Does it not seem as though our churches should be places where children can grow closer to God and to their church family without threat of injury or violence?

Need to Take Care

The expectation that the world has, and that we have of ourselves, is that our churches will be well organized, that reasonable steps will be taken to prevent injury or abuse. Society seems more and more prone to take legal action as a means of settling grievances. This is, unfortunately, no less true in the church. The church I’d like to belong to is safe for our children.

Happily, many of our churches are engaging places with safe activities for our children. This includes weekly worship services, Adventurers, Pathfinders, Vacation Bible School, camping trips, visiting nursing homes, and many more. To facilitate these activities our children must be protected from injury at our facilities, while being transported, or while learning about God in nature.

If we were to conduct a simple survey of our church facility, what risks might we find? Are the carpets free of rips and holes? Are the utility and maintenance rooms secured, or could children access them along with the chemicals, electrical boxes, or tools contained therein? Are hallways and exits free of storage? Do they provide quick and easy egress in case of a fire? Does your church have a kitchen or dining hall with appliances with hot elements, burners, gas, and pots containing hot food items? Is the baptismal tank secured before and after the service until it’s drained? Can children gain access to areas of the church that are unsupervised while the adults are engaged in ministry or fellowship? These and more questions should be considered on a regular basis.

Nor should we neglect the evaluation of transportation methods and activity planning. Careful selection of vehicles and drivers should be done to ensure that no shortcuts are taken in regard to safety. Have vehicles been inspected, and have they been maintained on a regular schedule? Are drivers trustworthy, with safe driving records and showing good judgment? Is there thought given to communication when conducting an activity off-site, or to emergency planning, first aid, or a plan B in the event of an accident?

Reasonable, Expected Risks

Organizations are expected to address risks as  part of their duty. Evaluate your facilities and procedures on a systematic basis. It’s a good practice to be sure that those entrusted with the care of our children are oriented to the expected procedures and safety requirements on a regular basis.

Once you have identified these safety risks, the next step is taking action to address and correct them. Safety should be a top priority of the church because it illustrates how we care for people, including our precious children, members, and those we wish to reach with the gospel. Some items that need correction may be simple, and can be remedied quickly at no cost. Others may require planning and financial commitment.

In my experience of examining insurance claims that the church experiences, I’ve seen that often we end up paying for these risks one way or another, either up front, by repairing or correcting something proactively; or afterward, when someone is injured. The former tends to be less expensive in the long run, and no amount of money resolves hurt feelings or damage to the church’s reputation.

Some other risks our children face aren’t so easy to recognize or address. Where there are children, there will be those looking to take advantage of them. I’m sometimes asked why churches seem to be places where abuse takes place. Unfortunately, the answer is that churches are where children are. Also, many churches have much yet to do to improve safety awareness and put safety measures in place for their children.

Protection Steps

Here are five practical steps to protect children against abuse:

Leaders should set a clear tone on this issue. Make it clear that abuse will not be tolerated; and a clear process will be followed if it should happen. All must understand that abuse happens, how it happens, what the signs of abuse are, and what is the process of reporting suspected abuse.

Regular members must get to know new people before giving them responsibilities with young churchgoers; we must ensure that they understand and support our rules and expectations, and that their judgment and behavior leave no question of their propriety.

Organizers must ensure that no adult is alone with a child. Having at least two adults on the scene improves the likelihood that nothing untoward happens and that expectations of behavior are met. Classrooms should be viewable, with windows in classroom doors to prevent unobserved activities inside.

Those representing the church as volunteers should be screened effectively for criminal offenses relevant to their responsibilities and with thorough reference checking.

For those who find these steps a burden they do not feel responsible to bear, be assured that legal expectations and the wider culture are not the same today. Instead of groaning under these tasks, let’s be the first to find ways to ensure our children’s safety and make our churches the most proactive and effective in caring for these precious lives.

Imagine the damage done by injury or abuse to a young person that is the result of inattention by the church! What is the impression that abused children and their families will carry with them throughout their lives? What message should that send to those of us entrusted with the responsibility of representing God’s kingdom?

