The news story of the week and probably the sports news story of the year has been the child sexual abuse allegations at Penn State and the repercussions that have followed, not the least of which was the firing of head football coach, Joe Paterno. The whole incident was reprehensible, and regardless of whether or not you agree with the university’s course of action, the fact of the matter is that had some different steps been taken, the university and personnel would not be walking this road.
At our church, and in the United Methodist Texas Annual Conference as a whole, we are big on sexual ethics. So having been trained and having trained others in the ins and outs of what is and is not appropriate, I want to share my thoughts so that it may save you and your organization some heartache in the future. Here are several things that can help prevent these types of incidents.
1. Adopt a policy. Our church has a policy called our “Safe Sanctuary” policy. All workers are trained in this policy which includes parameters for appropriate and inappropriate behaviors, basic guidelines to prevent any appearance of inappropriate behavior, and SPECIFIC action steps for persons to follow in the event of an incident. Our policy serves two basic functions-prevent abuse and exploitation of minors, and prevent frivolous accusations of staff and volunteers. If your church or organization doesn’t have a similar policy, make one as soon as possible. You may operate a business that doesn’t deal with children, it is still important to train employees in what is and is not appropriate behavior in the workplace and it is always a good idea to cover issues dealing with minors.
2. Train your staff and volunteers in the policy. Everyone may have taken the pamphlet home and read it, but chances are, they signed the paper saying they read it, and left it on the kitchen table. Your church or business should have, at the least, annual training sessions that go over the policy and spell out what is and is not appropriate to remove all doubt as to what things are acceptable at your meetings and events.
3. Enforce the policy consistently. Consistency is the difference between a policy and a good idea. If the policy doesn’t apply to everyone and only certain people are forced to abide by its guidelines, then the policy is just a piece of paper.
4. Do background checks on all staff and volunteers. If your workers have nothing to hide, they will be glad to give consent for a background check. Sometimes it is a tough sell to let your church members know they need to have annual background checks. Many will say, “But I did this last year.” Annual checks ensure nothing has been reported within the last year. Even if Billy Graham is a member of your congregation, he needs to have a background check. Also, your policy needs to have procedures for if/when particular items show up on checks. In our church, we do not allow persons with violent offenses or sexually-related offenses to serve in any of our children’s or youth ministries. We believe in power of forgiveness, grace, and the ability God has to restore people in his Kingdom. However, we do not take risks with our children under any circumstances. We will find other areas of church life for these people to serve. We do not allow those with DWI’s, DUI’s or other similar offenses to drive students on church-sponsored trips. While these checks may sound expensive, generally your church can pay a flat fee for an unlimited number of checks per year.
5. Require any incidents to be reported to the local authorities and to the Department of Health and Human Services (aka Child Protective Services-names may differ by state). This is where the wheels came off for Penn State. Those who witnessed the alleged events simply reported to their supervisors, who reported to their supervisors, who did the same and what was alleged to be a horrific incident was apparently swept under the rug. If the person who witnessed the incident had been required to call the authorities, Penn State would not be dealing with the current backlash. I have been in situations where I have had to deal with Child Protective Services and I know they want the report from the person who witnessed the event, not from someone who heard it second or third hand. Our church policy requires that if we suspect a child is in danger of abuse then we make two phone calls, one to the local police department and one to Department of Health and Human Services.
Do you have a policy in place? What do you do protect children as well as workers and volunteers in your organization?