Tragic sexual abuse stories appear daily in the news. Although sexual abuse has existed for centuries, the media and the #metoo and #churchtoo movements have thankfully exposed it. The darkness of abuse needed to be brought into the light.
Sexual abuse is prevalent, and that doesn’t simply dissipate because someone attends church. Sexual abuse survivors and sexual abuse offenders span across age, socioeconomic status, gender, education level, ethnicity, and religion. At any given time, a pastor is likely shepherding in the congregation both a sexual abuse survivor and a sexual abuse offender.
It is hard to think of a more vulnerable population for abuse than churches’ youngest members: babies and children. Approximately one in four girls and one in 13 boys will experience childhood sexual abuse (Center for Disease Control; https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/childsexualabuse/fastfact.html) In approximately 90% of sexual abuse cases, the survivor knew the offender. Coaches, teachers, parents, grandparents, and yes, even pastors, are amongst the identities of sexual abuse offenders.
These sobering statistics are more than just numbers: they represent children that have been harmed. Now the church has the opportunity to respond. Although the local church cannot end sexual abuse altogether, churches can take preventive measures to ensure the safety of their youngest members during church events. Below are ten recommendations to help reduce the likelihood that sexual abuse will occur in your church’s nursery and kids ministry areas.
1. Use background checks for staff and volunteers
Background checks will not weed out future offenders or unreported sexual abuse offenders, but background checks can potentially catch questionable offenses, show red flags, or ward off individuals with criminal charges. Do not skip the background checks.
2. Provide sexual abuse training
Each church should provide sexual abuse training to all volunteers working with youth and to all staff members. Provide clear-cut definitions and examples of abuse, as well as procedures for reporting abuse to the church and local authorities. Partner with local authorities and other churches for education and training.
3. Establish abuse protocols
Plan ahead, develop, and document a course of action for handling abuse situations in your church. Include a system of reporting, disciplinary action, and mandatory reporting to local officials. Make sure the church can easily communicate its protocols and policies.
4. Reduce access to potential “hiding” places
When children are present, reduce access to unused rooms, closets, and locked spaces. Make it difficult to find an “alone” place. If your church uses video surveillance, place cameras near these areas to help provide monitoring. Some churches may even use security surveillance in the nursery rooms.
5. Maintain more than one childcare provider per childcare room
When considering volunteers or staff for youth events and Sunday mornings, have multiple adults work together. Since over 9 percent of child sexual abuse offenders are men, consider having females present alongside male volunteers. Do not leave an adult alone with children.
6. Generate open sightlines in the children’s ministry space
Promote accountability with open sightlines. Dutch doors, windows, proper lighting, and open spaces, allow others to easily view the children from the hallway.
7. Rethink diaper changing and bathroom breaks
Limit the number of nursery volunteers changing diapers. Have diapers changed in the open room, not a bathroom. If supervision is needed in a children’s restroom during bathroom breaks, make sure at least two adults are present.
8. Prioritize a check-in/check-out system
Every adult checking-in a child should receive a pair of matching guardian and child tickets. The tickets should be verified when an adult is picking up a child. Do not let a child leave the room without the matching guardian ticket.
9. Communicate policies to parents
Conveying the church’s abuse policies and precautionary measures to parents communicates that the church considers abuse as a priority. By telling parents about the correct policies, it helps parents recognize if a behavior or event does not align with the safeguards. A parent provides another invaluable “set of eyes” in reporting inappropriate or concerning behaviors.
Be a church that prays specifically about abuse. Pray for sexual abuse survivors and for sexual abuse offenders. Pray for protection against Satan’s schemes to bring abuse into the church. Pray with staff and with volunteers. Praying communicates a dependency on Christ and also communicates a church’s concerns and priorities.
Childhood sexual abuse is not an easy topic to discuss, but it’s necessary. Shepherding and discipling children involves protecting them. Putting safeguards against abuse is essential. Believers in Christ cannot and should not ignore abuse. Be a church that is proactive in making its community a safe haven for the most vulnerable of people.
Posted on August 6, 2021
Sarah has her masters and doctorate degrees in Clinical Psychology. She specializes in child and adolescent mental health and development. Sarah is also the co-host of the Parenting & Pennies podcast (Jan 2022) on the Christian Parenting podcast network. Sarah serves in leadership at her church for women’s discipleship, and enjoys discipling other women. She also enjoys being a guest writer, speaker, and podcaster for different organizations.
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