Safeguarding God’s Children

September 11, 2006

I recently had to attend the Episcopal Church’s class on sexual predator awareness.  I have attended it before, but thanks to my acute organizational skills I was not able to find my certificate proving such so I had to attend again as a part of my seminary experience.

For those of you not familiar, it consists of a couple of videos produced by the church’s insurance group entitled Safeguarding God’s Children.  There is some discussion, and then you are considered fit to be a safe minister to children (assuming you have the requisite background checks, etc.).

I was struck by the difference in the reception of the program by the audience in my home diocese of LA and the audience here in Austin.

Granted, this is a scary topic to talk about.

Scary topics are always hard to deal with.  It is hard to ensure that responses to scary topics come not out of fear, reaction, or self-preservation, but out of love and compassion and what I call “prudent prevention”.

There is a quote in the video that sums up my experience of this program.  In it, one of the priests talking says that he is often accused of “taking the heart out of ministry.”  Bingo.

Its not that I think we don’t need to be careful.  I think we do.  But we also need to be careful that we don’t fall into the trap of setting rules that lose the intent of what we are trying to accomplish.  I’ve heard stories of dioceses where parishioners are only allowed to see priests 2 or 3 times for pastoral counseling and then must see someone else for fear of being perceived as having something inappropriate contact.  I can tell you that if I was only allowed to see my priest two or three times at home then I would never have gotten far enough in my journey to accept my call.  God can’t work when people set arbitrary limits.

Better to raise awareness and allow us all, as a community, to look out for one another and understand that it is ok to talk about these things, to question one another, and to bring these issues into the open.  Stopping ministry from happening because of the fear of abuse is a little like changing our lives because of the fear of terrorism.  If we change our lives because we are scared that the terrorists might do something, the terrorists have really won, haven’t they?  And here we are, lining up for hours because we can’t take toothpaste on the plane, when we all know deep in our hearts that terrorists can get through security if they are really determined.  Just like child molesters can find a way to get to children if they are really determined.  We can make it harder, but at what expense?  How many events are we preventing, and at what cost?

Again, don’t get me wrong.  I’m not saying do nothing.  I’m just saying there is a limit.  Increased awareness is the best tool we have.  Background checks are great.  Showing the video to the entire congregation once a year with discussion would be a wonderful thing.  A semi-annual review of programs for safety would be superb.

But I don’t want a window on my priest’s door.  Maybe I want privacy when I talk to my priest.  I don’t want my priest to have to report to somebody else the nature of our private conversations.  As a priest, I’m going to use judgement when ministering, and if a kid needs a hug I’m going to give a hug- not a pat on the shoulder.  Because I don’t care what somebody else may think – if someone accuses me of something because I give a hug- well I guess I’ll have to deal with it.  Self-preservation isn’t my first thought.  I am not going into ministry to be in a safe place.  Jesus didn’t go into ministry to be in a safe place.  Jesus went into ministry to create safe places by putting himself at risk.  When I am in ministry I may be called to do the same.

This video is put on by the insurance board of the church.  That’s self-preservation.  That’s thinking safe.  There’s some good for the community there, but at an individual level some harm can come if a minister cannot give what is needed on an individual pastoral level.  We cannot go overboard in our controls in an effort to respond to a threat.

To do so would be a little bit like, well…  responding to an attack on our soil by attacking a totally unrelated country which doesn’t have anything to do with it, doesn’t have any means to harm us, is a pronounced enemy of the organization who attacked us, and… well, you get the point.  Mob rule isn’t pretty.  We can think we’re justified when we’re just scared and angry.  What would Jesus think if somebody told him, “Wait – you can perform healing, but just don’t touch the people you’re going to heal?”

j

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4 Responses to “Safeguarding God’s Children”

  1. D Hamilton Says:

    You may put yourself at risk …..but it isn’t about you. It is about protecting our most defenseless from predators. For children, it is about having open doors, and clear limits of contact, and multiple leaders & adults present. It is also about recognizing that teens’ brains have yet to gel and are easily taken advantage of by someone they respect. Therefore, organizationally you must establish the habit of proper behavior and as a leader check, check, and recheck until it is second nature for all; then continue to check.

    “God can’t work when people set arbitrary limits.” – Why do you limit God? He certainly can work under any limits just a certainly as the devil can work when you don’t set these limits.

    My abuser was a seminarian who did earn his collar, but has since been defrocked and is a registered sex offender.

  2. Jeff Says:

    D –

    That must have been very painful. I’m sorry that you experienced that.

