What can churches do to minimize the risk of child and teen sexual abuse? In this article, Childhood Evangelism and Discipleship Consultant Cheryl Markland shares eight recommendations to help prevent abuse within the church.

In June, Southern Baptists will gather for the 2024 Southern Baptist Convention in Indianapolis. One topic sure to be discussed is the progress Southern Baptists have made in recognizing the need for sexual abuse prevention in the local church. 

Sexual abuse and grooming behaviors that open the door to abuse happen under the radar of many congregants. Churches tend to have a culture of “niceness” and trust of leadership, which makes it easier for abusers to navigate finding victims. 

Sexual abuse occurs when there is an imbalance of power. Abusive church leaders tend to exploit clerical or leadership authority and may even claim the “power of God” to define abuse as part of God’s plan and will for the victim. 

In addition to grooming victims to gain their trust and the trust of their gatekeepers, churches offer opportunities for “institutional grooming.” This type of grooming causes church leaders to disbelieve victims, making victims reluctant to report for fear they will not be believed when a respected leader is their abuser. (Studies report that only 3-5% of reports are proven false.) 

In light of recent gripping headline stories of abuse within churches, what can churches do to minimize the risk of child and teen sexual abuse?

  1. Create, train and enforce written policies that disallow leaders and adult volunteers opportunities to be alone with a minor. This includes transportation, last child at pickup time, bathroom assistance, running errands within the church, etc. Have a “two adult rule” that is enforced at all times. Ideally the two adults will not be married to each other, since N.C. law has a spousal exemption for testifying in the event charges are lodged and the case goes to court. 
  2. Do not allow private communication between a single minor and adult. Always require accountability with a parent or other church leader for communication with minors.
  3. Restrict activities that desensitize minors to inappropriate touch, sexual content or nudity. Do not allow adults to have children sit on laps, skinny dip, tickle, wrestle, give frontal hugs or play high-contact games.
  4. Do not overly rely on background checks as a primary method for protecting minors. Background checks are necessary but come with the caveat that most abusers are never reported or convicted of a crime that results in being placed on the sexual abuse registry. In addition to background checks, an application to serve, reference checks, in-person interviews and training should be conducted before a person is allowed to serve with minors. The Southern Baptist Convention has a great resource to help churches with this process. 
  5. Lack of oversight and enforcement of policies is an open gate to abuse. Boundary testing is a classic ruse that abusers use to check the willingness of organizations to enforce policies before progressing with grooming behaviors. Any system for protecting minors is only as good as its oversight and enforcement.
  6. Have clear sightlines into every gathering/teaching space in the church as well as random patrols of hallways in children’s areas.
  7. Create and enforce use of a drop off and release system that ensures a child is released to an authorized adult. Limit access to children’s areas by locking doors and redirecting traffic when possible so that there is a limited number of adults in children’s areas.
  8. Train leaders about grooming behaviors. Have a point person to whom leaders can share concerns. Document conversations and action steps. Also have a clear understanding about mandated state requirements for reporting abuse.

What steps does your church need to take to ensure the safety of the children and teens in your church? For more information, check out our convention resources at ncbaptist.org/abuse.