Stopping church sexual abuse takes training


Editor's note: This story has been corrected to accurately reflect why two church leaders left the ministry.

4:00 P.M. EST Jan. 31, 2011 | HOUSTON (UMNS)

The Rev. Gary Beach discusses the Kansas East Annual (regional)  Conference’s sexual-ethics policy at the “Do No Harm 2011” gathering in Houston. UMNS photos by Heather Hahn.
The Rev. Gary Beach discusses the Kansas East Annual (regional) Conference’s sexual-ethics policy at the “Do No Harm 2011” gathering in Houston. UMNS photos by Heather Hahn.
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It is the kind of news every United Methodist dreads: a pastor arrested and convicted of child molestation. Not long after, a district superintendent also left the ministry because of a case of sexual misconduct.

But since those incidents about 20 years ago, the Kansas East Annual (regional) Conference has become a model for providing churchgoers a safe sanctuary from abuse.

Background checks and special training, for example, are mandatory for anyone who works with children, youth and developmentally disabled adults, says the Rev. Gary Beach, a conference staff member.

“Out of those terrible tragedies — the innocent lives so horribly marred, careers lost — came a decision that makes me proud of my annual conference,” Beach said.

Beach was among the presenters at “Do No Harm 2011,” a Jan. 26-29 gathering on sexual ethics at First United Methodist Church, Houston. The event attracted about 320 lay and clergy leaders from 58 annual conferences, including representatives from Germany and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Also on hand were representatives from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Presbyterian Church (USA). The event’s goal was to help church leaders prevent and respond properly to allegations of sexual misconduct.

“There’s good news in that we are still working on these issues; there’s bad news in that we haven’t solved these problems,” said the Rev. Joy T. Melton, a lawyer who wrote “Safe Sanctuaries: Reducing the Risk of Abuse in the Church” and “Safe Sanctuaries for Ministers.” But she sees reason for optimism that United Methodist churches and conferences are making progress in addressing the issue of abuse.

Building a ‘Safe and Sacred Space’

One example of that progress is the Kansas East Conference.

The conference in 1994 began requiring that people undergo background checks and follow a set curriculum before working with children and youth at conference-sponsored events. The conference also encouraged local churches to follow suit.

Seven years later, only about 5 percent of the conference’s 330 congregations had agreed to follow the conference’s sexual ethics policy and procedures. And of those, Beach said, about half were skipping significant steps, such as doing full background checks.

The reluctance to implement such policies changed in 2001. Amid news reports of sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church, that year’s annual conference session overwhelmingly approved a mandate that every local church comply with the conference’s “Safe and Sacred Space” policy within 18 months.

During that period, the number of people who were conference-certified to work with youngsters grew from 650 to 6,500, about 20 percent of the conference’s average weekly worship attendance. That number has continued to grow.

As the director of connectional ministries, Beach is chairman of the conference’s sexual-ethics committee, which reviews every application for certification and also fields allegations of wrongdoing. The conference also has another staff member who oversees clergy sexual-ethics and boundary training and is on call for the bishop and district superintendents in times of crisis.

The policy affects more than just clergy and lay leaders. It also affects volunteers and employees who use churches for preschool and day care programs and Boy Scout troops. The executive of the local Boy Scouts council agreed to the Kansas East Conference’s certification requirements, saying the conference offered superior training for youth protection.

In addition to certification, the policy mandates that clergy report suspected incidents of child abuse or neglect, something not required by Kansas law.

Some question whether the conference is assuming too great a legal liability risk through its policy, Beach admitted. But he pointed to a 1993 federal law and the denomination’s Book of Discipline, which both require that anyone who works with children and youth undergo background checks. “There are risks if we don’t do anything,” he said. “There are risks if we do. We’ve decided it’s worth protecting our most vulnerable people in our churches.”

A threat for all religious groups

Sexual abuse is a problem that threatens every religious group in the United States, according to the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.

The Rev. Darryl W. Stephens (from left), Elaine Moy Johnson and the Rev. Karen A. McClintock engage in discussion at “Do No Harm 2011” sexual ethics forum.
The Rev. Darryl W. Stephens (from left), Elaine Moy Johnson and the Rev. Karen A. McClintock engage in discussion at “Do No Harm 2011” sexual ethics forum. View in Photo Gallery

“It’s not like abusers come with a red ‘S’ on their foreheads for sexual abuse,” Barbara Dorris, the group’s outreach director, said in a phone interview. “What we say is important is what you are going to do when you catch one.”

Her organization urges that congregations be fully informed when an accusation of abuse is made and law enforcement be involved right away.

“We feel that if church officials were open and honest, if they truly cared, most people don’t want a lawsuit,”” Dorris said. “Most of the survivors I talk to just want to know the predator is away from kids and nobody else is going to get hurt.”

The Rev. Karen A. McClintock, a licensed clinical psychologist and another presenter at the Houston event, agreed that greater transparency would also help wounded congregations heal.

She urges clergy and conference leaders to have confidentiality agreements that spell out that they will report if parishioners or others in their confidence are at risk of harming themselves or others. She said such disclosures would go beyond what most states require clergy and caretakers to report to law enforcement.

“We can do better than state law to protect the people of our churches,” she said.

The best practice for addressing sexual abuse is having well-trained and empowered laity, she said. Clergy often will be more inclined to defend their colleagues.

“The safest conferences are driven by laity doing this work,” McClintock said. “People are driving this from the bottom up, and that’s how we get safer.”

*Hahn is a multimedia reporter for United Methodist News Service.

News media contact: Heather Hahn, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5475 or