How We Fail to Create Safe Churches

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by Mary Vander Vennen

About 25 years ago reports began to surface about physical, emotional, and sexual abuse perpetrated by members and even leaders in the Christian Reformed Church. Synod appointed a committee to study the matter. The committee hired social researchers to conduct a professional survey of the extent of abuse within the denomination. The research showed that abuse did occur within the denomination, and it occurred to approximately the same extent as in the general society.

Upon receiving that report, Synod appointed another committee to recommend how the CRC should respond to this distressing situation.

One of that committee’s recommendations was that the CRC set up and maintain an Office of Abuse Prevention with a full-time director. Its mandate was to provide educational resources, develop policies and procedures, and conduct training designed to reduce the risk of abuse in churches and to respond with justice and compassion when abuse has occurred.

Synod adopted that recommendation, and Beth Swagman was appointed as full-time director. She has served with distinction for nearly 15 years. I was a member of both of the synod committees and continue to serve on the Office of Abuse Prevention’s advisory committee.

Many things have been accomplished. Awareness of the problem of abuse within churches has certainly increased. Many churches have adopted safe-church policies and procedures regarding nursery, Sunday school, children’s ministries, and youth ministries to safeguard young people under the care of the church. Some churches have observed the semi-annual “Abuse Awareness Sunday” with appropriate liturgies, sermons, and church bulletin inserts. Many churches require police checks of staff, volunteers, and even church council members. There have been attempts to educate congregations and members about the potential for abuse, as well as attempts to promote healthier relationships between people.

But serious gaps remain.
Each classis has been asked by synod to form a Safe Church Team to educate church members about abuse prevention and to respond to allegations of sexual abuse by a church leader. Each team usually consists of people who have professional expertise in some aspect of the patterns of sexual and physical abuse. Each team has been trained in the specific procedures to follow when an allegation of sexual abuse is brought against a church leader, who in 80 percent of the charges brought thus far has been a pastor. These teams conduct fact-finding regarding the allegation while maintaining the confidentiality of both the alleged victim and the alleged offender.

Sadly, only 20 of the 47 classes in the denomination have formed such a team.

When an allegation of abuse is made, an advisory panel from the Safe Church Team is formed to hear from the alleged victim and the alleged offender. If the alleged offender admits or confesses to misconduct or the panel finds misconduct under a standard of probability and gravity, then the panel reports its findings to the executive committee and council of the alleged offender’s church.

But too often the panel’s report has been denied or discounted by the committee or council, with little or no consequence to the offender.

In our system of church government, the council has the final authority for the local church. Of the more than 20 cases in which an advisory panel has been convened to deal with an allegation of abuse, rarely has an offender faced consequences from the local church council, even when the offense has occurred over time with a minor. The usual excuses given include, “She asked for it,” “It was consensual,” “It was a one-time slip.” The excuses are accepted; the church leader is “forgiven” and carries on—almost always to offend again.

The victim is usually not interested in a lawsuit; coming forward and asking the denomination for help is difficult enough. When the victim sees justice denied and the church acting only in the interest of the offender, she or he usually leaves the church.

And the panel? They have spent hours on a difficult task, heard testimony from both the alleged victim and the alleged offender, and have seen their work disregarded, even when the offender has acknowledged his offense.

What is wrong here? For one thing, too many church councils assume that sexual offences by pastors or other leaders do not affect the broader denomination. Sometimes we have been so worried about maintaining confidentiality that we have not allowed necessary information to be shared beyond the local council.

But secrecy and confidentiality are not the same thing.

Surely a sexual offense by a pastor is an abuse of office that affects more than the victim. It becomes a hindrance to the appropriate exercise of his (so far it has always been “his”) office in all areas. It is an abuse of power, a behavioral characteristic that carries on to any future congregations or forms of service he may engage in. It is a stain on the body of Christ. It should not be a secret to be kept for his protection or for the convenience of the council.

So what can we do to make things better? When the advisory panel’s work is presented to the council, the church visitors from classis or representatives from a neighboring church council should be present so that the information is not contained totally within that council. I believe that if the panel’s report is ignored or rejected, the panel must appeal to classis at a meeting with the synodical deputies present. It should not be up to the victim to pursue an appeal to classis. And the ministerial credentials of the pastor, if he is not deposed, should contain an account of the judgment against him.

Through the Office of Abuse Prevention, the Christian Reformed Church has developed effective policies for preventing abuse and for dealing with allegations of abuse. Our leaders, classes, and church councils need to wake up to their responsibility to use them.

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