Promoting safe communities
One of the ways that Christians concerned about violence can work preventatively is to have a “Safe Place Policy” in their church.
As churches work to become safe communities for survivors of abuse, it is vitally important to make sure that the church building, its programs and its workers are safe for vulnerable people. An important way to do this is to have a sexual abuse policy in place in your congregation.
For some people, the terms “abuse policy” and “church” don’t go together. If we are Christians, do we really need policies like that?
The unfortunate reality is that, even in church, people commit abusive acts. Many institutions in society have abuse-prevention policies. Schools and service organizations are increasingly requiring police checks on volunteers. Buildings are being renovated to put windows on doors, to create a more transparent place in order to prevent abusers from having private access to children within the church building. Policies are put in place so that issues of harassment and abuse can be handled appropriately.
Most denominations have sexual abuse policies for their lay and ordered employees. These policies have sometimes been proactive, and are put in place to prevent any abuse from happening. Too often the policies are written because abuse has taken place and painful experiences have made clear the need to make policy changes. One would hope that most churches undertake this task with a clear view of protecting innocent people. Unfortunately, sometimes it is the bottom line that talks; churches fear being sued by survivors, and seek to protect themselves by having policies in place. Insurance companies are requiring churches to formulate abuse prevention policies.
Some churches have safety and abuse policies that address the general life of the church and its volunteers and programs. Abuse can be as damaging to a child if it comes from a Sunday school teacher or youth leader, even though those people are not sanctioned by the church in the same way as an ordained leader. To a child, an adult in charge in the church is someone who has religious authority over them. Youth ministry is a particularly dangerous area for abuse. Youth leaders are sometimes ministers-in-training, or lay volunteers who may not have a clear understanding of boundaries. Events often take place outside of the church building in informal and unmonitored settings.
Policies for Safe Places: A Checklist for Churches
- Does your church have an abuse and safety policy?
- Do people generally know it exists, and have they read it?
- Is there a statement about legal obligations of reporting abuse of children to the appropriate legal authorities?
- Does it include a screening process for volunteers who work with children or youth?
- Is this screening process actually followed in the church?
- Can people join the church and immediately have access to children or youth?
- Are people with past convictions of sexual abuse prohibited from working with children?
- Is one adult alone with children or youth, or is the policy that two adults work as a team?
- Are there windows on all classroom and office doors, including the pastor’s study?
- If you were sexually harassed in your church, do you know to whom you would bring your complaint?
- Does the policy have guidelines for providing advocates for both complainants and those against whom a complaint is laid?
- Is there a clear process for adjudication and appeal?
- Are people clearly identified who will receive complaints? Are women part of that group?
- If a child came to you and disclosed that someone had abused them, do you know what your responsibility is?
- Is there general public awareness in your church about the long-term damage sexual abuse can cause in the life of the individual, the person who abuses and the community?
- During the formation process before your minister’s ordination, was there a forum to discuss professional ethics, boundaries and dangers of abuse in ministry?
- Do you know of situations where harassment or abuse happened in your church?
- If so, was the abuse policy followed? Was it effective in bringing about justice?
- Does your church have access to a copy of your denominational sexual abuse policy? (these are often on-line)