The PennState tragedy where an assistant football coach abused young boys and others who knew or suspected, didn’t do enough to stop it, is just one more reminder of the damage that can be done to kids or teens. So what can we do to prevent this from happening in our youth ministry? What can we do to make sure we’re keeping students safe in ministry?
I also came across this post titled The Penn State Child Abuse Tragedy…20 Safeguards to Keep It From Happening In Your Ministry. In it, the author gives 20 things a church should do to prevent abuse like this from happing in children or youth ministry. Aside from some good advice like doing solid background checks, he suggests things like:
- Only allow women to change diapers
- Don’t allow men to hold children on their laps
- Be careful hugging children, sideways hugs only
- Don’t zip up children’s pants, let their parents do this
My problem is that I don’t think detailed safeguards like this will work. On the contrary, I think they will do more harm than good, because they will prevent ‘good’ volunteers from developing a loving relationship with kids. I believe the solution to keeping our kids and teens safe isn’t in rules alone, it’s also in prayer, communication and accountability.
Walt Mueller wrote a number of posts about the PennState case, stressing how calculating, conniving and convincing these predators are. They can be so skillful at lying and masquerading, that their families and friends never had a clue and sometimes even keep defending them after their arrest.
I agree with Walt Muller on how smart these predators are. Do we really think rules like these are going to prevent them from abusing kids? Sure, they will make it harder, but at the cost of what? And why do we assume only men are the predators? Do we need another big scandal before we realize women may statistically be less inclined to commit sexual crimes, but still are a risk as well?
We shouldn’t trust rules alone for keeping students safe. Our ‘system’ should be based on a trust in God. Sure, having common sense rules is good practice, as is doing background checks and checking references. But we shouldn’t stop there, we should focus on prayer, communication, and accountability, as these are the tools God has given us to keep our kids safe:
Make the safety of kids and teens an item on each and every prayer list. God is our Protector, so we need to ask for His protection for our kids first. But also pray for wisdom, for guidance and for being able to recognize any warnings and signs. Ask the Holy Spirit to help you in this.
Walt Mueller wrote it and I couldn’t agree more: let’s talk about sex. We need to talk about sex with parents, kids, teens and everyone involved in ministry. It may make us uncomfortable, it may make us mad that it’s necessary, it may make us ashamed, but we still need to do it. Sex is the single biggest threat to our kids and we can’t ignore it till it goes away, because it won’t. I am convinced that we should keep teaching sex as God has intended it. Only then will kids and teens know there’s something wrong when they experience it in a different way.
Teach parents about sexual abuse
We need to take the time to teach parents the signals of sexual abuse. Research has shown what signs children can give when something has happened to them, like a sudden change in behavior, wetting their bed, nightmares, etc. Parents should know what to look for, to be on their guard.
Talk to parents about this, not just once but at least once per season. Teach them, encourage them to check with their kids regularly if anything has happened. Show them how to help their child set up boundaries and say ‘no’.
Also encourage parents to come to you or a designated person if they have any questions. If their child has come home from a ministry activity and is acting out of the ordinary for instance, have them call you to check if anything happened.
Teach kids and teens about sexual abuse
We also need to teach our kids and teens what is ‘normal’ behavior and what isn’t. Yes, the parents have a primary responsibility in this, but we can’t leave it at that. In a safe, non-threatening way, without giving them more information that they can handle, we need to make kids aware of their ownership over their body. We need to teach them again and again that no matter what anyone says, certain things are not okay. We need to teach them that it’s okay to say ‘no’ when they don’t like what someone is doing to them. We need to make sure they know they can trust us, that they can come to us if anything happens.
Personally, I think an accountability system is a good way to protect kids and teens in ministry. Make it mandatory that each volunteer or leader has an accountability partner and that they have to be in touch in person at least once a week. Then have them ask each other tough questions.
You see, I believe that no matter how good predators are at hiding things, God’s Spirit can help us detect warning signs nonetheless. I know people can fake a whole lot, I know history has shown us this. But hasn’t history also taught us that the people who got away with stuff for a long time were people who weren’t held accountable anymore? Who had gotten so big, so respected, so respected, that no one questioned them anymore?
I believe that asking the tough questions time and again and refusing people to not give an answer, will bring sin to the surface. Because if I’m talking face to face with someone, asking how he or she is doing spiritually and at the same time asking the Holy Spirit to help me discern their answer, how much can they get away with? There will be signs, we just have to act on them, keep digging until we find out.
And that’s where it gets hard, because doing that to someone else also means allowing them to do the same with me. And while we may not be hiding predator-like sins, there sure is a lot of blackness in us that we’d rather keep hidden.
Ultimately, it’s all about bringing what’s inside of us into the light and not letting up until others do the same.
Set up a early warning system
There should be a good system in place for reporting any suspicions as part of the accountability system. This system should be known to everyone involved, including parents, so it needs to be explained a couple of times each season. And it should be an ‘early-warning-system’. Let people report suspicions they have, a gut feeling. Don’t make them wait until they have actually seen something or know something for sure. Human intuition is a faulty method, but it can be eerily accurate sometimes.
Yes, with an early warning system you run the risk of false accusations and that’s a real downside, but let’s face it: it’s a reasonable price to pay for protecting the kids. When in doubt, always err on the safe side of cautious.
Always put the victims first
‘He is such a nice guy, he could never do this’. It’s a very common statement after someone has been arrested for sexual abuse or something of the kind. And it’s sentiments like that that keep people from reporting incidents, from believing victims, from doing anything. The belief that someone isn’t capable of doing something bad may be the biggest problem in preventing (more) abuse.
You have to put the victims first. And that means you can’t trust anyone to be above certain behavior or sins. No matter who it is that’s being accused of abuse, you have to put the victim first. It’s not jour job to determine guilt, that’s up to the authorities. It’s your job to protect the victim and that means taking action, regardless of who the accused is.
That’s the attitude we should have with our accountability partner. We should love each other, but keep a healthy ‘distrust’ towards each other’s human nature at the same time.
It’s become a bit of a long post, but this is what I needed to say. What do you think, how can we protect our kids and teens in ministry?
Tip: Matthew Murphy wrote a good post covering the formal and legal lessons of the PennState case (from the US point of view at least, be sure to check the laws in your own country!), for instance the ‘designated agent clause’.