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Sex Scandals, Penn State, and Protecting Our Children

Those who have read my articles or heard me speak probably know at least two things about me: I’m an avid college football fan, and I am devoted to my family. I have always respected the football tradition of Penn State. But the university’s sexual abuse scandal has saddened and angered me because it is everyone’s job to protect our children.

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.

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. It is inconceivable to me that someone could witness sexual abuse and then simply report it and leave it to their supervisors. The right response is to intervene by force at the moment and with the police immediately thereafter.

I write for church leaders, not ESPN. So let me say clearly that church leaders are responsible for protecting all the children who come into our places of worship. It’s our job to teach them about Jesus’ love for them, and we must also protect them from potential predators.

The National Sex Offender Public Web site (nsopw.gov) reported in 2009 that only 30 percent of cases are reported to authorities. That means more than two-thirds of abuse cases are not reported, so that’s where we as church leaders start.

Pastors, youth leaders, lay leaders:  if you suspect, or if someone reports to you, the possibility that one of your workers or volunteers is abusing or has abused a child in your care, stop reading this article and immediately contact your local police. I understand how difficult that might be for you, for your church, for those involved, but your first concern should not be for yourself or even your local church, but your charge is to protect our children. It’s not your job to determine the validity of a claim of abuse. That’s the job of the police. It’s your job to call them. Immediately.

Protecting children also means preparing for their protection by taking some simple but absolutely necessary steps that will avoid problems before they occur.

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.

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.

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Thom S. Rainer is the president and CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources (LifeWay.com). Among his greatest joys are his family: his wife Nellie Jo; three sons, Sam, Art, and Jess; and six grandchildren. He was founding dean of the Billy Graham School of Missions, Evangelism, and Church Growth at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. His many books include Surprising Insights from the Unchurched, The Unexpected Journey, and Breakout Churches.