and when they return for that child present the card. This can be as simple as a card you make yourself or something you purchase. Some of the purchased types have a two-part carbonless form of which the parent keeps one part and the copy stays in the room.
Finally, the document suggests doing what most churches avoid like the plague: reporting suspected abuse. Unless the person is the pastor, the document suggests going to the pastor first and allow him to guide the process. The pastor then should notify a lay leader such as the deacon chairman immediately and parents of the victim.
Such matters need to be handled discreetly. Sometimes we forget that not all allegations are true. Lying is one of the oldest sins known to mankind. It began in the Garden of Eden. Seek legal advice but do something until the matter is resolved.
There have been too many cases where churches did nothing, kept the matter quiet, and acted as if nothing happened. That kind of response puts the lives of children and youth (and anyone else for that matter) in danger.
One important factor to note. Not only is it a moral responsibility to report suspected sexual abuse, there is a legal responsibility. According to childwelfare.gov, 28 states (2015 data) specifically state that clergy are mandatory reporters. Eighteen states, including Tennessee, while they don’t specifically cite clergy, says any person who suspects abuse is required to report it.
It’s sad that churches have to deal with allegations of sexual abuse, but that’s the world in which we live. Be aware of what’s going on in your church and have procedures in place to deal with issues that arise.
Our children and youth are the church’s greatest resource. They will be tomorrow’s church leaders. Make sure we protect them today.