Churches Take Steps to Prevent Sex Abuse

By Hayes Lori
Lansing State Journal
March 8, 2002

With national attention turning to allegations of clergy sexual abuse, mid-Michigan churches say they have policies in place to deal with such situations.

"All churches now understand that they need to respond to these allegations," said John McPhail, a counselor on a Michigan response team that investigates allegations of sexual misconduct by clergy for the Evangelical Lutheran Church.

"We want people to know that if something like this has happened to them, they can come forward and the church will listen to them."

The most recent prominent case is in Boston, where the Catholic Church is accused of covering up allegations that a former priest molested children over 30 years.

There have been no reported cases of clergy sexual abuse in Lansing in the past few years. But during the past decade, many churches have become more open to acknowledging the possibility by revamping guidelines to deal with everything from abuse of minors to extramarital affairs to sexual harassment.

* Churches across the country look to the Roman Catholic Diocese of Lansing's policy against sexual misconduct because it is so comprehensive, said diocese spokesman Michael Diebold.

The diocese, which covers 10 counties, has not faced any "substantiated allegations" of sexual misconduct against priests in 15 years, Diebold said.

* The Evangelical Lutheran Church's Northwest/Lower Michigan Synod response team works with congregations, victims and clergy if allegations of sexual misconduct arise.

Since being formed in 1994, the team has responded to two incidents where pastors were removed. Neither involved abuse of a child, said Rebecca Ebb-Speese, response team coordinator

* Employees of the Episcopal Diocese of Michigan take sexual abuse awareness courses, and anyone who works with children has a criminal background check.

"There has always been a consistent and serious approach to enforcement of these policies," said Michael Bsharah, spokesman for the Detroit-based Episcopal Diocese of Michigan .

Reports of misconduct are taken to the bishop, who meets with the alleged victims and the accused to see if an investigation is needed, Bsharah said.

"It emphasizes prevention, but it also creates an environment where people can come forward with trust and a good degree of confidence that they will be heard respectfully," he said.

Nationally, more people are coming forward with stories of abuse, as churches develop stronger stances against such conduct.

Since January, pressure from the Boston scandal has also led to an unprecedented openness among American bishops about abuse allegations in their own dioceses, leading to the resignation of at least 26 priests.

In response to increases in reported cases nationwide, the Diocese of Lansing released a detailed policy on sexual misconduct 11/2 years ago, combining several policies that had been around since the late '80s .

Under the policy, all allegations should be reported to the bishop, who then calls members of a standing committee to investigate. Allegations of child abuse are also to be reported to the police.

All employees are required to sign off that they've received the policy, and pamphlets are distributed at all parishes and schools outlining how to report misconduct.

The last area prosecuted case of clergy sexual abuse of a child in the diocese was in 1987. Terrence Healy, a Catholic priest in Howell, pleaded guilty to second-degree criminal sexual misconduct involving minors and spent 41/2 years in prison after attending counseling in Washington, D.C.

"Certainly, anything negative about the church has the potential of hurting the church, but we're always reminded that the church is made up of human beings that have human frailties," Diebold said.

Victims usually do not come forward for fear they won't be believed, especially when the abuser is a clergy member, said Diane Windischman, coordinator of the Michigan State University Counseling Center Sexual Assault Crisis and Safety Education Program.

"If you can create an environment of trust where people feel like they will be supported, then they will come forward," she said.

Lutheran synods across the country put together the response teams, such as the one McPhail volunteers on, in the mid-90s.

The response team focuses on education and prevention, holding yearly workshops with new pastors.

It also offers support to victims, clergy and their congregations when an allegation is made.

"The church is in a difficult situation. If you let this be known, the church is going to lose credibility," McPhail said.

"But it's one of those things where you've got to admit the truth and deal with it. It's much worse for people to continue to be victimized."


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