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  • There are some topics I wish we didn’t have to address - child abuse in faith communities is one of them.  Like many, I hate to think that those that say they follow God’s teachings and desire to live in holiness and worship are choosing to indulge in sinful, lustful desires that rob the innocence of children. However what I do appreciate hearing is how faith communities are striving to create safe places for past offenders and children. 

    During the month of March, we are dedicating some of our resources and training to assist our many faith-based client organizations in their journey to raise the bar on protection and to make their faith communities safe for everyone.

    In the early days of Plan to Protect®, I had a conversation with a well-respected child abuse advocate, who had dedicated 30 years of her career to combatting child abuse and developing prevention strategies for different sectors including sporting and education.  Over coffee, she said to me, “I work with every volunteer sector but not the church … the church is naïve when it comes to child abuse, which has made them extremely vulnerable.  It is no surprise that we read in the headlines of newspapers that another youth leader or member of the clergy has abused a child.” 

    Churches and the faith community may have been rightly criticized so in the past, but after 20 years, we can no longer say this!  During the past 20 years, many churches and faith communities have risen to the challenge.  Each year we see the number of churches, synagogues, mosques and faith communities who are striving for a high standard of protection continuing to increase. 

    As we celebrate our 20th year of Plan to Protect®, I am extremely grateful to the churches that took the initiative in the mid 90’s to develop a protection plan for children, youth and those that work with them.  Similar to many other social justice initiatives throughout history (for example: the foster care system, education, higher education, and some hospitals) Plan to Protect® was originally written from a faith perspective. 

    Over coffee, my well-respected colleague was surprised to see the in-roads Plan to Protect® has had in faith communities.  Today, faith institutions including churches, parishes, synagogues, and mosques are responding to the need to protect the vulnerable in which they serve.  Our well-attended certification program for Administrators and Trainers has been taken by thousands of faith communities across North America.

    It is exciting to see a variety of different faith communities with different beliefs come together with one common goal – protecting the vulnerable.  These different faith communities face a similar challenge however.  They desire to protect children, youth and vulnerable adults but they also desire to provide a safe haven for everyone who desires to grow in their faith, find community and worship as they choose, regardless of their past.

    Schools, camps, daycares, and sporting leagues can readily prohibit individuals that have a history of abuse from being on their property and participating in their activities.  But, faith institutions desire to be a place of reconciliation and healing for the abuser, while at the same time they desire to provide a safe place for children, youth, individuals with disabilities, vulnerable adults and the elderly.  Some may ask, is this even possible? 

    Can faith communities show grace and welcome while still being safe?

    YES! However, it will take discernment, leadership and an unwavering commitment to not compromise on the protection of those that are vulnerable. 

    We believe faith communities can be a place of welcome, forgiveness and healing.  However, we also take a very hard stance that those individuals who have been convicted or suspected of crimes against children and youth, or violent crimes, will never be placed in a position of trust or have access to the vulnerable sector. 

    I often hear the question, “Melodie, are we not to forgive the perpetrator?” My response, “Yes we are to forgive, we are to be hospitable and welcoming and introduce them to a God who forgives.  However, there are still consequences for their past choices and behaviour.  We welcome them into our midst and community, but we restrict access to our children, youth, and vulnerable adults.  That means they will not volunteer or work among them, they will not have access to restricted areas of the building where child and youth programs are held, and they will be restricted from developing close friendships and relationships during church organized programs and events, i.e. small groups, camps, retreats, etc.”

    I refuse to negotiate on this area – NO COMPROMISE!  Faith community leaders need to take greater precautions if someone is known or suspected to have abused children.

    We recommend faith communities enter into a conditional agreement with individuals that disclose that they have either abused or been convicted of a crime against a child or young person.  This conditional covenant states the parameters while they are on the premises or attending a faith communities’ sponsored activity.  Don’t let your guard down, rather stay on top of holding individuals accountable for their actions and interactions.  We have recently added a sample Offender’s Covenant to Plan to Protect® (adapted from Smart Justice by Diane Roblin-Lee), which is now available on the Member Section of our website and available in our customized policies. Having an Offender’s Covenant in place provides a safe environment for the individual who is striving to be reconciled to their faith community.  If they break this agreement, they should have access restricted to that faith community until they can demonstrate they have truly been reformed. 

    Faith communities can also provide ministries of restorative justice.  The Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) in Canada, for example, has taken a leading role in this initiative by helping individuals and churches find healthy ways to deal with harm and conflict, as well as respond to and prevent violence and sexual abuse.

    Restorative justice is an approach to justice that focuses on the needs of the victims and the offenders, as well as the involved community. Restorative justice contrasts to more punitive approaches where the primary aim is to punish the offender or satisfy abstract legal principles.

    Victims take an active role in the process. Meanwhile, offenders are encouraged to take responsibility for their actions, "to [begin to] repair the harm they've done—by apologizing, returning stolen money, or community service".[1]

    This restorative justice approach aims to help the offender avoid future offences. The approach is based on a theory of justice that considers crime and wrongdoing to be an offence against an individual or community, rather than the State.[2] Restorative justice that fosters dialogue between victim and offender shows the highest rates of victim satisfaction and offender accountability.[3]

    The MCC restorative justice programs include: 

    • Supporting healing processes through biblical reflection.
    • Supporting families and churches dealing with pornography, sexual abuse, and domestic violence
    • Providing Circles of Support and Accountability: Volunteers meet with individuals with sexual offending histories, helping them transition back into communities
    • Prison visitation and reintegration initiatives: Support individuals during incarceration and as they return to the community
    • Providing resources and tools of support[4]

    There is one element of Restorative Justice that is often overlooked however.  Providing victim-survivors an opportunity to take an active role in the process, empowering them to speak to what makes them feel unsafe, or triggers memories of abuse is just as critical.

    Don’t overlook the value of abuse prevention and protection within your communities of faith.  Too often I hear organizations say Plan to Protect® is something “we must do” in order to do ministry. This is about more than policies and procedures! At Plan to Protect® we believe protecting those who are vulnerable is something “we get to do,” something “we get to be a part of.” Our philosophy at Plan to Protect® is that all of your efforts are a ministry in itself.  We believe that it is a ministry of protection to the vulnerable sector, a ministry of demonstrating duty of care to your staff and volunteers, a ministry of care to parents and family members, a ministry of grace and welcome to the offender, a ministry of empowering and healing for victim-survivors, and a ministry of accountability and integrity.  We get to be a part of protecting and caring for those who are vulnerable. We get to be a part of a ministry that brings hope, healing, grace and welcome to our communities of faith.

    [1] "A New Kind of Criminal Justice", Parade, October 25, 2009, p. 6.
    [2] Price, Marty (2000). "Personalizing Crime". Dispute Resolution Magazine 7 (1): 8–11.
    [3] Lawrence W Sherman and Heather Strang (2007). "Restorative Justice: The Evidence" (PDF). University of Pennsylvania.
    [4] http://mcccanada.ca/learn/what/restorative-justice

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