Protecting the Innocents

By Errol Castens
Daily Journal [Mississippi]
February 4, 2006

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the second of a two-part series on security issues in worship congregations. Last Saturday's article covered protection from accidents, fires, fiscal misconduct and related topics.

Sexual abuse happens. When it happens in a church setting, it can turn a haven into a hell.

"There are few relationships more damaging than someone violating the naivete and innocence of a child," said Dr. Mike Marecle, a biblical counselor with Hope Family Ministries in Tupelo.

"When you portray God as male and you have had a male authority figure violate your innocence, it takes a supernatural work of the Holy Spirit not to transpose that person's betrayal onto your relationship with God."

Everybody's problem

Too many people believe sexual misconduct is someone else's problem, said Bill Wright, senior loss control specialist for churches with GuideOne Insurance.

"Years ago I was in a Baptist church in Georgia asking preliminary questions - What kind of background checks, what kind of prevention programs do you have?'" he said. "The person just leaned back and said, Aren't you glad we don't have that kind of problem in our denomination?'"

Catholic sex abuse scandals have grabbed headlines for more than a decade, but sexual misconduct can happen in any denomination. Some research shows one church in five will eventually have a sex-based liability claim.

And of several church-based sex abusers prosecuted in Northeast Mississippi in recent years, all the incidents happened in Protestant congregations.

Notwithstanding their moral teachings, churches often are ideal spots for child abusers to practice their perversion.

"All of these child sex offenders are opportunists," said Marilyn Reed, victim assistance coordinator with the First Judicial District, which covers several other Northeast Mississippi counties. "They'll make themselves an opportunity to be around children, whether it's teaching Sunday School or going on an overnight trip with them."

Sex abuse can happen to adults at church, too. While victims often think of such relationships as "affairs" for which they are to blame, experts term them as abuses of power by authority figures.

Prevention is key

Proper guidelines can protect both potential victims and the ministries in which they participate.

"Churches need to be prepared. This is the legal reason for creating safety policies, but there's a deeper, more significant reason -to protect children," states a GuideOne handbook for churches. "If the only reason for safety policies is to protect the organization, the church has missed Jesus' passion for children."

Any number of practices can help prevent child abuse in houses of worship - open activity areas, windows in classroom and office doors, check-in/check-out procedures for Sunday Schools, nurseries and daycare centers.

West Jackson Street Baptist Church in Tupelo uses a two-piece identity tag to protect children in its nursery. One part stays with the child, and the other is given to the parent. After church is dismissed, parents return their tag, which is then matched to the child.

"Even brothers and sisters can't get that child without that tag," said Bro. Don Trammel, minister of administration. "We had heard from other churches in other areas that there had been some security problems, so we decided to be proactive and eliminate that problem up front."

At St. James Catholic Church in Tupelo, the Rev. Henry Shelton has introduced several measures to improve child security and adult accountability.

"We require all of our staff who have any contact with youth to go through annual training to give them guidelines as to appropriate and inappropriate behavior," he said. "No adult can be with a child by himself on the campus or on trips. We've put clear glass windows in the confessional, and I've had the door to my office changed to a clear door."

Even though only a small fraction of Catholic clergy have been implicated, Shelton said the sex-abuse scandal has cast a shadow over every parish.

"The trust that used to be there is no longer there," he said. That's one of the greatest losses for us."

Three-pronged approach

Experts recommend three rules for every congregation - two unrelated adults supervising children; appropriate screening for staff and volunteers; and six months' membership before working with minors.

The two-adults rule not only assures that no child is left alone with an adult or older child. It should also apply where teens are caring for younger children.

"At a parents' night out, a teenage babysitter at church was not being watched," Spacek said. "He took an 8-year-old boy outside and fondled him."

Careful screening of church staff members and volunteers can uncover dangers before they become crises. Wright suggests criminal background checks for all paid staff members.

"The music director, the custodian - we haven't thought about those people in the past," he said. "They're exposed to being accused, even if they're innocent, and background checks can be purchased for five or six bucks."

Even volunteers should furnish references and be willing to undergo further checks if necessary.

"The preliminary stage of screening in my church is that everyone who volunteers fills out an application," Wright said. "It asks whether they have a criminal history and gives the church permission to do a background check."

The director of a church-based childcare center agreed that background checks can be invaluable.

"The personality is so hard to judge," said Phyllis Hicks, who is also church administrator at First Presbyterian Church in Memphis. "Probably most of these child abusers are con artists who seem to have wonderful personalities."

The six-month rule is an extra level of protection.

"The theory is that predators ... are looking for places where they can have quick and easy access to children," said Eric Spacek, a GuideOne senior risk manager. Spacek and Wright presented church security workshops recently for the St. Andrew Presbytery (USA), which includes Northeast Mississippi.

"Unfortunately, many times the church is that place that provides that quick and easy access to children," Spacek said. "This imposes a six-month period of time in which you're going to get to know this person better."

How to respond?

Because no system is foolproof, church leaders should be prepared to respond properly if a sexual-abuse allegation arises.

"Take every sexual misconduct claim seriously," Wright said. "First, thank the person for sharing the allegation." Mississippi law requires anyone with reasonable suspicion of child abuse - sexual or not - to report it to authorities.

If an initial investigation gives any weight to the claims, church leaders should contact the ministry's insurance company, its attorney and state authorities -something state law requires of any adult who reasonably suspects child abuse. Denominational offices, which may be able to offer additional assistance, should also be contacted.

"You want to designate a spokesperson," Spacek said. "You want to plan in advance who's going to be the one to speak to the media."

From both legal and spiritual perspectives, victims deserve special care.

"There's a need not to minimize the situation or blame the victim," he said. "Keep the lines of communication with the family open, particularly from a pastoral level."

The time to prevent sexual abuse and to minimize the damage should an incident occur is now.

"If your church has no written policy that's followed and you're accused of abuse on Monday morning, you're basically guilty of negligence," Wright said. "It's going to be difficult to defend you."

More than the threat of legal problems, church leaders' responsibilities as protectors of their flocks should motivate security planning.

"We certainly need to be protective of our innocent little ones," Trammel said.

Wright added, "It should be a cornerstone of a church that it values its children enough to have these policies in place."


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