Responding to Three Common Pushbacks on Child Safety

For many of us, church feels good and safe. We were loved there as children and respected there as adults. In fact, we often describe our churches as “families” or caring communities where all are accepted. We trust one another, and we feel confident that others want the best for us and our families.

But for some of us, church was not only unsafe, it was destructive. Abuse by a church leader or an adult in the church community impacts us forever and can drastically change how a victim/survivor understands God.

We know that at least 1 in 5 Mennonite Church USA women have experienced sexual abuse and 1 in 20 men. While this abuse hasn’t necessarily occurred in church settings, we can consider how much of our lives and our children’s lives are connected to church and church institutions like schools, camps, and more. No church or denomination is immune to an abuse crisis. It isn’t a “conservative church” or a “liberal church” problem. And if we’re not a part of the solution, we may be part of the problem.  

Keeping children safe seems like something that everyone would easily agree about, but don’t be surprised when people question some parts of the policy or the renewed emphasis on safety. Unfortunately, many of us doubt stories of abuse or find ourselves skeptical of victims/survivors. So be prepared for pushback. Address cynicism directly and with care.

Three Common Pushback Comments:
1. “Policies and background checks are too much work.” Remind people at your church of Jesus’s command and our commitment to the well-being of the vulnerable. In Luke 18:16, Jesus says, “Let the children come.” He also directed harsh words at those who harm them in Matthew 18:6. In our desire for forgiveness and to love our enemies (or offenders), we may overlook that our priority is to protect the innocent. Abuse shatters individuals, families, and communities. The trauma of child abuse can lead to long-term emotional pain, addiction, and suicide in adult victims/survivors. It can even affect physical health. Take two middle-aged men who are both non-smokers, moderate drinkers, non-obese and reasonably fit. “If the only difference between them was that one had suffered physical or sexual abuse as a child, that man would be 45 per cent more likely than his peer to contract cancer.” (Barber, J. (2016). “The Hidden Epidemic.” University of Toronto Magazine. Autumn.) Also, research shows that victims of child sexual abuse are far more likely to be obese as adults. 

2. “We don’t have many children at our church.” Fewer children often means less robust safety plans, so children could be at more risk. Young families will find church protection policies and practices appealing. Also, prepare for growth. For example, several refugee families started regularly attending one church, and each family had four or five children. The nursery went from two or three children each Sunday to a roomful. A protection policy already in place helps provides for these unforeseen blessings.

3. “But we don’t want to scare people away from interacting with children.” The first thing is to educate adults in your trainings about what grooming is and is not. Grooming is not general friendliness to children. Grooming is finding ways to be alone with a child or showing one child special attention with the intention to take advantage of their trust and sexually harm them. For example, showing up to a child’s piano lesson regularly or insisting on being physical with a child could be grooming behavior. Encourage adults to talk to children and youth! Many youth want to be heard and to have genuine conversations with adults at their church. Affection and kindness can safely happen in public and be interruptible—and still be meaningful to children and youth.

Anna Groff is executive director of Dove’s Nest: Faith Communities Keeping Children and Youth Safe. This article was originally written for Meetinghouse, a consortium of Mennonite-Anabaptist publications.