Abuse Prevention: "We're Halfway There"

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by Sophie Vandenberg

Half of the Christian Reformed Church’s 1,100 congregations now have a Child Safety Policy in place. And approximately half of the 47 classes (regional groups of churches) have Safe Church Teams in place.

“I’m encouraged that we’re halfway there,” said Beth Swagman, director of the CRC’s Abuse Prevention office.

A curious Canadian-American difference is noticeable. All 12 Canadian classes have Safe Church Teams in place, but only one-third of U.S. classes do. Swagman says the reasons for that are unclear.

The office of Abuse Prevention was established in 1994 after a study by the Calvin College Center for Social Research discovered that 28 percent of the adult population of the CRC had been physically, sexually, or emotionally abused. The statistics mirrored those in the general population.

The CRC has since been a leader in the area of abuse prevention. “We were out of the gate fast. Our denomination was one of the first to have Child Safety Policies. Still, you wish, you pray, you could be further,” said Swagman.

Regional Safe Church Teams advise, educate, and support churches regarding issues of abuse. One of the mandates of the teams is to offer an advisory panel process when a church leader is charged with misconduct.

Swagman reports that while the panel process is working, there is still, at times, a problem with church leadership failing to follow the Church Order of the CRC regarding discipline of officebearers who have admitted to or been adjudicated guilty of misconduct.

Some churches are coming up with creative ways to achieve abuse policy compliance. Community of Matilda Township (Dixon’s Corners) CRC, in Brinston, Ontario, recently ran a very effective police-check campaign over three days. All church members who work with the congregation’s youths had three opportunities to bring required forms and identification to the church for collection. Council members were also a part of the police check, leading by example.

Wes Douma, Discipleship Ministry Chair for the church, called the campaign a matter of due diligence. “We had 99.9 percent compliance. It went very smoothly,” he said.

Kathryn Waldyke, co-chair of Classis Chicago South’s Safe Church Team, said that while initially teams such as hers focused on abuse response, the emphasis has now shifted to abuse prevention.

Looking to the future, she said she hopes that synod (the CRC’s annual leadership meeting) will mandate that every classis have a Safe Church Team. “I hope every church has a rep [on the team] and that all have policies in place,” she said.

A review of synodical decisions going back to 1997 reveals that synod has repeatedly “urged” and “encouraged” churches and classes to do just that.

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