    I am a father of two small children. The videos in Safeguarding God’s Children brought me to tears. The thought of someone doing that to my kids is– unthinkable. 

    There are many things which happen which require healing.  I’m not saying that they are comparable; just calling them into focus for examination.  I’m sorry that people spiritually abused me and called me abominable just for being who I am.  I do not call for the explusion of orthodox Christians to ensure this is eradicated from the church.  I’m sorry that alcoholics have to be faced with the smell of the wine as the cup passes in front of them when the Eucharist passes.  I do not call for the elimination of wine from the Eucharist.  I’m sorry that people slip and fall inside church buildings.  I do not call for people to stop walking in church for fear they may slip and fall.

    Again, I am not equating child abuse with these things, but bringing them into focus because every threat, risk, and issue has an appropriate level of response.  For the church to try and correct the wrong done to you by limiting the healing that it can offer others is not the answer, in my view.  Some dioceses limit ministry because of this issue in ways that would have prevented me from healing from the scars I was dealt in my life.

    Let’s get specific. Some dioceses say that priests may only pastor to a specific person for no more than 3 sessions before they must be referred to an outside party. That would not have worked for me. Some dioceses say that priests need windows on their doors. I would not have been able to completely open up to my priest with people walking by and watching us talk.

    Awareness is a good thing. There are some things we need to change. But to say that one thing is good for all is not appropriate. It is not good for me to have a door on the window of my priest’s door. It may be good for you to have a window on your priests door based on your experience, but it makes me uncomfortable. It may be good for you to limit your exposure to the same priest in pastoral care sessions to 2 or 3 visits, but I cannot get the depth of spiritual guidance that I need in those visits.

    We are back to the many faces of Jesus. It sounds like you have had a terrible, terrible experience. It sounds like you need healing from that. But to assume that everyone else needs a certain kind of protection in a certain kind of way– the way you did– is to make an error of projection. Projecting our own experiences and beliefs on others simply isn’t healthy.

    In the profession of ministry we will always have to use judgement. We can establish some standards to reduce the level of judgement necessary. We can raise awareness to ensure that our judgement is held accountable by the community to a higher degree than it has been in the past, helping to ensure that we are more likely to prevent undesirable behavior. But it is simply unrealistic to believe that any set of standards can be put in place to eliminate all undesirables without also stopping ministry.

    It is just like any threat. You cannot stop terrorism without also eliminating freedom, for example. The problem- the test for us as Christians– lies in how we are able to manage the balance; the tension between the threat and the solution. Do we respond in fear, rushing to lock every door, close down every possible loophole until all that is left is a shell of a ministry? Or do we respond with prudent prevention, neither ignoring the facts before us nor rushing into a reactionary mob rule reaction which eliminates the core of the very thing we hold dear to our hearts: the Gospel message of our lord Jesus Christ- to love God with all of our being, and to love our neighbor as ourselves.

    j

  3. D Hamilton Says:

    As a pastor, you will have to define the atmosphere in your church and with your congregation. But you will be the Shepard and under your protection will the lambs of your flock will be held.

    These children are temping to wolves, and a church environment is a trusting place where we embrace all as children of God. Your mission will be to create a safe haven for your lambs and keep the wolves of the devil frustrated. Safeguarding God’s Children gives you a good outline, but Father Jeff will have to set the example and ensure that the safe haven is maintained by example, review, and reinforcement. Your challenge is to keep this omnipresent but not stifling. Failure is unthinkable in its consequences.

    Now as for adults, rules are certainly different, but you are still their Shepard and you must establish standards for yourself, your staff, and assisting clergy. But adults have a freedom and understanding children don’t – and the risks you might take will only be limited by the depth of your liability insurance.

    Specifically, what does this mean for me in my ministries?
    – I am never alone with a child – no one on one acolyte training
    – I do not transport children without one of my girls or a family member along for the ride
    – I wear out shoulders with close handed nudges rather than hugs
    – Doors remain open when children are present and vesting

  4. Jeff Says:

    That all sounds reasonable to me.

    It just seems that there are those– and you do not sound like one of them– that want to try and go overboard.

    The sheep that wanders from the flock needs something different from the others, and to assume that all sheep need the same treatment is all I’m saying is questionable.

    Of course there are standards. But to say that the standards are univeral is not appropriate in my view.

    I particularly agree with your assessment that the pastor must use judgement in examining the context and culture of the congregation to determine the best standards to apply for the parish.

    j


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