A Faith Community Call to Action: Penn State Lessons as Catalyst for Change

Presented by The Center’s Linda Crockett, Director of Clergy & Congregation Care

No longer will violence be heard in your land, nor ruin or destruction within your borders. You will call your walls Salvation and your gates Praise. Isaiah 60:18 (NIV)
No matter what our faith tradition, I think most of us could agree that this vision of the prophet Isaiah is one we want our congregations, and communities, to live into. However, this vision cannot be realized without intention and hard work.

The Samaritan Counseling Center has a “Safe Church” program in which we work deeply with congregations for approximately a year to develop policies, practices and guidelines on protecting children and teens from sexual, and other forms of, abuse. A Safe Church environment is one that provides for the protection of the physical, emotional, and spiritual health and well being of each person. More than simply offering protection from danger, the Safe Church sees itself as a sanctuary, where one finds protection, security, support, guidance and the presence of God. It is difficult to feel connected to God if you are being sexually abused by someone at home, at school, or in the church itself.

We do this work because we view ourselves as an extension of the ministry of local congregations, and believe the faith community has the capacity to play a major role not only in protecting children in our church settings, but in the worlds in which they live: the worlds of school, scouts, sports, neighborhood, and home. Numerous studies show that at least one in four girls and one in six boys are sexually abused before the age of 18. 85% are abused by someone in their circle of trust such as a family member, coach, teacher, church leader, neighbor, and babysitter. The “offenders” are one of us – which makes this issue incredibly difficult and heart rending.

Children are at greater risk for sexual abuse than almost any of the other things we routinely educate them about – how to safely swim, cross the street or stay away from promiscuity, alcohol and drugs. In fact, in adolescence victims often turn to promiscuity, alcohol or drugs as a way to cope with the pain and shame they feel about the abuse. If a victim does not receive appropriate help, the impact can last for a decades and include medical, psychological, and social consequences.

Less well understood are the spiritual consequences. Maya Angelou, the award winning poet and educator who was herself sexually abused as a child, is credited with remarking that abuse “takes a child who knows nothing, and turns her into a child that believes nothing”. I have talked with countless adult survivors who continue to struggle with issues of forgiveness; with molested children who feel abandoned or punished by God; and with victims of incest despairing over the commandment to honor father and mother when a parent becomes rapist.

Some churches have policies in place that were “given” to them to implement by their denomination, downloaded from a website, or mandated by their insurance company. And in most cases, those policies do little to protect children or ignite the cultural change among church members that educates and inspires adults to become agents of protection for children. A policy not developed by the people it will guide easily becomes a “dead thing” – a document that sits on a shelf and allows us to feel we can check the box on having complied with our responsibility.

Many of the policies we review lack any real detail about how child sexual abuse is defined under our state’s Child Protective Services Law; do not define processes about how a volunteer should report and document suspected child abuse and the follow-up process to assure the volunteer a church official has taken action; or how the church will safely incorporate a known sexual offender desiring fellowship into the congregation. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

The tragedy at Penn State could have – and should have – been prevented. Our focus in the faith community at this moment should turn from “Monday morning quarterbacking” about the bad calls of Penn State officials to looking deeply at our own practices in the congregation to determine what needs to change in light of the terrible, but valuable, lessons from Penn State. It’s about Penn State – but it is so much bigger than that.

Many people have been asking “what can I do?” as the enormity of what took place within a respected university, and at a non-profit organization designed specifically to help vulnerable children, is revealed. Here is my answer, and call to action:

I call on every individual participating in a faith community to go to your pastor, priest, rabbi, board or leadership team and find out if you truly have a “safe church”. If you do not have a policy – ask your leadership to prioritize developing one. If the response is “we have a safe church policy”: Ask to see it and discuss it with other adults in the congregation as a way of examining whether what happened at Penn State could happen at your church.

Look for these things:

1) A comprehensive policy that includes preventive elements; your state’s definitions of abuse and mandated reporting requirements; detailed process for documenting and reporting abuse; and guidelines for including a known sexual offender in your congregation while prioritizing the safety of vulnerable people.
• The preventive policy elements to keep children safe are too numerous to detail here. However, even something as simple as a rule that two adults always be present when interacting with children, and that any key-holder sign an agreement never to use it to access the building during a time when there is no church sponsored activity with a child not their own are often missing from institutional policies I have read.

2) A provision for policy and practice review at least annually by a “safe church” team that has received significant training on child sexual abuse and response.

3) At least one adult education session every year about an aspect of child sexual abuse, including the grooming process offenders use to engage children. The purpose is to empower parents, grandparents – anyone who has a child they want to keep safe from sexual exploitation-to acquire knowledge they can use outside of the church in their various roles to ensure that children are protected. In this way, child protection from sexual abuse becomes “missional”. Learning about how we can prevent child sexual abuse is one of them of the most critical ministries in which a faith community should be engaged.
• Adult education also “opens up the space” and gives permission to survivors to tell their stories and seek healing. Unless we talk about this issue most will remain silent. Ask your pastor, priest or rabbi if they ever receive disclosures of abuse. If the answer is no, your church has not done its job in creating the conditions that allow people to come forward and disclose what happened to them.

4) Screening for all volunteers and staff working with children as part of the requirement to work with children.

5) Professional training on child abuse prevention and response of at least 2-3 hours initially for anyone working with children, and refresher training annually thereafter.

6) Child and teen educational curriculums of at least several weeks each year to teach at age appropriate levels about the sacredness of our bodies and how to recognize when emotional, physical and sexual boundaries are being violated.

We recommend that any congregation desiring to claim the words of the prophet Isaiah move through an intentional process over a period of time that also includes developing your own theological framework to describe how protecting children is a core part of your mission and community covenant. We offer guidance to churches we work with on this, but believe that each congregation must struggle to articulate its unique understanding of why this is important.

Each congregation must also grapple with how the abuse of power represented by child sexual abuse violates not only the child but the community covenant we make with each other, no matter what our religious tradition. And every congregational, judicatory and denominational official needs to own up to the reality that it is also a grave abuse of power to hold it, and not use it proactively in order to protect the most vulnerable among us. To fail to use our power for good is also a sin.

We are currently blessed with a grant from the Ms. Foundation that has allowed us to create a unique ecumenical learning environment in which nine Lancaster County congregations are working together over a one year period to create “safe churches”. For churches not currently in the funded group, we continue to offer individual safe church consultation and education on a fee for service basis.

We hope to take another group of churches through the process beginning in spring of 2012; if you are interested, please contact me at LCrockett@scclanc.org.

We are working with other Samaritan Centers to help them begin Safe Church programs in their regions, including in Sewickley and Pittsburgh PA, and Charlotte, NC. As part of a Ms. Foundation grant process, we are also working with 14 other organizations across the country to create a national movement to end child sexual abuse. These partners include Enough Abuse at www.enoughabuse.org; Prevent Child Abuse America at www.preventchildabuse.org, both secular organizations with excellent web resources for community education and awareness; and 1in6 at 1in6.org, dedicated to helping male survivors of sexual abuse.

It is time we stop wringing our hands, and take action. Let us use the tragic lessons from Penn State as our catalyst for change…and may our communities of faith be in the forefront of prevention, rather than “in the news” for failure to protect. We’ve been there, and done that. Let’s move forward together to make Isaiah’s vision a reality.


Linda Crockett

Director of Education and Consultation


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