UU churches set safeguards to prevent child abuse
by Donald E. Skinner
All last spring and summer as television screens filled with the images of the Roman Catholic crisis over sex scandals, the Rev. Patricia Hoertdoerfer's phone kept ringing in the Unitarian Universalist Association's office of Lifespan Faith Development. The calls were from Unitarian Universalist religious educators who, like Roman Catholics, were focused on the dangers of improper sex. But their questions were not about coverups or decades-old revelations. They were seeking information on how to improve their congregations' child safety policies.
Half to three-fourths of our congregations have a policy in place to protect children from inappropriate behavior by adults a dramatic increase from only about twenty a decade ago, says Hoertdoerfer, the UUA's director of children, family, and intergenerational programs. Now the focus is on expanding child safety programs. "The educators I talk to say, 'Okay, now we have two adults in each classroom, what's the next step?'"
One of those who called Hoertdoerfer last spring was the Rev. Jude LaFollette, associate minister for lifespan religious education at All Souls Unitarian Church in Colorado Springs, Colorado. The congregation had adopted a child safety policy four years before and wanted to broaden it. The inspiration came from a member who worked for the Colorado State Department of Corrections and had daily interaction with sex offenders. "That prompted him to suggest that we do background checks on religious education volunteers," LaFollette says.
LaFollette and two Religious Education Team members met with the senior minister, the Rev. Dr. Ellen Johnson-Fay, and the congregation's executive committee. They planned a special Sunday service last June that gave voice to the concern. "The gist of the service was, this is a safe place and it behooves us to take a look to ensure it remains safe," LaFollette says.
The man from the Department of Corrections spoke, she says. "What he and others said was, 'Let's not close our eyes to the reality of life today and let's remember we are here as a beloved community.' It was said in a way that people didn't leave feeling fear." The church is working this year on a plan to require background checks for nursery workers and religious education teachers.
"More and more congregations are screening teachers and childcare employees," says Hoertdoerfer, "doing actual criminal background checks. They run into some resistance because it costs money and some people think churches shouldn't need to do this." But it's important, she said.
Hoertdoerfer advises congregations without a child safety policy to develop one by consulting with district staff, UUA staff, and other congregations. "And make sure you involve the whole congregation through education and discussion," she says, "so that they actually feel ownership of the policy."
Some of the basics of child safety policies:
UUA districts are paying attention to child safety issues, says Hoertdoerfer. Jennifer Nichols-Payne, Southwest District program consultant, estimates that a third of the congregations in the district have comprehensive child protection policies. Many others have some policies. She adds that Houston-area churches have begun to train youth advisors together. "When youth from one church go to a conference," she says, "they can go with advisors from another church, and everybody is comfortable with that because they've all been checked out."
The First Unitarian Universalist Society of Albany, New York, has had a formal child protection policy since the mid-1990s. "We started by surveying other congregations and picking out what we liked from their policies," says religious educator Ann D'Attilio. Albany's policies include a code of ethics that all RE volunteers sign, guidelines governing field trips and overnights, a building safety plan that includes a fire escape diagram, and a six-month waiting period for volunteers.
"I feel comfortable with what we have," says D'Attilio. "Certainly someone could still do something untoward, but we're doing all we can to keep that from happening."
First Parish Church, Unitarian Universalist, of Stow and Acton, Massachusetts, adopted its sexual misconduct and abuse policy in 1994. Recently it added protocols setting out how teachers and church staff should respond if a child mentions that he or she is being abused by a parent or if there is an allegation of abuse at church. "We have always thought of our policy as a kind of lighthouse in our church," says Sally Wood, a member of the board of trustees. "When the congregation knows that there are policies and procedures, response teams and protocols around the issues of sexual misconduct and abuse, it knows that potential perpetrators might search for a different church where prevention and trust are not so much a part of the church structure."
Resources for creating child safety programs
Start with the Safe Congregations Resources on the UUA Web site. Then contact your district office. The districts can provide a guidebook, training manual, video, and audio tape, Reducing the Risk of Child Sexual Abuse in Your Church. Other resources include the following:
Donald E. Skinner is a contributing editor to UU World and editor of the UUA's InterConnections newsletter for lay leaders.