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Safe Church Educational Practices (Part I): Practices

by Jaime J. Romo, Ed.D.
 Commissioned Minister for Healing and Healthy Environments
Pilgrim UCC, Carlsbad, CA

 “Not Here, Not in Our Church” – A Play in Three Acts (Synopsis)

 The Place:  We’re So Progressive Congregational Church (WSPCC), somewhere in southern California
The Time:  Years ago and recently, all-too-recently
The Cast of Characters:
         
Martin K, recovering addict, former member of WSPCC
          George T, longtime WSPCC youth leader
          The congregation

Act I
Martin, dealing with his addiction and his past by naming his ghosts, returns to “the scene of the crime,” the church where years earlier he, then a troubled and trouble-making youth, had suffered sexual abuse at the hands of the youth group leader.  His pain and anger are palpable, his accusation uncompromising:  why hadn’t they protected him?  Why was George still working with young people?

  

Act II
Months of turbulence follow.  Many doubt Martin’s story (“he was always a difficult boy”), blame him for wreaking havoc, for trying to destroy their church. 

 Act III
The truth comes out, other victims step forward.  George resigns.  Several members leave the church.  Time passes and the congregation returns to “business as usual,” the liberal theology and social justice work of WSPCC.  After all, there’s nothing they can do about something that happened so long ago.

 Nothing?

Not so.

In the following article Jaime Romo offers proven techniques for “doing something” to address this all-too-familiar scenario, to create safe churches.

 

(Known for his work with the Survivor’s Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP), UCC and the Faith Trust Institute, Dr. Romo has long played an active role in education, reconciliation and healing programs in southern California.  His own early experiences with sexual abuse are detailed in the book Crosses:  Portraits of Clergy Abuse by Carmine Galasso. His most recent books are Healing the Sexually Abused Heart: A Workbook for Survivors, Thrivers, and SupportersParents Preventing Abuse and Teachers Preventing Abuse.)

Just over four years ago, hoping to become an active member of the congregation, a registered sex offender came to Pilgrim UCC in Carlsbad, CA.  The reactions to this request, many quite traumatic, led over the next year to the creation of a congregationally-developed Response Team and Safe Church policy.  However, when a Safe Church Policy is created by a few people on behalf of a congregation it results in policies that may not be fully understood or implemented.  In addition, a policy that does not include and support the other aspects of Safe Church/Healing Environments (i.e., competent Response Teams, effective education programs and authentic assessment of congregational health) puts a congregation at risk.

This article discusses our education program, Safeguarding God’s Children (SGC), a Safe Church Policy and practices training program for parents, volunteers and employees which has now been offered ten times – to a total of 66 UCC members, 52 from Pilgrim UCC, 14 from other Southern California Nevada Conference congregations.  The two-part curriculum (Part 1 addressing members and volunteers; Part 2, ministers and staff) also provides assistance in obtaining PUCC community links and resources.

The curriculum incorporates guided reading material with video interviews with experts, victims, parents and perpetrators.   Part one focuses on the signs of abuse in a child, how sexual abuse happens without parents knowing about it and what we can do for a loved one who has experienced sexual abuse. This effective program has created a space for discussion and sharing of personal stories related to trauma, abuse and betrayal that has helped the congregation at large have a language and a culture capable of receiving various painful experiences and providing support for the individuals involved.   In other words, these sessions have empowered us to be a congregation open to and affirming of all members’ experiences.  (Although before the training most participants do not think of these sessions as a valuable part of their individual or shared spiritual journeys, I believe the evidence points to this counter-intuitive conclusion after taking the training.)

Following each session participants completed an evaluation, consistently indicating that the training was useful, the videos powerful and the presentation and facilitation very helpful.   A follow up survey of all participants, distributed in January, 2011, focused on five questions.   I will highlight the answers to one of the questions in this article (first of two), stressing some of what was learned. 

The responses to that first question provide insight into the development of the training and value of an ongoing educational program for congregational members:

How much would you support a congregation-wide training in this material?

  • Everyone should take this ‘cause it can be taken more than once—like every 3 years
  • Yes.  It was good to be aware of how pedophiles plan and act.  It was especially good interaction with other participants.  Also learned some weakness with myself in relation to our policy
  • We, at church, all need to know about safe church policy, and what part we can take in implementing here
  • Yes.  It takes a village.  Every church member should take the class;
  • Yes—everyone needs to think about this issue;

The following responses highlight the growth in both program effectiveness and participant knowledge, awareness and enthusiasm over the years:

2007:

  • I think the Safe Church training is valuable and important, but I think it needs to be approached as something that is important that we routinely and normally do, but not given unusual emphasis so that it is seen as an issue that is an all consuming obsession and a ‘signature’ of Pilgrim.

