Small churches are often referred to as family churches. In many of them, the vast majority of people have attended church there for years, sometimes for generations. We all know everyone, sometimes too well! This makes this post that much difficult to write.
Churches are to be many things to people, but one of the most basic is that they must be a safe place for people to attend. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. One reads of pastors, church staff, and others in churches who become involved sexually with persons in the church. As a judicatory leader I occasionally have to work with churches dealing with this issue. When it becomes known that a person has been sexually involved with a minor it then becomes a legal matter that has major ramifications for the individuals involved and the church.
The Catholic church has paid millions of dollars in compensation to the victims of sexual abuse and has received a great deal of negative press about its previous efforts to cover up this abuse. Even worse than this is the impact this abuse has had on the victims. What they believed would be a safe place turned out not to be, and someone that people thought should be trusted turned out to abuse that trust. Unfortunately, such abuse is not limited to the Catholic church but occurs in Protestant churches as well.
The church must take steps to ensure that such abuse does not happen. Churches should adopt sexual misconduct and sexual harassment policies that clearly state the behaviors expected of both staff and lay persons in the church. Such policies should state how complaints of this nature should be addressed and guarantee to the one making the complaint that there will be no retaliation taken against anyone making such a complaint. You can find numerous examples of such policies on the Internet that you can use as a template. Church Mutual Insurance Company has a very good booklet that addresses child sexual abuse specifically that would be a good resource for many churches.
Many larger churches require background checks on anyone working with children and youth, but I have found few smaller churches that require such checks. The mindset in these churches is that since everyone knows everybody such checks are unnecessary and demeaning. That mindset needs to change. Sexual predators know that smaller churches tend to be quite happy to have new volunteers and often don't do background checks. Some long-time members might be initially offended if the church sets a policy of doing background checks on everyone serving in the church, but it should be explained that the church wants to protect children not only now but in the future as well. Such concern for the well-being of children should alleviate any concerns these long-time members might have.
Any allegation must be taken seriously and investigated immediately. The policies your church established should describe how such investigations will happen and who will lead them. It is critical that confidentially be maintained as much as possible. However, when behavior falls within the legal abuse-reporting guidelines such reports must be made.
This is a very complex subject and certainly cannot be covered with a blog post. My concern today is only that too many smaller churches assume nothing like this will occur in their churches, and they have not developed any kind of policies or plans for how to prevent such abuse or how to address it if it does occur. There are many resources out there to help your church develop such policies, and any final document you draft should be looked at by your attorney and insurance agent. They can be of great assistance in developing these policies.
Unfortunately, your church can do everything right and still not guarantee that abuse will not happen. Nevertheless, it's critical that every church make the effort to prevent such abuse and harassment from occurring. Our churches must be safe places for people to gather and worship God together. Let's do everything we can do to make that happen.