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Safeguarding God’s children

Posted by Ron George on June 6, 2011

Safeguarding God's Children: An Episcopal Church program gets it right

I once knew a man who was getting out of prison after serving years for sexually molesting a child. He wasn’t young then and it was more than 35 years ago, when I worked for a summer as a chaplain in a state mental hospital. I doubt that he’s alive today. He came to mind yesterday as I attended a workshop titled “Safeguarding God’s Children,” a national program of The Episcopal Church that seeks to raise awareness of and prevent sexual abuse of children not only at church but anywhere. A recently-released report by John Jay College of Criminal Justice spoke favorably of the program, and I wanted to see it for myself.

SGC dispenses solid information with which we’ve become familiar over the past 25 years, given our society’s heightened sensitivity to sexual abuse of children in church. The Jay report focused intensely on the Roman Catholic Church, but it’s not just a Roman Catholic problem. Every congregation in every denomination is a potential hunting ground for the whole continuum of sexual offenders, from pedophiles (which are rare) to indiscriminate heterosexuals (which are common) to violent sexual predators (which, thank God, also are rare). SGC comes with a caveat at the beginning: You may be confronted with material that makes you uncomfortable; if so, feel free to leave the room.

Sound advice but emblematic of how hard it can be to deal with this subject, even within the safety of a church workshop, where everyone in the room is alert to the danger and dedicated to preventing sexual offenses. There’s something creepy about admitted child-molesters talking to the camera in dispassionate terms about their methods. More to the point, though, are the gut-wrenching stories of victims and their parents: Families for whom the church became a place of oppressive fear, shame and guilt.

The church must be a safe place for kids -- and cats and birds.

Yesterday’s workshop began with local statistics – how many registered sexual offenders our city, how many nationwide, followed by the fear-inducing commentary that “these are just the ones we know about.” That’s when I began recalling my encounter in the state hospital.

He was among a group of men being evaluated for release. Not all were sexual offenders, but all had been tagged as having mental disorders that contributed to their crimes. The state hospital was charged with determining whether their mental illness was likely to result in further criminal acts. As a group, few of these guys were going anywhere but back to the pen. They tended either to be clueless about the state of their mental health, the severity of the crimes – including murder – or resistant to treatment and hostile to the evaluation process. Many of these men were just plain scary. Hospital staffers called them the dirty dozen.

There were exceptions, and the child-molester was one. He was frank in group therapy, regretted what he’d done and could not control his tears in session with me. (He was a churchgoer, and he couldn’t imagine ever again being “right with God.”) He never missed a daily meeting on the ward of Alcoholics Anonymous. He was compliant in every way. He wanted to be out of prison – but he was fearful of life on the outside, too. There was no registry of sex offenders in those days, but his criminal record would cripple him for the rest of his life. He said he wanted to leave the state and begin living elsewhere with a clean slate. He would leave behind his family, the only home and every friend he’d ever had. His message to the staff was, I’ve learned my lesson. I’ll never do it again. We believed him. He was certified for release. I don’t know whether he kept his promise, but I’d be willing to bet he did.

What our presenter didn’t say yesterday about our city’s registered sex offenders is that, statistically, most of them probably are less likely than others convicted of felonies to repeat their offenses; moreover, he conceded that our children are three times more likely to be molested by a family member than a stranger. It’s an awfully complicated issue, though, and you can spend a lot of time on the Internet poring through studies and contentious commentary. Statistics and probabilities, however, are irrelevant when a case at hand strikes close to home. It simply doesn’t matter that this or that type of child molester is more or less likely to offend when an offense occurs and a family is blown apart. A woman attending yesterday’s session said she had a child at camp right then. Should she be worried? The presenter assured her that the diocesan camp is vigilant in screening counselor applicants, rigorous in training and hyper-alert for inappropriate situations and behavior. Still, the world is not without risk. Reducing risk is the best we can do, which is why every congregation in every denomination ought to create an alert and vigilant culture for keeping its children and adults safe from sexual offenders.

Jesus teaches us unequivocally to love our enemies.

In a sense, that may be the only way we can – as we must – love the offender as well as the victim of sexual abuse, by creating a culture within which sexual abuse is structurally and culturally nigh unto impossible. What? Love the offender? Are you out of your mind? Well, no, unless Rabbi Jesus was insane when he taught us to love our enemies. Jesus speaks clearly about this in Christian scripture. It is one of his few unequivocal commands. Our enemies are certainly those who abuse our children, and our instinct – mine at least – is is to kill them. Jesus teaches us, however, that nothing in this world is so vile that it can’t be healed by love – not the gushy, sentimental, romantic love with which we’ve saturated our culture, but the clear-eyed, unsentimental, sacrificial, tough love that knows the truth that sets us free. It is simply not an option for Christians to avenge themselves, even upon those who seduce and sexually exploit our children. We don’t have to like the criminals in our midst to care for them, pray for them and pray God’s mercy on us all as we seek healing that only God’s love in Christ Jesus can bring to the seemingly irredeemable evil of child sexual abuse.

Churches are magnets for sexual offenders of all kinds. Our very values – trust, acceptance, love of neighbor – can be turned inside out in a predator’s ploy to become intimate with our kids. Any institution that invites families into fellowship must be structured for vigilance and imbued with awareness that sexual offenses may occur within its sacred space. It must be clear to any and all who enter our doors that this matter is taken very seriously, and that our response will be swift to assure the safety of our children. It need not be oppressive, and we need not be anxious – just knowledgeable, prepared and capable of rapid response. Over the past 20 years, it has become painfully clear that this is not the case in most Christian congregations. We want to believe that “it can’t happen here.” Well, it can, and there is abundant evidence that it will unless churches make a point of preventing it.

Count on it: A sexual offender, registered or not, will visit your church someday. He will look like you, act like you, sing the hymns, say the prayers and hug you at the Peace – and he will be looking for opportunities, flaws in the culture that open the door to sexual intimacy with children. Finding none, he either will leave or simply not offend. Your church may become as safe for him, for lack of opportunity, as for anyone else. Awareness, preparation and vigilance are acts of love that reduce the risk of sexual abuse of children for offenders and victims alike.

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