The widening sex abuse scandal at Penn State University, centered around former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky’s arrest on charges of sexually abusing eight boys over a period of 15 years, has prompted many in the Christian community to consider steps that could be taken to safe guard and protect children.
Dr. Thom Rainer, who is president and CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources, an arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, addressed pastors, youth leaders, and lay leaders in a post published on his website Thursday that outlined five “absolutely necessary steps that will avoid problems before they occur” while protecting children from sexual predators.
Rainer who is an avid football fan, expressed disappointment that the allegations of sexual improprieties were not taken beyond the narrow oversight of college officials:
“The university’s sexual abuse scandal has saddened and angered me, because it is everyone’s job to protect our children.”
Rainer continued: “In Coach Joe Paterno’s case, he reported the alleged abuse to his ‘chain of command,’ and apparently absolved himself of responsibility. But those to whom he reported apparently chose to protect their university and themselves rather than the child involved. If that is the case, it's wrong – and something churches must avoid.”
Rainer believes the ultimate consideration should be toward protecting children and not protecting institutional members:
“It doesn’t take a football fanatic or a genius to figure out the right thing to do – in all cases – is to protect our children.”
He added, “The right response is to intervene by force at the moment, and with the police immediately thereafter.”
In an interview with The Christian Post, LifeWay Research President Ed Stetzer placed high regard on the protection of children:
“The issue is essential because often predators are attracted to churches. They are places that are supposed to be safe so that is where predators go, we must be aware. We must create systems to protect children and we must protect future victims by reporting current accusations.”
The notion of institutions adjudicating issues of sexual abuse autonomously is viewed as unwise.
“Protecting children is so important that we have to resist the idea of ‘let's address this ourselves.’ That's illegal and it's also unwise,” Stetzer explained.
Penn State has fired legendary hall of fame coach Joe Paterno along with its president Graham Spanier over their inability to report Sandusky after reports of his behavior became known.
Rainer’s recommendations to safeguard against sexual abuse are as follows:
1. Conduct a background check on every current and future worker. LifeWay partners with BackgroundChecks.com to offer this service. Never involve someone in ministry without a background check.
“Of all the crimes against children in the U.S. every year, thousands will occur within the walls of churches and youth centers,” said Matthew Robbins with BackgroundChecks.com. “With crime and abuse at an all-time high, churches must develop hiring programs that work to prevent dangerous situations before they occur.”
2. Implement a 6 months/2 people rule. This simple policy states that anyone working with children or youth must be an active member of your fellowship for at least six months before assuming a position of leadership, and that there will be at least two adults in the room with minors at all times. This rule extends outside the walls of where you hold your services, to include no unescorted car rides home. As inconvenient and radical as this approach may sound, these two guidelines show predators your children are not easy targets at your church.
3. Conduct regular mandatory staff and volunteer training. Bring in experts to educate you and your workers about safety “to-dos” and how to recognize the signs of a predator. Almost every denomination has resources available to help fight the scourge of sexual predators
4. Require all volunteers to submit an application to serve. This process may seem like a formality, but a proper workflow ensures that the right staff sees every application before placing the responsibility and safety of our children into someone else’s hands. This simple step should be followed up with a face-to-face interview. Churches hold auditions for their worship team. Why not do so for your children’s ministry volunteers?
5. Pray for your workers. Pray for your children. And, pray God will provide the right people.
No church, no ministry, and no denomination is exempt from the risk of predators seeking to harm those who are most vulnerable. It’s our responsibility as leaders to decide foremost to protect our children.
Rainer concluded with a summary to church leaders, “So, let your first impulse be to protect children, not reputation. When that is the priority, all else is secondary. Penn State missed that and more children suffered. Make sure your church never makes the same mistake.”