Imagine your reaction if you were to hear the news that, during a Sunday service, fire had severely damaged the church you grew up in and many people were injured. Imagine that you also found out that:
- Malfunctioning fire alarms caused a delay in evacuating the nursery and some children suffered from smoke inhalation.
- The fire escape plan hadn’t been revised or tested since recent renovations. Thus, none of the children (and only a few supervisors) were aware of the plan and some visitors relied on an “Emergency Exit” door that actually led to a new storage closet.
- Three of the seven fire extinguishers malfunctioned.
- The council had ignored a Classis memo recommending annual reviews of fire safety and that fire drills be conducted semi-annually.
- The church’s fire insurance coverage had lapsed.
- The church had no plan in place (or resources available) to minister to members who had suffered severe emotional damage or financial loss.
- The fire was started in an unlocked storage room (where flammable janitorial supplies were kept) by a convicted arsonist, who had joined the church as a guest of long-time members. They had informed their elder of his history, but the elder did not inform anyone else.
Think of how upset, even how angry you would be with the council and with the church committee members charged with the care of the congregation. Think of how the damages could have easily been reduced or even prevented if proper policies had been followed.
Now just change the circumstances. What if you found out that several children in your congregation had been sexually abused by a convicted pedophile at church functions and that your church did not have (or did not comply with) a proper Safe Church Policy? And that lack of policy compliance meant that,
- Staff, members and children were not aware of the signs of sexual abuse or how to prevent it.
- The procedures that were in place were outdated. Some violated current law.
- Nobody knew what to do when the abuse incidents were reported. Council was at a loss as to how to investigate matters, who to involve or notify or how to deal with the emotional damages caused to the victim, the family of the abuser and the members of the congregation in general.
- Council had ignored numerous advisories issued by CRCNA Safe Church as well as the resources and training opportunities offered by Safe Church.
- The church’s general liability insurance coverage did not cover the damages alleged in the victims’ lawsuits against the church. Council members and leaders of the youth programs were named personally as co-defendants.
- The abuser had easy access to a storage room wherein the crimes were committed.
Add to this scenario the fact that at least one victim had spoken to a supervisor, but, given the apparent sterling reputation of the alleged abuser, that supervisor chose to ignore the allegation.
The time to figure out the fire prevention and escape plan is not when you’re smelling smoke. And the time to create proper safe church policies and procedures is not when abuse has already happened. As long as over half of all CRC classes remain without a Safe Church Team, I suspect we’ll continue to hear victims’ stories such as the one in The Banner (July 8, 2011). What steps has your church taken to prevent abuse from taking place? What obstacles need to be overcome in your classis to form a Safe Church Team? If your church or classis isn’t prepared, shouldn’t you be angry? Or at least righteously upset?