Shaping the Path to Safe Churches

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Seventeen years ago the woman who was to become the first director of the Abuse Prevention Office (now Safe Church Ministries) was given a mandate to start an abuse prevention office for the Christian Reformed Church in North America. This article about the early days of this ministry was adapted from one written by Chris Meehan for CRC News.

Getting Started
Beth Swagman, a social worker with Bethany Christian services at the time, was given a mandate by Synod 1994 to start an abuse prevention office for the Christian Reformed Church in North America. She was asked to address a sinful side of human behavior that, at that time, was rarely recognized, acknowledged, or spoken about. In the years since, that aspect of the dark side of human nature hasn’t changed, but she was able to bring the issue of abuse, in its many forms, out into the light in order that it can, at times, be dealt with.

This has happened through Safe Church teams and claimant advocates who are now in place in areas of the denomination to respond to the needs and concerns of someone who has been abused in church or by a church leader. But those teams and advocates took years to identify, train, and to put into place, and still there are many areas of the CRC that do not have these resources in place.

The Early Days
Although Swagman had experience being part of the CRC group that looked at the need for an abuse office, she wasn’t prepared for all the practical tasks she needed to do. Her first initiative was to form and to distribute to CRC congregations a child safety policy that dealt with the instances and situations in which an adult had inappropriate interaction with a child in church, a church setting, or church-sponsored event. She said. “Some of it kept coming back. There were churches that said they didn’t need this type of policy.”

Initially, it was discouraging. Today, however, attitudes have changed on the issue of child safety policies. There are about 600 churches in the denomination that have child safety policies in place – policies that address issues of hiring and provide guidelines for interaction with children and means by which young people and others can report problems.

In the early months, she also went through all of the files, many of them containing complaints of abuse against a church leader. Sadly, she found many situations in which churches or people who were involved in an abuse allegation simply didn’t want to take action. “There has always been an element of resistance and of denial and that is what makes this work more challenging than in other ministries,” she said. “You are often dealing with disasters of the heart and soul, and you often function alone, which can make this job very difficult to deal with.”

More often than she would prefer, those who perpetrate abuse are not held accountable for what they did. There are many reasons for this, an important one being that individual church councils are unwilling to bring discipline upon leaders of their own church. Given the difficulties of the work, she has been very grateful for her colleagues in Pastor/Church Resources – a specialized ministry of the CRC that also deals with difficult matters – who have reached out and provided support for her, she said.

Making Progress
In recent years, she has deeply appreciated the “courageous members of church councils” and members of Safe Church teams that set up advisory panels to assess the substance of a case, who have “stepped forward to help” her office address issues. Swagman’s office has helped to set up and train these Safe Church teams. “In many classes the Safe Church teams have established local credibility and have made more ground than I ever could have done alone,” she said. In addition, there are the claimant advocates that she has helped to train who stand side by side with a claimant as that person goes through the process of bringing the case before an advisory panel.

Her job included developing resources – videos, brochures, books – that churches can use in all aspects of preventing abuse and responding to it when it occurs. She also developed and distributed materials on domestic abuse, elder abuse, and shaken baby syndrome, to name a few.

Moving Forward

“We must continue to do this,” said Swagman. “This is something you have to put before the church often. Your church may not encounter abuse today, but panic can set it if does happen tomorrow” and the church has nowhere to turn for help. “As a denomination, we need to continue to embrace this ministry. The goal of addressing abuse and having a healthy response to it is important for the life of the church.”

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