In our last post we looked at what faith communities need to know and think about regarding sexual abuse. In this post we will look at very specific behaviors churches/ministries can take to reduce the actual risk of sexual abuse occurring in their buildings and programs.
- Do the hard work of developing policies
Many churches or youth and children ministries already have policies on how to address abuse when it occurs. It would be prudent to develop an abuse prevention policy as well. For example, have a 2-1 adult-child ratio at all times would be a safer practice that allowing 1-on-1 adult to child ratio. If a child needs spiritual counseling or is in a mentoring relationship with an adult, restricting physical touch to only public spaces or simply minimizing (side hug vs. full frontal, prolonged hug) is also a best practice.
- Identify and question confusing behaviors
This will take an environmental curator, who is skilled at communication, to shape the culture and make it safe and acceptable to talk about confusing or uncomfortable behaviors. Nobody wants to accuse someone of sexual abuse but having a climate that identifies behavior that could potentially be misconstrued as inappropriate is a good starting point.
- Don’t wait! Address inappropriate behaviors
Speaking up about your concerns is not the same as accusing someone of sexual abuse and could serve to keep unhealthy or dangerous behaviors from occurring in the first place. The very nature of prevention is to act before the illegal sexual behavior occurs. Drawing a boundary of safe and appropriate behavior early is the important work of prevention. Don’t wait until the line is crossed, be proactive.
- No hide and seek
When planning for child/youth space, we often look at it through the lens of the child or physical harm to the child. We should also be looking at our physical spaces through the lens of a potential perpetrator; where are there blind spots, hiding spaces where abuse might occur. Be mindful of the activities you play, such as; hide and seek, sardines, etc. Consider adding windows to interior walls for safer viewing and higher levels of accountability.
- Plan for messy people
The church is and should be a place of restoration and reconciliation. People who have sexually abuse others in the past often look to faith and religion as a means of overcoming their problem. What are your protocol for how they can navigate your community? Are certain areas off limits? What legal restrictions do they have? Who is meeting with the abuser for counseling and accountability? Thinking this through ahead of time will give you the opportunity to be proactive and decrease the likelihood of unwanted difficulties.
In our next post we will look at best practices for responding to a sexual abuse crisis should it happen in your church/program.