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For the last couple of weeks the sports news, and all of the news for that matter, has been saturated with the Penn State University child sex abuse scandal with Jerry Sandusky at the center. Of course the winds of scandal have already taken their toll with the terminations of coach Joe Paterno, Penn State University president Graham Spanier, Penn State athletic director Timothy Curley and university Senior Vice President Gary Schultz as they all lost their jobs. Of course the reputation of the university has taken a significant hit. Sexual abuse incidents and scandals are not limited to the secular workplace. Of course, the Catholic Church has been in the midst of much scandal regarding child sex abuse, which serves as a reminder that churches are particularly at risk. Church leaders must act proactively to protect people and the church from sexual predators. The time has come to take a proactive look at your church in order to minimize the possibility of such an occurrence and scandal.
Leaders by definition act proactively. Leaders protect!
ANALYSE YOUR CHURCH’S CULTURE
Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski defended fired Penn State coach Joe Paterno as being from a generation far removed from such things as sexual assault of minors or that Paterno’s generation may have been ill equipped to handle such situations. However, even if we accept the misguided assumption that leaders of advanced age (Paterno is 84) are not trained to deal with sexual abuse issues, it does not relieve them of responsibility for the cultural landscape of their organization. By cultural landscape we are speaking of accepted official norms of behavior as well as tacit norms of behavior. By “tacit” we mean “unofficial and unspoken but accepted by default.
Even an aging leader of a cutting edge and trendy church must establish accountability systems to prevent or at least minimize risk from sexual abuse of all kinds and especially of children. Some churches have employed “secret worshipers” and who do their undercover work and provide a report that reveals potential risks as well as immediate action steps to minimize risk and liability. Leaders should be aware of the culture and subcultures within their churches.
ESTABLISH A “NO EXCEPTION” CULTURE
Churches face a special challenge with regard to protecting people from sexual abuse, particularly children. First, everyone is welcome to worship and small group Bible study. Second, generally speaking the loving culture within a church family induces many people to lower their guard regarding risk of child sexual abuse. Third, respectable church members are sometimes offended when they are expected to submit to background checks and other protection procedures. Regardless of objections or claims to “respectability,” leaders must put safeguards in place to protect.
Once the leaders put measures in place to prevent child sexual abuse in the church, changes begin to occur. Prospective perpetrators find it difficult to act on their desires. However, make no mistake, the potential always remains as they assume a quieter and more invisible approach. This means that the leadership at all levels must broadcast a no exception rule for intolerance of sexual abuse and educate people in the policies and reporting procedures. There is the caution that with a history of inaction the risk of equal and opposite reaction is increased, meaning a potential of false reports. False accusations can be as damaging to a church fellowship as real incidents. Thus, it is important to establish and reinforce reporting rules and procedures.
Several years ago I became aware of a useful resource to use as a beginning point to create policies and culture-scaping systems that minimize the risk of child sexual abuse. The book and CD titled Safe Place: Guidelines for Creating an Abuse-Free Environment is directed to churches.
The Penn State University scandal offers an opportunity to take a “bird’s eye” look at our churches. Theirs was a complex educational institution where there is a mixing and mingling of adults of all ages with minors. Penn State University has athletic facilities including group showers. Perhaps your church has no such facilities but you have an obligation to create a safe place for all. Here are some actions that may prevent child sexual abuse:
- Properly screen any and everyone who will be working in the same area as minors. This includes all staff, volunteers, and custodial workers whether they are church staff or contracted.
- Be sure that contractors and service personnel coming in to the church are accompanied while on the church campus. They may be bonded and insured but have not submitted to an in-house background check.
- Include training during orientation for all employees, ministry staff, and volunteers that includes prevention policies and reporting procedures.
- Install filters on computer servers and security codes on wireless networks to restrict and monitor internet surfing. Viewing pornography should result in immediate termination of staff or volunteers.
- Install transparent windows in classroom and office doors and make it a policy that they remain uncovered or unobstructed by blinds or curtains as a practice. Doors without glass should remain open.
- Establish a two-person rule for areas where adults interact with minors.
- Adopt a code of ethics for all ministry staff and require them to adhere to it.
- Establish surveillance practices of screened personnel and volunteers who will roam around the facility in a non-routine fashion.
- Establish rest room guidelines that encourage parents and approved childcare workers to care for children. No exceptions!
- Minors should never be allowed to supervise other children without supervision of an adult.
Sexual predators dislike exposure, light, and transparency. They will often change churches or relocate to where they may hide their predatory behavior.
Sexual predators dislike exposure, light, and transparency.
BE TRANSPARENT AND FORTHCOMING
There is nothing that will totally prevent child sexual abuse in the workplace. When an incident does occur leaders must be genuinely transparent, cooperative, and forthcoming. In the past some leaders reacted to incidents by trying to control the flow of information with the intention of limiting damage to the church. Leaders must abandon this course of action and understand that transparency and cooperation with authorities is the best way to get through the crisis and preserve the church. Learn from the crisis rather than creating more damage.
- What are some additional actions that may prevent child sexual abuse in the church?
- How do cultural sexual attitudes affect this issue?
- How do cultural and political pressures regarding sex, same-sex relationships, and promiscuity affect the issue of the church protecting people?
- Take a walk around your church and evaluate your risk of an incident.
- What policies and education are already in place in your church to prevent child sexual abuse?
- Do you agree with the “transparency policy” set forth in the article in the event of an incident?
Dr. Tom Cocklereece is CEO of RENOVA Coaching and Consulting, LLC
He is an author, pastor, coach, and leadership specialist
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