Senior Roles—Parent, Teacher, Counselor, Supervisor

We have not forgotten the important role of parents and guardians in caring for the church’s children. While the church certainly has its responsibilities for the programs it runs, parents’ responsibility is not diminished. Many consider the church another home; and there is a comfort there that children can have free rein. But in keeping our churches safe for families, responsibility has to be clearly defined. The relaxed attitude that others are watching the children leaves too much to assumptions. Then, when a child is subsequently injured, the “blame game” is the natural and painful response. Church leaders should gently but clearly remind parents of their responsibilities to supervise their children, and processes should be in place that clearly mark the transfer of responsibility from parent to Sabbath School teacher and back.

The church succeeds in ministry because of volunteers. Those with supervisory roles—Sabbath School teachers, Pathfinder leaders, etc., should be uplifted and supported. Equally, they should appreciate the seriousness of their responsibility in supervision, planning, and care. Their conduct isn’t limited to their role in Sabbath School or Pathfinders. A lawsuit against them may affect the church’s entire organization (local conference) in their area We have to work together, following the policies and expectations of our conferences and congregations.

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Safety should be a top priority of the church because it illustrates how we care for people.

In many ways we represent something much larger than ourselves. Our actions effect others.

Keeping our children safe is a challenge because of the different legal environments, risks, and cultures. The principle we can all adopt is to follow the guidelines given us in our areas of responsibility. It’s difficult to defend the church from responsibility if we haven’t followed our own policies or guidelines. The spirit of service in our church community will also include the humility of Christ to submit to what our church has decided and faithfully carry out our task to the very best of our abilities.

The care of our children is a serious responsibility and an honor. Let’s each fulfill this aspect of ministry as one who cares for the “least of these” (Matt. 25:40), because according to Christ we are doing this as to Him.


David Fournier is chief client care officer for Adventist Risk Management, Inc., General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Silver Spring, Maryland.

During the past 20 years news headlines have regularly featured stories of criminal convictions of priests, pastors, and other religious leaders for sexually abusing children and youth. And yes, that includes Seventh-day Adventist clergy, teachers, and others. Our denomination has made great strides in prevention and education in this area during the past several decades. But in spite of those efforts and the resulting reduction in these incidents, reports of abuse still remain, sometimes coming to light many years after the abuse has happened. The recent torrent of stories of sexual abuse provides powerful confirmation of this fact. What do we do?

Ramifications

It is hard to imagine the impact of sexual abuse upon a child, and the pain and damage endured regardless of the perpetrator. Studies indicate that the effects on the abused individual are potentially long-lasting and profound, including effects on physical and mental health, addiction, and other life-damaging consequences.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) shares a great deal of information1 on the effects of abuse: “In one long-term study, as many as 80 percent of young adults who had been abused met the diagnostic criteria for at least one psychiatric disorder at age 21. These young adults exhibited many problems, including depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and suicide attempts.”2

“Those with a history of child abuse and neglect are 1.5 times more likely to use illicit drugs, especially marijuana, in middle adulthood.”3

The effects do not stop with only the abused person; family and friends of the victims suffer greatly as well. Moreover, if the victim’s family and circle of friends realize the abuse was at the hands of a religious leader, the subsequent handling of the event often hurts the victim and family and creates a negative impression of the church and religion in general. The reputation of the church is often damaged, and the image of abuse by a religious leader that is so often depicted in popular culture and the media is reinforced. The very organization that should, through God’s grace, be a place of hope and healing is then looked upon as complicit with the perpetrator.

The Bright Side

The good news is that there has been increased awareness about this issue. Through frank conversations, the work of diligent volunteers, committed church leadership, organizations such as Adventist Risk Management, Inc. (ARM), and such banner campaigns as EnditNow.org,4 improvements have been made. Policies and guidelines have been implemented, including enhanced training and background screening. Where these are followed, the church has created a safer place for children and kept them from contact with predator adults. Despite these good efforts, there is yet room for us to grow in how we process and react when any type of abuse is suspected or discovered. We should be particularly attentive with respect to the prevention of child-on-child abuse.

There is yet room for us to grow in how we process and react when any type of abuse is suspected or discovered.

