December 18, 2017

Preventing Abuse in the Church

Linda Hull

Recent events regarding sexual abuse within the Catholic Church remind us that sexual abuse can happen anywhere—at any time—to anyone—but the most vulnerable are women and children. [Note: this article was first published in 2003. – ed.]

We church members have a special relationship with our pastors and other church leaders because we look to them for guidance and help in times of need. However, positions of authority and trust can provide opportunities for some men to abuse that trust. In addition, evidence reveals that we cannot assume that all active members of a church body are without sexual sin. Since a “spiritual conversion” does not necessarily guarantee that a sexual abuser will overcome his abusive activities, wise church leaders take steps to protect their members from potential sexual predators.

Taking action toward prevention and protection demonstrates a church’s sincere desire to establish a safe environment for its people. Establishing a sexual abuse policy to govern conduct and procedures for church workers—if your pastor or church has not already done so—is an important first step toward lowering the risk of an incident of sexual abuse. If it can’t happen, it won’t happen! Churches ought to formulate (and consistently implement) policies that will eliminate possibilities of sexual misconduct.

Some procedures that might be helpful include:

A plan to educate workers about sexual abuse.

Workers need to understand what sexual abuse is, how to recognize symptoms of molestation, and the effects of sexual abuse on the victim.

An application process for worker screening.

This includes checking references, doing a background check, and possibly even fingerprinting. Large churches need to exercise extra caution, simply because of the sheer numbers of people involved. It is impossible to know everyone!

Educate parents and children on safety precautions.

Children need to know what types of physical contact are appropriate, plus what to do if someone touches inappropriately. It is important for parents to monitor the relationships their child establishes with adults and teen boys. Teen boys and men should not be left alone with a child. Some of the seemingly nicest men could be predators, offering hugs and candy, even inviting your child to sit on their lap in an effort to gain their trust. Or they might be the ones who help on the bus or assist in the children’s ministry.

Children need to be encouraged to immediately tell their parents if anyone touches them inappropriately. If your child is uncomfortable with certain adults, don’t force a friendship. On the other hand, don’t assume that a problem exists if your child doesn’t like a particular adult.

Restroom procedures for children.

No adult should be left alone with a child in the restroom with the door closed. The adult must remain visible to a monitoring adult standing in the hallway or doorway of a classroom. Children can also use the “buddy system.”

Transportation procedures.

If you plan to chauffeur children, always get a signed permission slip from the parent. Children who ride a church bus are especially vulnerable. At least three adult workers should be on the bus or van when transporting children. (Each acts as a safety net for the others.) There should be no unplanned stops. Each child should have a seatbelt, which must be secured and checked before driving. All volunteer drivers should complete a driving information form to supply license number, insurance information, and driving history. Having one adult carry a cell phone for emergencies is also wise.

Pastors and male church workers and other males should avoid giving rides to women alone or to children alone. Plan to have others in the car as well, making sure they are visible. Years ago, a pastor friend was accused of an illicit relationship with a divorced woman because he was seen giving her a ride. Unfortunately the accuser didn’t see the pastor’s wife in the back seat.

A plan of action if sexual abuse is suspected.

Know the laws of your state for reporting sexual abuse. Information about suspected abuse must remain confidential while an investigation is conducted. Check with your attorney to determine what plan of action should be taken when an incident is reported. Before conducting an investigation, also notify the church insurance company. It can be helpful in determining if an incident needs to be reported and how to proceed.

Make simple modifications to the church building and grounds.

Sunday school rooms, offices, and counseling or meeting rooms should have a window installed in each door. If privacy is needed (for instance, to use the room for changing clothes for a baptism), a window blind can be installed, but a blind can be misused by closing it at inappropriate times. In addition, the parking lot should be well lighted to ensure there are no dark corners. Shrubbery and trees around the building should be kept trimmed and short. Outside storage buildings should be kept locked.

Counseling procedures.

One of the most vulnerable of ministries is counseling. In a news article, Cal Thomas writes about the problem of sexual sin among the clergy.[1] He quotes Joe Trull, author of Ministerial Ethics, as saying that “30-35% of ministers of all denominations admit to having sexual relationships” outside of marriage. He goes on to say that “at least half” of this sexual contact happens during pastoral counseling. Perhaps this news should not be surprising since many pastors fail to implement safeguards to eliminate any opportunity for sexual sin to occur.

Customarily, counseling sessions have been conducted behind closed doors, but this practice can lead to suspicion and accusation. Again, the door should have a window, and if it doesn’t, then the door must remain open. Female staff should remain nearby during counseling sessions, preferably within sight of the open doorway.

A busy office is automatically a deterrent to improper behavior, so wisdom suggests avoiding evening or after-hours counseling sessions. However, if a woman simply must receive counseling outside of regular office hours, she should bring a friend along. Another option would be to ask the pastor to invite his wife to sit outside the counseling room during the counseling time.

It is best to avoid male-female counseling sessions away from the office or church. If a woman arrives for counseling and finds herself alone in the building with the pastor or male counselor, she should leave immediately and call to reschedule the appointment. Any honorable pastor will understand. In fact, a truly conscientious pastor will likewise prefer to reschedule since his reputation is at stake, too.

In counseling sessions or other meetings with a child or teen, parents should always attend. These, too, should take place in the church. If a child must meet with the counselor or pastor alone, again, parents should remain in sight of the open door and periodically look inside. Let your child know that if for any reason he/she is uncomfortable during a counseling session, then it is fine to come to you immediately.

Also, check the credentials of any counselor before making a commitment to receive counseling services. But remember that membership in an association does not guarantee that a member is licensed, certified, or qualified to conduct counseling.

Visitation procedures.

Church visitation is another area where compromising situations can arise. A visitation team should consist of two men and one woman, or two women and one man, or a married couple. If the person being visited is a woman, teen, or child alone, a team of men should not enter the home. Rather, they should speak briefly at the door and leave.

Single male teachers or workers should not date students or conduct one-on-one counseling sessions or visitation. Furthermore, two or three adults should be present at every teen or children’s activity or class to ensure proper behavior.

For some, implementing policies intended to eliminate any suspicion or appearance of evil may seem overly restrictive. However, people are fearful, and rightly so. The cause of Christ is sadly damaged when scandal hits the church.

The bottom line is that pastors and church leaders are obligated before God to shepherd the flock by effectively ministering to them, protecting them, and delivering them out of the hand of predators.

Linda Hull, her husband David, and their two sons live in Walden, New York. Linda is a former church secretary. She currently writes and publishes an e-zine titled “Words of Encouragement.”

(Originally published in FrontLine • September/October 2003. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.)

  1. Thomas, Cal. “The Catholic—Which Is To Say Universal—Problem,” Times Herald-Record, 20 June 2002. []

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