Faith communities offer children wonderful opportunities to develop spiritually and to be part of a larger, caring community. Close caring relationships with adults are an important protective factor for children. Families who are struggling often particularly need the friendship and informal mentoring opportunities provided by faith communities. Unfortunately, as in all organizations where adults and older youth interact with children, faith communities can provide opportunities for inappropriate sexual behaviors towards children.
No faith community is free from the risk of children being harmed by sexual abuse. Although there has been a lot of news coverage about the sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church, child sexual abuse happens in all racial, age, and ethnic groups, and at all socio-economic levels and, yes, in all faith communities as well. People who sexually abuse children come in all ages, gender, sexual orientation, occupation, and religious affiliation. There is no such thing as a “typical” sex offender.
Openly addressing the potential risk of sexual abuse happening within your faith community can protect both children and your faith community. Some people think that talking about the potential of sexual abuse happening within their community sends the message that children are not safe there. The opposite is true. Child sexual abuse thrives in an atmosphere of silence and denial. Shining a light on the subject protects children.
Criminal background checks are an important tool. Many faith communities have followed the lead of other youth- and child-serving organizations and require staff and volunteers who work with children to complete a criminal background check. This sends the message that your organization takes seriously its commitment to keeping children safe and can prevent someone with a criminal background from applying to work or volunteer with your organization.
That said, criminal background checks will only surface people whose sexual abuse was reported to authorities, and who were prosecuted and convicted with a criminal sexual offense. Law enforcement estimates that 88% of sexual abuse is never reported to authorities.This means that nine of ten people who have sexually abused children will not have a criminal background.
In addition to background checks, comprehensive policies and practices can be your best protection against children being harmed in your faith community. These policies make it clear that your organization is committed to creating a safe environment free of sexual abuse. See the links below for information on creating a policy for your faith community.
Support from a faith community can provide the stability that will keep someone who has offended or might be at risk to offend from harming a child.
People who sexually abuse children can change and go on to live a healthy lifestyle free from abuse. Specialized treatment for people with sexual behavior problems is an important tool to prevent future abuse of children. And treatment works. National studies have shown that of people who complete treatment, less than 15% will sexually abuse again.
Accountability and support are important tools for keeping someone who has sexually abused children from abusing again. Some people who have sexually abused children compare their journey to healthier choices as similar to that of a recovering alcoholic. They need the support and accountability of their family, friends, and very often, their faith community to stay on top of the feelings, attitudes, and beliefs that led them to harm a child in the first place.
Being sorry and promising it won’t happen again is not enough. Faith communities often struggle with their beliefs about confession and repentance.It can be tempting to believe that someone who is genuinely remorseful can control themselves and stop harming children on their own. People who have been sexually inappropriate or abused a child benefit from specialized treatment that helps them to understand why they harmed a child and how to prevent themselves from harming children in the future. They also benefit from a system of accountability.
Accountability and support require someone who has sexually abused to be honest about their past, to discuss openly the signs that they may be at risk to behave inappropriately, and to limit their access to situations that put them at risk to behave inappropriately. People who have sexually abused benefit from having knowledgeable people who will call them on inappropriate behaviors. Faith communities can provide the caring but tough support.
Reporting sexual abuse can mean both the person who behaved inappropriately and the child who may have been harmed get the help they need. While it may be tempting to handle a situations within your faith community, one needs only look at the recent sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church to be reminded that ignoring concerns won’t make them go away.
Sometimes adults don’t report their concerns about someone’s inappropriate or illegal behavior towards a child, because they don’t want to hurt them by reporting their concerns to authorities. Too often, this decision leaves other children vulnerable and can feel like the adult is choosing the person who hurt the child over the child who was hurt.
Don’t wait for a child to be harmed. Create policies and practices that reduce the risk that children will be harmed.
Many faith communities are developing policies to respond to situations where children have already been abused. Urge your faith community to look at practices and develop a prevention policy. For example, it is good practice to have a “two adult rule” that prohibits one-on-one contact between an adult and a child. It is also good practice to prohibit one-on-one meetings with children and youth when others can’t see or hear the interaction. If a child is in need of spiritual counseling, it would be appropriate to have a policy that any touching between an adult and a child should take place within sight and hearing of others.
Create an atmosphere that encourages people to question confusing or uncertain behaviors and practices. Nobody wants to accuse someone they know of inappropriate sexual behavior or sexual abuse. By initiating discussions about inappropriate behaviors and modeling how to talk about concerning situations, your faith community can create a safe atmosphere that encourages people to take action before children are harmed.
Practice responding to inappropriate behaviors that are not illegal. Preventing sexual abuse means taking action before you have proof that a child has been harmed. It also means taking action as soon as you see behaviors or hear comments that concern you. Speaking up about your concerns is not the same as accusing someone of sexual behaviors and it can prevent someone from escalating their behavior.
Inventory your physical environment and modify it to reduce risk. Look at your physical environment from the viewpoint of someone who may want to isolate a child. Consider locking or limiting access to closets and other rooms that are not in use while children are at your facility. Consider adding windows to rooms where children and older youth or adults may be gathering.
Decide ahead of time how you will handle having a “sex offender” in your community. People who have sexually abused often need the support of a faith community. Your faith community can also provide the accountability needed to ensure that this person continues to make safe choices. By creating your response before confronted with a specific person or situation, it can be easier to determine how you want to proceed.