ARM handles most of the claims brought against church entities involving accusations of abuse. Of the approximately 160 cases of sexual abuse handled by ARM during the past decade, 50 of these cases involved child-on-child abuse. It is important to note that many cases go undetected or unreported to ARM because not all instances of sexual abuse become claims.

It should be noted that most general abuse prevention techniques are ineffective in preventing child-on-child sex abuse. Screening children will not detect a child who has abused in the past. Moreover, children are with other children in nearly every kind of normal church activity: Pathfinders, Sabbath School classes, and on the playground. The rules and strategies we have developed for preventing abuse for adult-child interactions may be ineffective with the potential for child-on-child abuse.

the Right Defense Strategy

It is important to build the right strategy to prevent abuse and defend your organization against perpetrators. When it comes to abuse of children by adults, the steps the church has taken are largely effective. They include criminal background screening, awareness training, windows in doors, the two-adult rule, and reference checks. These measures help to harden the defenses of your organization against a perpetrator seeking to prey on your young and vulnerable. But they may not do much to guard against the trusted perpetrator already in your midst.

Building an effective defense against child-on-child abuse requires different techniques and methods. The predators in these cases are likely classmates, bullies, fellow Pathfinders, or even friends from within the local church. The victims in these cases are children ranging in age from teenagers to very young children. It is important to remember that the perpetrator of the sexual abuse in this case is also a minor and in many cases, a child who is close in age to the victim. The actions take place with any combination of genders, including boys abusing boys or girls, as well as girls abusing boys or other girls. The range of misconduct includes inappropriate touching, sexual acts, sexual intercourse, and sodomy.

To build and maintain an effective stance against this, we must understand the various scenarios in which abuse can take place:

The Lessons of Experience

We can learn some lessons from these abuse scenarios that ARM has dealt with. The ages represented in these situations ranged from 6 to 17.Both genders are represented, both as abused and as perpetrator. We now know that we cannot make assumptions about the “safety” of a person based on age or gender. Too often those assumptions are challenged by our experience and reality.

We can also learn a great deal by examining the scenarios and locations where these incidents can take place. We cannot conclude that we should stop meeting at church members’ homes, or no longer take bus trips or use bathrooms. Rather, we need to understand the supervision gaps that are taking place in these situations. We are clearly failing our children in these gaps; but by understanding how that happens, we can end it.

What happened at the children’s ministries party at the church members’ home that caused a gap in care for these children? Were there some assumptions made about who was responsible for supervision? When we are on-site at our church or school we ensure that all children are accounted for, so shouldn’t we do the same when conducting an activity off-site?

What happened on the bus? Where were the adults? Was the driver the only supervisor? Were the adults sleeping, or just not engaged? As we plan these activities, let us not compromise on effective supervision.

Many of the scenarios involved bathrooms, and several involved camping activities as well. Ideally, bathrooms are private places. Using a bathroom necessarily requires privacy, and these scenarios are thereby more challenging to supervise. When children are sent to the bathroom, it is good to have regular supervision in the hallways that ensures children know they are monitored as to how long they have been in there and who is in there at that time. Children need to be aware that an adult is actively engaged and will intervene if something is not as it should be.

Scenario 5 involved a boy who acted out in response to a girl who was bullying him. His reaction was inappropriate and considered abuse, but neither behavior was good. Bullying can range in severity from the insignificant to full-fledged abuse. Allowing even light bullying to take place creates a culture that is friendly to perpetrators, as in this case, where the bullying behavior escalated into an abusive incident.

What can we learn? Overwhelmingly the challenges we faced with these incidents were gaps in supervision. Effective supervision involves adults who are informed and prepared, are vigilant, but are also educated to know what to watch for, and are empowered to act on communicated expectations. We must set high standards for our adult volunteers, as well as for young people, then be willing to follow up on those expectations.

Guidelines on how to conduct effective supervision can be found in the Seventh-day Adventist Church Manual and the General Conference Working Policy. Often your conference or local church will have developed a child protection plan that provides the needed guidance. ARM also has information on child protection,5 including resources on “safe touch” and “supervision.”

