Safe sanctuary movement fights complacency, denial


By Marta W. Aldrich

United Methodist News Service

NASHVILLE — Ten years after the United Methodist Church launched its “safe sanctuary” movement to protect children from sexual abuse, the attorney who spearheaded the program believes the church must guard against complacency or be prepared to face a multitude of lawsuits.


The Rev. Joy Melton says safe sanctuary policies and procedures are wonderful — except when they are merely on the books and not followed. Then, when a child abuse incident does occur, such policies actually open up churches to lawsuits that can lead to massive settlements and damage awards.


“A plaintiff’s lawyer will turn to a jury and say, ‘How much more negligent can the church be but to know how to prevent this problem, yet be too busy?’” said Melton, who consults with churches and denominations on child abuse prevention and risk management for ministries. “When a jury hears that, they will just keep adding zeros to the award.”


Her comments were made during the July 26-29 “Do No Harm” conference sponsored by five United Methodist agencies on sexual ethics.


The author of Safe Sanctuaries: Reducing the Risk of Child Abuse in the Church and Safe Sanctuaries for Youth, Melton is also a clergy member of the North Georgia Annual Conference.


However, the situation is a bit different in the Mississippi Conference, says Alicia Beam-Ingram, who attended the conference.


“I don’t think that complacency is the issue in this conference. It may be more denial ‘that can’t happen in my church’ or ‘we are a small church and can’t pay for background checks’ that are our greatest obstacles,” said Beam-Ingram, a deacon and the manager of Cokesbury Bookstore in Ridgeland. “Melton says, ‘You can pay me now or you can pay me a whole more lot later.’


“This past Sunday morning in the youth Sunday school class we talked about all the new teachers that were going to be in the schools. The youth said that some of these teachers replaced the alleged child molesters who were fired.


“I hope soon that there will not be these or any obstacles in our way.”


The Mississippi Conference has an agreement with Trak-1 Technologies to provide thorough, low-cost background checks to every church and church-related agency within the annual conference. For details on the background checks click here. 


For as low as approximately $9 per person, the church will have the availability to run a multi-state criminal and sexual offender search plus a Social Security trace which will verify the person’s identity. For a slight increase in price a motor vehicles check can also be run to inform the church of the driving record of those transporting persons within a congregation and community. 


Melton urged strict adherence to safe sanctuary policies, such as background checks for all people who work with children and youth, and as much insurance coverage as churches and conferences can afford.


In 1996, the United Methodist General Conference, the denomination’s top legislative body, passed a resolution calling on every church to develop policies and procedures to reduce the risk of child sexual abuse in its ministries and facilities. The Mississippi Conference passes a similar resolution at the 2006 Annual Conference.


“I think (the resolution) is a testament to our non-complacency and our strident efforts to be who Jesus expects us to be,” Beam-Ingram said.


Advocate Editor Woody Woodrick contributed to this report.