2008:

  • I think it’s important that everyone become more knowledgeable.  It’s important not only to learn about the general issues, but what specific policies our church has to promote a safe environment for children.
  • I think people would benefit, some not particularly… but I always support the cause of greater awareness on important issues like this.
  • I think we already have been offering the training ‘congregation-wide’, but only some choose to participate.
  • We would say this should be more emphasized for people who have interactions with children. (2 responses)
  • We all need to be aware and trained.  Plus, congregation could get more involved in children’s ministry.

2009:

  • For those who have not experienced sexual abuse and don’t understand, I think it is especially important. 
  • If you are thinking about some mandatory training for everyone, I would oppose it. If you want to require (as opposed to suggest) more volunteer positions to take the training I would support the idea.

2010:

  • It definitely should be discussed at least annually in a Sunday morning Moment of Concern.  We should never forget the lesson we learned which led to our Safe Church Policy.
  • I don’t fully agree with the comments above. The emphasis still seems to be on portraying pedophiles and perpetrators in a black and white fashion, where they are seen as completely evil, corrupt, or undesirable people. I think that the church needs to recognized and acknowledge that yes pedophiles can be very dangerous, very destructive people, but also that pedophiles are  product of a culture and society that the common person takes part in, and works to reproduce each second of our lives. Research from writers like Alice Miller, Gabor Mate, and Kenneth Adams, shows that pedophiles are, by and large, victims of pedophilia themselves. That being said, I would not cooperate in an education effort that doesn’t address the roots of pedophilia in a way that addresses its roots, and how those roots can be addressed.
  • Issues of safety and compassion are valuable and can enlighten others than those working directly with children.
  • We are a diverse group and many of our cars have stickers that support our diversity.  If someone were looking for a target for some reason, we really stick out.  To me, safe church is not only to protect the children from predators, but to be aware of other kinds of predators as well.
  • We all need to be aware and help where necessary.
  • The training also very greatly affected my concern for the lack of participation by other members of the congregation of Pilgrim United Church of Christ.
  • If the statistics are reliable (and I believe they are), then I am filled with a great deal of pain, frustration and even anger that so few people have bothered to attend the training sessions you have offered.  In a congregation the size of Pilgrim with as many young people as we have, and our close working relationship to the pre-school program, we could easily have a child in our midst who has been or is being abused.  Add to that the number of adult/ children who may be sitting in the pews next to us, and it behooves us to strongly recommend to everyone attend at least a basic training to understand child abuse (if we are indeed a compassionate, loving, and caring congregation).  I would greatly support a congregation-wide training a very great deal.
  • I am very pleased that this is part of what Pilgrim has to offer and the work you have done to make it happen.

 

It is clear that this training has consistently engendered a heightened awareness and, in some cases, a commitment to promote healing among and beyond the congregation.  It is not apparent from the data how difficult it was to get members to show up for the training, even with our history of having a registered sex offender show up at our congregation.   We have experienced very uneven participation in the training over the years.  There were two SGC trainings in 2008, with 9 and 5 participants. There were three trainings in 2009, with 14 non-Pilgrim members and 5 PUCC members.  There were four trainings in 2010 with 3, 12, 5 and then 2 participants.  In each year, there was at least one training scheduled for which no one showed up (or many indicated interest and few attended), indicating that we became complacent and were driven to trainings out of fear at the time closest to our experience with the registered sex offender. 

The shift in participation and in tone in 2010 may relate to a few changes:

  • First, at the beginning of the year, the pastor and moderator spoke to new board members about the importance of their participation.

 

  • Secondly, for the first few years I implemented the full curriculum – Part 1 for Parents and Congregations and Part 2 for Ministers – for all participants.  The 3 hour session includes an introduction of my background (Commissioned Ministry, extensive work with survivors, author 3 books on the topic), guidelines for safe participation and background of the larger societal and church history and impact of sexual abuse.  In that context, there wasn’t much time for in depth discussion about the implications of the material for each person and our congregation.  In 2010 I adapted the 3-hour training to maintain Part 1 and used the rest of the time to employ scenarios, discuss participants’ experiences and talk about our congregational history related to abuse prevention and Safe Church Policy.

 

  • Third, by 2010, my role as Commissioned Minister in, for and with the congregation was more highlighted and attention was brought back to our Safe Church policy and practices.  I was more self-authorized to adapt the training to include an experiential learning activity related to authority, boundaries and roles.  For the last training in 2010, I left out the experiential activity in favor of discussions related to the collective unconscious and healthy environments.  This material evolved to become a separate 3 hour training related to the collective unconscious at work in and between boards and committees (often in counter-productive ways) that leave people feeling less safe or valued as members.

Read more in the next edition of Connecting Voices, in which I will discuss two more of the questions.  For additional information or to bring this training to your congregation, please contact me (jr@jaimeromo.com, 760 842-6577) or visit my website: http://jaimeromo.com/.

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