Improving Our Response

When an allegation of abuse arises in a church or school setting, the response must be timely, positive, and as confidential as possible. Like other acts of abuse, the incident should be reported to the police or designated government organizations. Do not dismiss the incident because the alleged perpetrator is another child or minor. Appropriate civil agencies must be notified and allowed to investigate the matter with the cooperation of the church or school.

Once an act of sexual abuse involving a child is discovered, it is essential to notify the child’s parents promptly and carefully. Parents should be advised of what happened and assured the matter has been reported to authorities. Next, while giving the child support and comfort, avoid questioning beyond the basic information needed to file a report with authorities, especially without the parent present. You are not an investigator. Questioning a child in such a situation should be done only by those trained to do so. As for the authorities, it is best to work as cooperatively with them as possible and not get ahead of their investigation by making statements that reveal the identities of the victim or the perpetrator. Share information on a need-to-know basis only.

For example, in a school setting it may be mandatory that the victim’s and perpetrator’s teacher be informed if a child is still attending classes. The teacher can then appropriately relate to the child under these circumstances. However, announcements of names and details at a staff meeting, or more public forums, may raise other liability issues for the organization and be detrimental to the children involved. Use legal counsel in these sensitive situations.

Working With the Perpetrator

We need to remember that God’s Word and our church’s principles condemn abusive conduct. The church should follow through with fair, decisive discipline. Priority should be given to protection of the vulnerable rather than the perpetrator.

We are often surprised when a respected and loved member of our congregation is found to have engaged in this type of conduct. But hesitation to hold perpetrators accountable may be perceived as a lack of support for victims. It sends a message that the perpetrator is more important to the church than those who are abused. It also may communicate that abusive behavior is condoned. This cannot be our position. The cruelty and immorality of sexual abuse violates both God’s commandment against adultery and His law against murder (Exodus 20:13, 14; Matthew 5:2128), sexual abuse,any act of sexual intimacy outside of a marriage relationship, and/or nonconsensual acts of sexual conduct within a marriage, whether those acts are legal or illegal, disrupt the marriage institution6 and the Christian home, and violate biblical standards of moral conduct. Such acts include but are not limited to child sexual abuse, including abuse of the vulnerable.

The church has a common theme of forgiveness and restoration. There is a process for restoration available to perpetrators. But priority must be given to protecting the vulnerable and to recognizing the consequences that follow this type of behavior. Under no circumstances should we transfer a perpetrator elsewhere, as though they are a member in good standing. When we do this, we expose an unsuspecting congregation to risk. Ultimately the whole church suffers when we try to pass the problem along. That is not a solution.

AIMING FOR a Higher Standard

We have such a great opportunity and responsibility with the children of our church and our guests. They are the most vulnerable, but they also hold the most potential for the future. Jesus spoke clearly: “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to stumble, it would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were thrown into the sea” (Mark 9:42, NKJV).7 There is no room for doubt here that God takes the protection of the vulnerable very seriously, and expects us to do the same.

God asks us to always treat our children in a responsible and loving manner. Let us take this as a calling to treat them in a godly manner, and ensure they experience the fruit of the Spirit in our families, our communities, and our churches and schools. “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law” (Gal. 5:22, 23, NASB).8


  1. https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/childmaltreatment/consequences.html
  2. A. B. Silverman, H. Z. Reinherz, R. M. Giaconia, “The Long-term Sequelae of Child and Adolescent Abuse: A Longitudinal Community Study,” Child Abuse and Neglect 20, no. 8 (1996): 709-723.
  3. C. Widom, N. Marmorstein, H. White, “Childhood Victimization and Illicit Drug Use in Middle Adulthood,” Psychology of Addictive Behaviors 20, no. 4 (2006): 394-403.
  4. An initiative of the Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA) and the General Conference Women’s Ministries department.
  5. https://adventistrisk.org/en-US/Safety-Resources/Church
  6. Which the Seventh-day Adventist Church Manual (2015), p. 62, defines as “a public, lawfully binding, monogamous, heterosexual relationship between one man and one woman.”.
  7. New King James Version. Copyright © 1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
  8. The New American Standard Bible, copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.

David Fournier is chief client officer for Adventist Risk Management.