As you can imagine and have probably experienced for yourself, child sexual abuse is a difficult subject for most adults to talk about, let alone the children who are its victims. When abuse is observed, disclosed, or suspected it creates an emotionally charged situation for all involved. It is therefore crucial to have policies in place that clearly define the actions to be taken by individuals and the church corporately, to ensure the response is objective and applies equally to all, without the opportunity to be swayed by any individual based on trust, respect, or power.
Child sexual abuse is a crime and cases should never be handled “in-house.”
Child sexual abuse is a crime and cases should never be handled “in-house.” Unfortunately, through many high profile cases, we’ve seen the devastating impact of organizations attempting to resolve the issue internally. Examples include individual cases such as Penn State employees covering up observed and suspected abuse by Jerry Sandusky, as well as the widespread cover-ups in the Catholic church and the YMCA. In these cases, child molesters were not held accountable for their actions, and in many cases, they continued to have access to children resulting in additional victims. And if we want to prevent abuse, it is also essential to have detailed policies for how to respond to inappropriate behavior that falls short of breaking the law.
Pre-establishing your response and being prepared to take bold action includes documenting, communicating, and enforcing the following key policy components:
- What behavior and actions are illegal in your state (and each location where you have a presence)?
- How should your team respond if they observe a child being abused?
- How should your team respond if a child discloses they are being abused by someone at church? At home? Or somewhere else?
- How should your team respond if they suspect a child is being abused but they don't have proof? What would make them suspect?
- How should your team respond to observed, disclosed, or suspected abuse of a child by another child?
- Who are mandated reporters by law in your state (clergy, staff, volunteers)? What is the state's reporting process? What are the consequences for failure to report?
- Does your church have an internal reporting process? Does it comply with state laws? Does it in any way hinder the protection and rescue of a child who is being abused? Does it in any way hinder the evidence collection process or legal investigation?
- What is your reporting policy for staff members who are not mandated reporters (i.e. volunteers)?
- How do you handle child sexual abuse that is disclosed during privileged communication with a member of clergy? Do you report it to the authorities anyway?
- What are your organizational consequences for staff, volunteers, and/or congregation members who are accused of child sexual abuse? During an active investigation? If there is not enough evidence to convict? If there is not enough evidence for the police to file charges?
- What is your organizational policy for inappropriate behavior that falls short of breaking the law? Who is to be notified and what are the consequences?
If you have not thoroughly discussed, documented, and communicated the answers to these questions - to your staff, volunteers, and congregation members through a formal policy, let me be the first to say that you are NOT prepared to effectively respond to allegations of abuse and take appropriately bold action. I encourage you to prepare yourself and your church, and I refer you back to my book, 8 Ways to Create their Fate (Best Practice #7), which fully documents the complex considerations necessary to effectively protect and rescue children from sexual predators.
I have included links below to some basic resources that will help you and your team understand when you need to report abuse.