Since the Sandusky scandal at Penn State and the scandals in the Catholic Church, the issue of sexual abuse has shifted to the forefront of our collective mind. Churches are poised for action but they are unsure of what action to take.
In his new book, On Guard: Preventing and Responding to Child Abuse at Church, Deepak Reju examines why child predators target churches and offers eleven straightforward strategies for protecting children from abuse and for helping young victims recover if it does happen.
Deepak is a friend. He was one of the men to whom I looked up who went through seminary just ahead of me. His wife Sarah was the ace student in a few of the Hebrew classes I took as well. I'm so grateful to know him, and I'm thankful for the amazing research he's done to help churches. I corresponded with Deepak recently, and he took the time to answer a list of questions that I sent him about his book and protecting kids at church.
Jared: What led you to research and write On Guard?
Deepak: There are a few reasons why I wrote this book.
First, as a pastor who supervises our children’s ministry and youth staff, I was surprised at how little information was available about preventing abuse in church settings. And what little was available was out of print. I read and studied in order to help our local church think about how to build a better firewall to prevent child abuse.
Second, as a pastor of counseling, I once had a chance to talk to Dr. Anna Salter, who is one of the nation’s leading experts on sexual offenders. I asked her about her thoughts on how churches handle sexual abuse…and well, let’s just say she was very clear on how churches do a poor job in preventing and responding to child abuse. That put an idea in my head that something needed to be written.
Third, and finally, I was at a conference geared at helping churches prevent child abuse, and I was surprised that the only people speaking were psychologists and lawyers, none of whom had ever worked at a church before. They said a lot of helpful things, but there were some things I felt like they didn’t “get” because they were outsiders looking in. Somebody needed to say something from the perspective of a pastor who spends his days laboring inside of a church.
All of these reason conspired together to make me write the book.
Jared: In the book, you provide eight strategies for protecting against abuse. If a church has never thought about this before, where should they start?
Deepak: The first and foremost thing that a church can do is get a good policy in place. If a church doesn’t have a policy, I’ve included in the book a lot of material on children’s ministry policies—how to write one, the principles that should undergird a good policy, etc.
After you create and implement a policy, the next step is to start using screening procedures. Sexual predators are often successful because they assume that churches don’t check on their backgrounds. Unfortunately, this assumption is often true. But screening is made easier for churches because there are now a number of agencies that will do parts of it for you (like the criminal background check) for a fee. Wouldn’t it be tragic for a sexual offender to abuse a child in your church, only for you to find out later that he has been tried and convicted of this offense before? You could have caught him, but you didn’t bother checking.
On screening measures, do know that if you have volunteers already working for you, some of them (not all) will balk at the idea of giving over their personal information, like a social security number, in order for you to run a criminal background check. They will feel like this is getting too personal or that you somehow must not trust them. Be warned: They might even quit if you ask them to do this, and won’t see or agree with this being a reasonable measure to protect children. But don’t let this stop you—you need to have all of your volunteers screened for the safety of the children.
Jared: In your experience, what do churches most often overlook when putting together a protection plan?
Deepak: The common things you find in child protection policies are:
- General guidelines: What are the expectations for staff, teachers and volunteers? What are the training and screening procedures? What are the expectations for the classroom?
- Protective rules and safety guidelines: What are the check-in and check-out procedures? What kind of sickness would prevent the staff and volunteers from including a child into the nursery? What are the guidelines for taking a child to the restroom? What are the parameters for the classroom, like the two-adult rule? Is there a plan for preventing, reporting and responding to abuse?
(These are just a few of the many questions we should consider in writing up a policy! See Appendix A in my book for a long list of questions that should be considered.)
What is often overlooked in child protection policies are things that are less common, but possible. A few examples…
- What if a sexual offender shows up at your church? What will you do?
- Do you have a plan for evacuation or do you know how to handle a fire or a hurricane or some other natural disaster?
- What if an adult says he was abused as a child in your church? What would you do in response to this accusation?
Jared: What is the "two-adult rule"? Why is it important? What do you say to a children's ministry pastor or leader who is struggling to find enough volunteers and thinks that kind of policy is just unrealistic?
Deepak: The “two-adult rule” is a guideline for classroom safety. Essentially, two unrelated adults must be present at all times with the children who are checked into children’s ministry. Since sexual offenders get away with abuse by isolating a child, we set up safety parameters like the two-adult rule as preventative measure. If two adults are present, it decreases the likelihood that abuse might occur.
To the ministry leader who is struggling to find enough volunteers or thinks this is unrealistic: Pray first. Ask God what is a responsible way to steward the children entrusted to your ministry. Second, talk with your leadership about what kind of environment you want for the kids in your church. Educate them by giving them some things to read on child abuse in church settings. If the leaders think this is important then they’ll get behind it.
Jared: You say that part of protecting kids against abuse is having healthy conversations with them before it happens. How old do my kids need to be before I talk to them about sex?
Deepak: I think you should have the conversation at a fairly early age. I’d say by at least 4-years-of-age (maybe 3-years-of-age depending on the kid), you should be saying something like, “Only mommy and daddy or a doctor or nurse can see you naked” or “Apart from mommy or daddy or a doctor or nurse, no one else can touch you on your body parts covered by your bathing suit.” This is fairly basic, developmentally-appropriate for preschool, not crude or provocative, but simple enough for a young child to understand.
I'm really grateful that Deepak took the time to answer my questions. If you benefitted from this interview, please leave Deepak a note of thanks below.