Magazine Article

Look Out for the Children

When predators come to church.

Jon Daggett & Phil Hiroshima
Look Out for the Children

The Seventh-day Adventist Church cares for children because Jesus does. We seek to be on the forefront when it comes to protecting His “little ones” (Matt. 18:10). Child abuse damages lives. This article cannot cover the entire matter, but we will highlight key issues and provide basic information about things the church can do to improve children’s safety.

Stating the Problem

The broad term “child abuse” can be broken down into various types, including physical or sexual abuse. Perpetrators of child sexual abuse can be adults or other minors. This article will address issues of child sexual abuse by adult perpetrators.

Most children cannot protect themselves from child molesters, who are often master manipulators. It’s the job of parents and church leaders to protect the children in their care. They must always be aware that access to children, especially with adult permission, is a primary goal of child molesters, who, for this reason, often seek out church and school settings. Most perpetrators of child sexual abuse are known to the victim or their family, not strangers.

Caution and Action

Perpetrators can spot potential victims in a group of children within minutes of being exposed to them. Perhaps it’s a child who is not well liked by the child’s peers, a child who may have some physical or emotional issues, or a child from a broken home who seeks a father or mother figure.

Perpetrators often seek to gain the trust of not only the child but also adults and parents by demonstrating an interest in the child’s well-being. They may offer to help with the child’s athletic, academic, or social skills. Be aware of the potential charitable interest another adult may have in the children under your care. Just because someone is nice to your children does not mean they are a potential perpetrator. Their goals and interest may be genuine, but be aware.

Child molesters seek to seduce children into sexual activity by a process commonly known as grooming. Grooming methods may include befriending a child, buying them gifts, and treating them as a peer or special friend. This may progress to sexual conversations and jokes and seeking physical contact, such as tickling, hugging, and massage, to assess the child’s receptivity to physical intimacy. Molesters then seek opportunities to be alone with the child to facilitate sexual conduct.

Older children are susceptible to grooming, but children of any age are at risk. Many adults are surprised that some children don’t talk about physical contact. They may not recognize an abuse of trust and authority; or they may recognize the wrong and still not report it because they feel guilty about “allowing” it or because they doubt that anyone will believe them.

Reporting and Investigating

Many states or provinces have mandated reporter laws that, at a minimum, require individuals in certain professions, such as medical professionals, pastors, and teachers, to report any reasonable suspicion of child abuse to proper authorities. Some jurisdictions require anyone with reasonable suspicion to report.

Most such laws require reporting, not investigation. When a church organization first learns of suspected child sexual abuse, a question is often asked: “Is the report credible?” Questioning a child about sexual abuse should be left to persons qualified to investigate. Unqualified questioners may do harm to both child and investigation. Investigation is best left to proper authorities.

Other Measures

Churches and schools can do other things to ensure they are furthering the goal of child safety.

First, ensure that the organization follows applicable requirements for checking or screening employees and volunteers. The North American Division Working Policy FB 20 requires screening and background checking of all volunteers.

Second, the Seventh-day Adventist Church Manual includes child abuse as proper grounds for discipline,1 and sets forth certain expectations when dealing with perpetrators of sexual abuse. For example, where church attendance is allowed, perpetrators shouldn’t be placed in positions that put them in contact with children, or in positions that imply that children can trust them.2 Churches must also provide supervision to ensure that perpetrators do not have opportunities to come into contact with minors at church or through church activities. Furthermore, where a perpetrator seeks to transfer membership, “the pastor or elder should provide a confidential statement alerting the pastor or elder of the congregation to which the member is transferring.”3

Child abuse identification and prevention training are critical, and many excellent resources are available for church leaders and parents. Additional resources are available from Adventist Risk Management at Training can help parents and leaders understand what to look for to improve child safety. Watch out for inappropriate engagement with children, such as persons providing special treatment to a child, acting “flirty,” or seeking opportunities to be alone with them. Follow the guidelins found in the Seventh-day Adventist Church Manual:

  • Two-Adult Policy—Have two adults present in children’s classrooms or activities.
  • Open Door—Discourage private or one-on-one contact and encourage an open-door policy in all situations. Where an open door is not possible, station a second adult at the door.
  • Volunteer Screening—Have all volunteers complete a volunteer information form, check their references, and, if required by law, do a police background check.
  • Six-Month Policy—Require a waiting period of six months for newly baptized or transferring members who have indicated a willingness to work with children.
  • Training—Provide regular training for teachers and volunteers to help them understand and protect children and how to nurture their faith.
  • Local church leaders should consult with the conference to ascertain conference procedures and requirements, including local legal requirements for individuals working with children.”

Take children’s reports seriously and present them to authorities right away. False reports are extremely rare. Situations are often much worse than a child’s initial report. Be careful to love and support everyone involved in a report, but take proper steps to limit the accused’s access to children while the law enforcement investigation takes its course.

By becoming informed and staying diligently aware, we can cooperate with Jesus to make our church a harder target for child molesters and a safer place for His “little ones.”

  1. Seventh-day Adventist Church Manual (Silver Spring, Md.: General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, 2016), p. 62.
  2. Ibid., p. 67.
  3. Ibid., p. 53.
  4. Ibid., p. 175.

Jon Daggett and Phil Hiroshima are attorneys who have had years of experience assisting Seventh-day Adventist organizations in addressing these issues.

Jon Daggett & Phil Hiroshima