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Safe Church Educational Practices (Part II): Impact

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.

 

Note:  In Part 1 of Safe Church Educational Practices,  Dr. Romo presented data from a 4 year review of the Safeguarding God’s Children curriculum at Pilgrim UCC in Carlsbad, focusing on the question, “How much would you support a congregation-wide training in this material?” The data reported suggest that the program has been an effective resource which created a space for discussion and sharing of personal stories related to trauma, abuse, and betrayal that helped the congregation acquire a language in which to receive painful experiences and a culture with which to provide support for those sharing them.   In short, most participants thought everyone in the congregation should participate in the training.

 

In this article I focus on two of the other survey questions (responses shown sequentially from 2007 through 2010):

“To what degree do you think that Pilgrim UCC is a safe church and healthy environment?”

  • I think Pilgrim has been proactive in addressing this issue – by providing education and policies.  However, I feel that the policies are not well known, or perhaps not often discussed or publicized.  For example, everyone, not just those directly working with children, should know about specific policies (like, minimum two adults when working with children, no one on one contact between adults and children w/o others around, etc).  I haven’t taken the training since the first session, so perhaps I need to retake the class to reacquaint myself with the policies.
  • The addition of safe church policies, especially for the Sunday School age group has been very beneficial in decreasing concern, as well as potential opportunity for ‘wrong doing.’
  • “A great deal” to the extent that we maintain awareness of the issue.  With everything else that’s going on, it’s easy for the awareness to fade over time; however, it’s hopeful that there are those who are working to keep this awareness fresh.
  • I think Pilgrim UCC is both a very safe and healthy environment.
  • The general consciousness and closeness of our church contributes to this as well as this program.
  • As long as we follow our policy, we are quite safe.
  • Sorry to say there will always be issues we are not aware of, or prepared for, but anything that will add to my (our) awareness is good.
  • I think our Policy goes a long way in making our church safe. The way that we now require for there to be two adults present in a Sunday school teaching is a great example. I am glad that this policy is in place and in practice. More of this needs to happen.  I think Pilgrim has gotten off to a good start but has a long way to go. For example, a training on boundaries, or at least a workshop, seems like a good idea.
  • I feel safe at church.  However, I sometimes wonder what we would do if someone came into the church intent on harm.
  • I see improvement in that kids are running out alone.
  • Church needs a great deal of improvement in addressing concerns of the congregation.
  • Let me explain. The silence is deafening.  I only hear a truly compassionate voice, concerning our children, in your voice.  All the other messages seem to be brought out when it is ‘politically correct’ to do so and done to ‘too our own horn’, as much as to say ‘look at how progressive we are’ as a congregation.’

One only needs to pick up a newspaper, listen to the television go on the internet, or attend an ‘open’ adult/ children support group to realize how little we really know about the problem of child abuse.  And it is only one area of abuse in general that our church, our families, our country is facing.  Abuse in any form is morally wrong. To abuse a child is inexcusable.  With future training, people can no longer ‘turn a blind eye’ and be able to say, ‘I was not aware.’

Thank you Jaime for opening our eyes and ears to the cries for help.

  • More of a safe church than before the register sex offender tried to join.
  • Needs lots of work on the healthy environments however!

 

 “What future trainings for congregation members would you like to see offered to promote this vision?” 

  • Low key. Voluntary. Not obsessive.
    • As mentioned above, I think it would be good to have an annual presentation to the entire congregation.  It could be relatively short, if we focus on the church’s specific policies (i.e. perhaps an abbreviated course that addresses what the policies are – to make sure we are all aware of them).

In addition, I’m not aware of what we are doing to educate the children.  It’s probably assumed they get some education in school, but since church isn’t exactly like school (in school, most of their adult interactions is with professional staff), it might be good to have some program for kids.

  • New members with young children. Sunday school volunteers—particularly new to the ‘position’ and on an ‘update’ basis periodically.
  • I think that ongoing offerings of the sort that we’ve had are sufficient.  I dunno how to increase interest, other than, perhaps, making the offerings more regular.  A tightening of community feeling, to the point where folks in the congregation are naturally inclined to take care of each other, likely would lead to an increase of interest in this specific aspect.
  • Perhaps a training after church, like a forum, would attract congregation members.
  • Follow-up classes. Documentary film on childhood sexual abuse, “Close to Home” 2006 by my good friend and Academy Award winner, Vanessa Roth.
  • I think this training should be taken by everyone at least every three years.
  • I think since we proclaim to be liberal, open and affirming, that the training I received should be a part of receiving new members, as well as offered to current membership.
  • I think your original training class was very good and it would be wise to repeat the class every few years so that we don’t forget what was learned.  This is especially true for younger people who are care givers.
  • I think the training session would be good for the entire congregation.
  • We need to provide more awareness and training in the following ways:
  • At home: a comprehensive book or handout for every family and for every new member of the church.  (Not just a copy of the church’s policy, but a ‘hands on’ how do we keep our children and adult/ children safe and free from the pain of sexual abuse.
  • At Pilgrim: quarterly presentations during the Sunday morning service reminding us of our obligation to our children and adult/ children.  I even envision a qualified support group be allowed to meet on campus.
  • At work: persons directly involved in the running of the daily activities of the church (teachers, staff, deacons, trustees, etc.) to be annually re-certified and brought up to date to new ideas and approaches to providing a safe environment.
  • Join the various committees. This is crucial, especially for old members rejoining or redistributing their efforts.  They think they can carry one over to the other.  Also, the gossip in a church our size is out of hand.  OLDER members tend to do this excessively so the training w/b good to address an issue such as this for boundaries!
  • I do not know what that would be.

