Holes in Our Fences: Why Preventative Measures Sometimes Fail

Church Matters, Perspectives

A couple of summer’s ago, my wife and I discovered that some skunks were living under the porch of our house. We awoke one morning to the nose-pinching smell of a skunk’s spray permeating our home, called a pest control company, and waited a week or two for the unwelcome critters to be trapped and safely removed. I neglected to properly repair the wire fencing below the porch, thinking a few loose bricks placed in the entryway they had created would do the trick. Now, as I write this two summer’s later, we are once again calling the professionals for help to remove at least two skunks tearing up our lawn.

Many churches have implemented policies and procedures aimed at preventing abuse and deterring predators. Yet even the most resourced churches—those with robust safety manuals, strict vetting procedures, and advanced security technology—sometimes fail to prevent abuse. In fact, I’ve come to expect that a church’s statement to its members and the public in the wake of an abuse allegation will contain some kind of appeal to its enforcement of background checks, comprehensive safety policies, and routine volunteer and staff training. So why do these measures sometimes fail? I believe there are at least a few reasons to consider:

1. We sometimes fail to realize that the predator we are trying to keep out has already been within our walls for quite some time.

He or she might be a current pastor, staff, volunteer, elder, deacon, or church member. Most offenders are already in a position of trust before they offend—meaning the people around them don’t suspect they are a danger. Most abusers don’t invade a place with chains and attempt to drag victims away, although some do. Most abusers cultivate an appealing garden, invite their targets into it, then drop them into a pit they’ve dug beneath the flowery surface.

2. Offenders don’t fit a clear profile.

Because ’there is not a specific profile to train people to be on the lookout for, I want to stress the need to train others to identify behaviors that create risk-filled circumstances and opportunities. Abusers lie in wait at the intersection of circumstance and opportunity, so it’s important that we understand where those two roads meet. For example, an adult volunteer in a student ministry avoids the two-adult rule (a common policy that stipulates a child must always be in the presence of at least two adults) by befriending the family of the child and then claiming to function as a family friend and not as a volunteer whenever he or she gives the child a ride home. The volunteer has created favorable circumstances for gaining access to the child. A year later, the perpetrator assaults the child, who has gone to him or her for comfort while grieving the death of a close friend. The adult volunteer saw the child’s grief as an opportunity to commit sexual assault.

I’m not aware of any safety training material that neglects to discuss grooming, but I believe there is much that could be added. An hour or two perusing online training videos once every couple of years isn’t nearly adequate enough to provide the kind of preparation needed to be able to identify and respond to this very sophisticated kind of deception.

3. Preventative measures sometimes fail because they are not routinely checked for integrity and kept up to date.

Policies and procedures should be updated on a regular basis, not only as a reflection of ongoing learning, but also because the tactics perpetrators use to groom and isolate their targets become more advanced as technology develops. For example, digital means of isolation are growing threats to the safety of children. Some of the most common include text messaging, Snapchat, Instagram, Kik Messenger, Facebook Messenger, Twitter, and Skype. Perpetrators use these apps to test boundaries, gain trust, exchange increasingly illicit content, and then control their victims. Often they try to convince their victims to meet in isolated places. The abuser creates isolated circumstances because it’s in that place of secrecy that they can cross boundaries with less risk. Churches need to be continually aware of how perpetrators are using new ways to gain access to victims.

Perhaps the number one reason why a church’s efforts at prevention fail is because they do not enforce their own policies. If you require background checks but allow volunteers to start working with children while you await the results, you are risking the safety of children. If you say that children cannot be alone with an adult, but don’t enforce that rule when an adult volunteer gives a child a ride home, the policy is useless. Sometimes policies aren’t enforced because people do not know how to report violations or fear retaliation, so it’s also critical that churches develop and communicate procedures for reporting violations.

Overconfidence in Our Current Measures

Lastly, we fail to maintain diligence in our efforts at prevention when we become overconfident in our current measures. This could never happen to us, we think. We may not say those words out loud, but an overly optimistic outlook can be demonstrated by neglect and complacency. We will not prepare to protect children if we do not see a threat to their safety or believe there is a need for continual improvement. Instead of asking, “Have we done all we need to satisfy parents, insurers, and avoid liability?” ask, “Have we done all we can to create safe environments?” When it comes to your duty to care, some might be looking for what is reasonable, but Christ and the members of his church deserve what is possible.

I know some pastors are concerned about creating an aura of suspicion and want to preserve trust between leaders. I believe trust is actually increased through careful scrutiny and routine checks. Besides, the trust that matters most is the trust between the shepherds and the flock under their care. Shepherds owe it to the flock to make sure the fences are secure, routinely checked, and kept up to date.

Wade Mullen, PhDWade Mullen, PhD, is a professor, researcher, and advocate working to help those trapped in the confusion and captivity that mark abusive situations. His personal experiences and ongoing research enable him to write with both care and expertise. Wade and his wife, Sarita, live in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, with their four children.

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