Churches need to be aware of how children are being protected at church from sexual, mental, and physical abuse. To help in this effort, we’ve interviewed a group of leading experts on preventing sexual abuse at church. This is the second interview in a series. The first interview covers how to respond to reports of child abuse.
Roundtable participants: Brian McAuliffe, CFO at Willow Creek Community Church in Illinois; Boz Tchividjian, law professor at Liberty University and executive director of GRACE; Peter Persuitti, managing director of insurance and risk management of Religious & Nonprofit Practice at Arthur J. Gallagher & Co.; and Frank Sommerville, lawyer and a shareholder in the law firm of Weycer, Kaplan, Pulaski & Zuber, P.C. Freelance editor Ashley Emmert conducted this roundtable discussion with assistance from Samuel Ogles.
Ashley: What are common blind spots for church boards when it comes to child abuse prevention? How can boards implement a culture of safety and protection?
Brian: Boards don’t think abuse will happen at their churches. There’s just a lack of awareness of how prevalent it is and that it can happen. There’s an ignorance and a mentality of, “Oh, we know everybody [in our church], so we really don’t need a program. Everybody knows everybody.” That’s one of the biggest issues I see. People put their heads in the sand.
Peter: Boz talked about a culture of protection. I once heard this culture described as the roots of the tree. We tend to prune the trees at the limb, but the root—that takes irrigation. It takes a long time.
Culture is a mindset. It has behavioral elements to it. I think it’s also strategic, and the board needs to be strategic. There could be elements of campaigning, like billboards, messaging, and themes around the issue of awareness. Education would help.
There are people out there talking about doing “fire drills” relative to an incident of abuse. You would simulate that you’ve had an event of some sort, an incident, and how you might respond. How would the communication process move along? What are the best practices? Typically a church may have one incident that surfaces in its history, yet the church can really struggle as an organization if it’s not handled well, as we’ve seen.
Frank: I think that part of this has to start with the leadership. For example, just running background checks is an important statement where the leadership, like the pastor, is the first one to say, “Here’s my name. Here’s my information. Run the background check because I think it’s important that our leadership recognize that this is an important issue.” They can lead by example by sitting in on the training seminars, the prevention meetings, and so on. When you’re talking with children and youth workers and elder workers, if you don’t have a highly visible investment from the leadership it is very, very difficult for that sort of culture change to occur.
Brian: If you just say, “Yeah, we’re going to do this,” and then you leave it to a lower level manager and it’s not supported by the senior pastor and the executive team, then whoever the leaders are, it’s going to go nowhere. It really has to be driven by the senior pastor and the leadership, and the pastor has to name a person and say, “This is the person who’s going to be running this for us, and I expect that we all follow through the same. He or she is acting on my behalf. You’re going to respect them the same way you would if I were working on this.”
Boz: I think when doing training in a church, one thing to do is spend time with the leadership because you have to engage. Oftentimes the leadership has been approached by somebody in the congregation saying, “Hey, do we have a policy? Do we have training?” The leaders have so many other things going on that they don’t pay a lot of attention to the threat of abuse. They may have read some things in the paper, but they haven’t really begun to grasp the issues.
So we [GRACE members] come in and spend a lot of time with the leadership. And one of the things we’ll do is what you’re talking about—the fire drill. I’ll say, “Okay, here’s the case study.” We’ll hand it to them, have them read it, and say, “This is a case study of a parent who calls the pastor and says, ‘My son just disclosed that he’s been sexually abused for the last six months by so-and-so in the church,’ who happens to be an elder in the church. And then you hang up the phone. What do you do?” And that really is a great starting point to engage leadership in beginning to realize the many questions [to ask in such a situation]. Usually we end that discussion with more questions than answers, but at least it has engaged them and they want to learn more. And they’re prepared to do that.
You asked what church boards overlook. I’m going to say—and it’s probably not what you’re expecting—I think they overlook the children. I deal with a lot of organizations whose board leadership, though they may not say it explicitly, are really much more concerned with the institutional reputation than the child or the child’s family. And in the Christian world it’s even more dangerous because you can rationalize it. You can rationalize it with really spiritually sounding rationalizations like, “Well, we don’t want to tarnish the reputation of Jesus. We’ve got to handle this internally because we don’t want our tremendous ministry to be impacted.”
And that, to me, can be very, very dangerous. At the end of the day, what I see far too often are institutions who are communicating the gospel but oftentimes not living it. And what I mean by that is the gospel is all about a God who sacrificed himself for the individual soul, but we’re finding institutions that are sacrificing individual souls for their own protection. I think that’s really significant because I see it time and time again.
One of the things we do with our investigations is tell the institution, “We’ll do [the investigation], but it’s got to be completely independent. And the final report has to be public. We’re going to publish it.” And most people cringe at that. But I’m telling you, I see the work of the Holy Spirit used in the publication of that report in really amazing ways.
Most of the time, the victim’s first option is not to file a lawsuit. They simply want to be acknowledged. They want the institution to respond to them in a way that gives them value. And a lot of times I’ve seen that making these reports public has been that acknowledgement. Again, it’s just trying to shift the paradigm that we’ve all gotten used to and trying to figure out where to shift.
Frank: I’m different from a lot of attorneys in that I really want the church and the leadership to respond to victims in a very positive way. While we all know that there’s the potential of a false report, we need to be paying attention to the individuals who want to be heard, because they’re going to continue to escalate the situation until they feel like they have been heard.
And I think that churches need to be the hands and feet of Jesus, as a popular song said a few years ago. They need to be loving. They need to be caring. They need to not isolate these people. A lot of times you want to isolate them. That’s the human nature of it. But if we reach out to those victims and we genuinely care about them and we work on their behalf to do everything we can to help them through the situation, that’s enormously healing. We all know that a child who’s been sexually abused probably has a life sentence, meaning that, absent from the power of the Holy Spirit, they’re never going to be completely the same.
And I think it is important that the leadership reaches out in this early time to really love on them and work with them. And I can tell you, in the vast majority of cases that I’ve worked on where we have done that and sought help and prayed with them and prayed with that family and given them some extra attention, things went a whole lot better down the road.
Peter: I remember working in the public sector, and one of the things we were trying to do with the public officials in their meetings was to get safety as a topic on their agenda. And I wonder what a leadership and a board of elders’ agenda looks like. I think safety and abuse prevention should be on every single leadership agenda and every single board of elders’ agenda. They should be covering this topic in some way, whether that’s a report on progress, or it’s some sort of measurement of effectiveness. Sometimes part of what you have to do is put it on the agenda in order to change behavior. Keep that thinking in the forefront.
Brian: It typically takes some kind of event before leadership will wake up to the fact that child abuse can really happen in their church. And then once it does, once the veil has been pierced, prevention suddenly becomes a regular topic. But it’s just sad that it has to be that way. For any new church starting out, you want them to make sure that that’s included. For the churches that are out there now that haven’t had the discussion, you want to make sure they start that conversation before something happens. Churches have to have their fire drills ready. You don’t want the priority of ministry to get in the way of practical safety, both for the whole campus and specifically for children.
For training on preventing child abuse, see Reducing the Risk and to set policy and procedures, see the Church Board Guide to a Child Sexual Abuse Prevention Policy.