The responses suggest an ebb and flow of participation in the Safeguarding God’s Children trainings, as well as increasing levels of application of the material over time.   An image of waves coming ashore and absorbing into more of the landscape comes to mind. Another way to think about the narratives is that they seem to describe a shift from unconscious incompetency to conscious incompetency, a retreat, and then perhaps a shift from conscious incompetency to conscious competency with respect to safe church and healthy environment practices.

The data suggest that these sessions have empowered participants in this training to become open to and affirming of to all members’ experiences, moving from awareness and sensitivity to internalizing the role of protecting children and vulnerable adults (taking a critical stance with toward congregational policies and participation in the training and calling for a greater commitment to provide resources for members of the congregational and the surrounding community).

What the data do not show is the consistent experience of participants who used the trainings as opportunities to share personal and sometimes painful experiences of abuse or trauma as children.  By creating space for members to be exposed to the topic of abuse prevention, it is as though participants had permission and a safe space in which to surface memories that had been either buried or kept private and out of church for many years. I believe one of the main reasons more congregations do not create these spaces for dealing with this potentially explosive topic is that they are not prepared to receive the stories that will inevitably come forward.  External data reflect:

  • 1 out of 4 girls, 1 out of 6 boys will be sexually abused by their 18th birthday (Finkelhor);
  • The rate of child abuse is 10 times the rate of cancer (Sadler);
  • Ninety-three percent of sex offenders describe themselves as “religious” (Abel);
  • Hard core offenders maintaining significant involvement with religious institutions “had more sexual offense convictions, more victims, and younger victims” Eshuys & Smallbone, Religious Affiliations Among Adult Sexual Offenders (2006);
  • In a survey of 2,864 church leaders, 20% knew of a sex offender attending/member of their church (Christianity Today 2010);
  • Many victims suffer significant spiritual damage;
  • Seminarians, ministers, and congregational leaders are not prepared for offenders or victims.

It is with this background of trauma (present in any congregation) in mind that I encourage and caution congregations to move forward with meaningful educational programs. The caution relates to having a Response Team in place as well as, before implementing such a program, having the leader of this kind of educational program be fluent in this topic and able to contain the discussions that arise. The benefits, if not already clear, are supported by data from the other questions on the evaluation survey:

  • “To what extent has participation in this training affected you personally?” – Most respondents reported a greater awareness that enriched their interaction with children.

 

  • “To what extent do you think participation in this training has affected you in your church?” – Respondents reported increased sensitivity, beyond awareness, to behaviors and recommendations for new practices at church.  Some reported how they have modified their behaviors and re-examined their roles as deacons or Sunday school teachers.  Some expressed concern about others’ lack of awareness related to abuse prevention.

 

  • “Please give up to three general examples of how you have used this training or Safe Church awareness (e.g., at home, at Pilgrim UCC, at work)”  – This generated many examples of action at home, work and other public settings, ranging from sharing information conversationally to making policy suggestions in organization.

The goal of this educational program is to contribute to a congregational “Healthy Environment,” which creates a space for discussion and sharing of personal stories related to trauma, abuse, and betrayal and to develop within the church a language and a culture capable of receiving various painful experiences and providing support for those individuals. In this way, the content and process appears to be a significant factor in supporting personal transformation and a more actualized healthy environment.

Before anyone interprets that this is a smooth process or monolithic shift in consciousness, I can offer my experience as data that it has been an uneven and challenging shift from fear and compliance to commitment to be a healthier and more intentional congregation, and is a work in progress.  The data offer an example of how our congregation is learning and implementing next steps with more members as we move to be the change we wish to see in the world.  I hope to work with you to help your congregation and our Conference be examples of safe, healthy and healing communities for the UCC and other churches.

For more information about Safe Church and Healing Environment practices, contact Jaime Romo, jr@jaimeromo.com or (760) 842- 6577 or visit http://jaimeromo.com/.

*(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 Supporters;” “Parents Preventing Abuse” and “Teachers Preventing Abuse.”)

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