We may tend to think sexual abuse cannot happen in our church, but it is that very mentality that makes it possible. How do abusers manage to have access to children and teens in our churches? This process often begins with intentional “grooming” of children and their parents.
In an article titled “Understanding Sexual Grooming in Child Abuse Cases,” the American Bar Association says “Sexual grooming is a preparatory process in which a perpetrator gradually gains a person’s or organization’s trust with the intent to be sexually abusive. The victim is usually a child, teen, or vulnerable adult.”
Some first steps in the process of grooming a child is gaining the trust of the child, their parents and church leaders. This person may appear to be the ideal volunteer or staff member. Grooming often begins with non-sexual contact such as hand holding, frontal hugs, holding a child on a lap, tickling or wrestling.
The child may become the “special” child in a class or ministry setting who receives extra time and attention from the abuser. The abuser intentionally befriends the parents through special attention and affirmation by the abuser. The person gradually crosses appropriate physical and emotional boundaries into fondling and other inappropriate touch and contact.
Often abusers “hide in plain sight.” They seem to enjoy serving with children and teens and actively seek opportunities to work with them. One significant red flag for parents and church leaders is the abuser’s choice to have more underage friends than adult friends. They may live in the “kid’s world” and have games and electronic equipment that draws in children and teens to their home. They may plan special events or trips where they have extended access alone with children or teens.
What can churches do to thwart the efforts of abusers to groom and abuse children and teens? An important first step is the creation of written safety and security policies that are consistently enforced at all times with no exceptions or exemptions for leaders. There are at least five imperatives that should be required in every policy statement.
The two-adult rule
There should always be at least two adults over the legal age of 18 in any classroom or ministry setting. These two adults should not be a married couple since spouses cannot be compelled to testify against one another in court. If a married couple is allowed to work together, a third non-related adult should also be in the room. No adult or older child should ever be alone with a child.
The six-month rule
Anyone volunteering with children or youth must be an active church member for at least six months before access is granted to serve with children or youth. If a person chooses to not join the church, there should be active attendance of at least one year.
Every worker should be required to undergo a criminal background check before serving with children and youth. Background checks should be repeated at least once every three years and ideally at least once a year. It is important to recognize that screening is only one step in providing a safe ministry environment. Less than 10 percent of abuse is reported to the authorities, and a conviction is required before abuse goes on a person’s criminal record. Screening is never the only step a church should take to protect their children and youth. Interviews and reference checks are another part of the vetting process that must occur before clearing a new volunteer to serve.
Secure drop-off and pickup procedures
A secure system for dropping off and picking up of children ensures that the person who receives a child at the end of a teaching session has the authorization to do so. This can be accomplished with sign-in sheets, matching name tags or an electronic check-in system.
Clear sightlines into every room
There should never be a location in the church in which an outside observer cannot see what is occurring in the room, even in offices and adult classroom spaces. Parents, likewise, should always have their children in view after services or teaching sessions end.
Churches can be a source for equipping parents on how to spot potential abusers. Training for parents on how to have important conversations with their children about personal privacy and what to do if they are uncomfortable around certain adults or older teens is a great way to help in the protection of children and teens.
If there is an allegation of abuse by a church volunteer or staff member, a formal report to law authorities must be made within 24 hours of receiving the allegation. North Carolina has a mandatory reporting law for in cases where there is cause to suspect child abuse, neglect or dependency. Clergy are not exempt from this statute. If the staff member or volunteer is currently serving with children or youth, they should be removed from service until the allegation is resolved. The confidentiality and seriousness of the allegation by the victim should be respected at all times.
God has entrusted the care and nurture of children to parents and the church. Churches must do everything they can to be worthy of this trust. For more information about what your church can do, check out the resources available at ncbaptist.org/children.