Today I’m happy to host guest blogger Suzanne Keffer Wipplinger, a student in Biblical Counseling at Dallas Theological Seminary:
When considering what guidelines to follow if a minor who has attended a church or para-church ministry reports sexual abuse, it is important for churches and ministries to remember that their first priority is to focus on protecting minors before potential abuse occurs and continue to protect the abused minor, should abuse happen. The focus of church and para-church organizations must be on protecting the minor reporting the abuse before shielding the alleged abuser or the organization itself. Since sexual abuse is a crime, the person who receives the initial report should do the following:
- Call the Police Immediately.
Report the abuse to the SVU officers who have been trained to investigate cases involving alleged sexual abuse. It is not the church or ministry’s job to investigate. They are not trained to do this.
- Be Forthcoming with Other Parents about What Has Allegedly Happened.
The police may want to interview other minors who know the alleged abuser. Parents and their children deserve to be informed of the situation rather than kept in the dark.
- Encourage Church Staff Members to Be Forthcoming During the Investigation.
Impeding a police investigation is a crime. Remind staff and volunteers to always cooperate with authorities.
- Don’t Try to Protect the Accused Perpetrator or the Organization’s Reputation at the Expense of the Accuser.
People matter more than programs. No matter how much the leadership of an organization fears the consequences of an alleged abuse case becoming public knowledge, trying to convince the accuser to stay quiet about their story is wrong. It will hurt the accuser, and it will hurt the church when the real story surfaces. Seeking the truth is an act of justice. Covering up the truth is an act of injustice.
To protect minors before abuse occurs, churches and para-churches should do the following:
- Recognize Potential Abusers Are Everywhere.
The idea that sexual abuse could never happen in “this organization” needs to be erased from your church or para-church ministry culture. Recognize that it can happen anywhere and be perpetrated by anyone. Plan accordingly. Assume there are potential predators among you who look like everybody else. They are seemingly respectable people looking for vulnerabilities in your organization’s sexual-abuse-prevention plan. Train your leaders to think the same way.
- Run Background Checks on All Adults Who Volunteer with Minors or Who Work in the Church in Any Role.
Any adult who is in the church or para-church organization may be a potential predator. Use a background check service to see if there are any criminal offenses, but don’t stop there. Ask for references from former employers, former churches, and other church members. Ask for access to the applicant’s social media pages. In short, research volunteers as thoroughly as you would research a childcare worker at your child’s daycare. While doing so is not a guarantee the person is not a predator, the prospect of having their backgrounds investigated may discourage them from applying to serve with minors.
- Establish Policies that Never Leave a Minor Alone with Only One Adult.
If adults have a buddy system and work together in pairs, triads, or foursomes, such a system protects them from being accused of something that never happened. It also protects minors from being isolated and alone with a potential abuser. The adult “buddies” should be unrelated to each other (i.e., husband and wife), and they should be different sexes in a mixed group of male and female minors. In today’s culture a potential abuser could be the same sex as his or her target. Therefore, in a situation where children of the same sex may be changing clothes (e.g., on a camping trip, at a sporting event), at least two adults of the same sex should accompany the children at all times. Yes, this requires more volunteers, but it ensures accountability and safety for the adults and the minors. One should never “go out of sight” of the group with a minor. If a one-on-one conversation needs to happen between an adult leader and a kid, the leader can go out of earshot of others while still being in view. Such practices protect both adults and minors. Teach your minors this idea too.
- Watch How Adult Employees and Volunteers Act Around Minors.
Is there an adult who dislikes the adult “buddy system?” If an adult has a pattern of wanting to be with minors one-on-one, that’s something to notice. Is there an adult who appears to be “too friendly” with the family of a certain minor or with a minor who may be more vulnerable? On the one hand, this may be a concerned adult who just wants to be a role model in the child’s life. On the other hand, it may be a warning sign. So be observant and be wise. While we do not want to accuse an innocent adult of grooming a minor to become their target, we can watch for warning signs of grooming and be the “other adult” who won’t allow minors to be alone with only one adult.