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Ministries Face Growing Need for Youth Protection Policies

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It’s an unfortunate truth that child abuse has run rampant in churches and ministries, often going undetected and unchecked for years or even decades.  MinistryWatch covers many of these instances as they come to light. In a recent case, an Illinois pastor resigned over allegations he knew about sexual misconduct within his church dating back to the early 2000s. In another story out of Pennsylvania, a woman who was molested as a teenager by her former pastor sued the church for failing to protect her. Hillsong Founder Brian Houston is going to trial for allegations that he covered up sex crimes committed by his late father in the 1970s. 

Everyday churchgoers’ perceptions and experiences on this issue are difficult to quantify, but one 2019 study from Lifeway Research found that 32% of Protestant church attendees believe more pastors have sexually abused children or teens than is currently known. However, fewer than 10% said they know of another church goer sexually assaulting someone or abusing a child without the event coming to light.

Churches and ministries are facing mounting pressures to implement youth protection policies, shifting from a retroactive mitigation strategy towards a more proactive and preventative approach. This could include requiring safety training, watching for abuse indicators and other warning signs, and performing background checks to preemptively block potential predators from entering their organizations. The Boy Scouts of America and Catholic Church abuse scandals are cautionary tales of what can go wrong when youth protection falls behind.

Organizations like law firms, insurance companies, investigative groups, and accreditation programs could play a key role in child protection. At the forefront of this issue is the Evangelical Council for Abuse Prevention (ECAP), which is beta testing an accreditation program to help ministries create governance to oversee child safety operations, screen and train volunteers and staff, and follow the appropriate legal and reporting standards. 

The Florida-based organization developed a set of child protection standards informed by a committee of lawyers and experts in risk management and abuse prevention. It’s now running a series of trials with a handful of charter member candidates and plans to launch the accreditation program in 2022, provided that the participating organizations are ready to be audited. 

ECAP Executive Director Jeff Dalrymple says any organization that serves or takes custody of children and youth should think proactively about developing a child protection program. 

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“Across the board, we’re seeing greater awareness of the issue of child protection in children’s ministries,” Dalrymple says. “We’re also seeing more ministries become interested in developing a response plan so that when they receive a report or allegation of abuse, they know what to do before it comes up.” However, he added, “Some ministries are not nearly as prepared as they thought. Many do not have any form of response plan.”

The accreditation program was built off a model developed by the Association of Christian Schools International. The ECAP has also worked with the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability (ECFA), Brotherhood Mutual, and Church Mutual. (ECFA President Michael Martin told MinistryWatch that while his organization doesn’t have any ongoing programs focused on youth protection, it does reference resources by other expert groups—including the ECAP—to serve its accredited members and partners.)

Pointing to the necessity of such programs, the ECAP was created in response to the Houston Chronicle’s 2019 Abuse of Faith investigations, implicating about 400 Southern Baptist leaders and volunteers who were accused of misconduct by over 700 victims since 1998. Dalrymple says these stories, alongside abuse in the Roman Catholic Church, the Boy Scouts, and USA Gymnastics, confirmed “someone needed to create standards that protect children from harm, as well as help organizations implement and sustain them.”

Dalrymple says this issue relates specifically to evangelical ministries. “There is certainly a place for secular organizations to do something like this, but our evangelical convictions are the foundation for this work, especially regarding human dignity, integrity, transparency and a biblical understanding of the stewardship of Christian ministries to use their resources to care for those they serve.”

Two of the country’s largest Scout-like ministries, American Heritage Girls (AHG) and Trail Life USA, already have their own youth protection protocols in place.

AHG, which has a membership of about 52,000 girls and women worldwide, started its child protection training program in 2002. The Ohio-based organization registers around 15,000 adult members each year, all of whom are required to take its “KEYS to Child Safety Training” course, along with board members, charter representatives, and staff. 

AHG told MinistryWatch that in addition to health and safety procedures, the training covers rules governing buddy systems, background checks, bathroom use and sleeping arrangements, adult-to-girl ratios, adult conduct, prohibiting potential grooming behaviors, and immediate reporting of any knowledge or suspicion of child abuse. If concerns are brought forward, AHG works with a risk and compliance consultant to investigate and respond alongside families, members, charters and law enforcement authorities. 

AHG Founder and Executive Director Patti Garibay says one of the challenges of maintaining youth protection training is the rapidly evolving nature of the field, as medical and social research continues to uncover new insights on the prevalence and detrimental effects of child abuse. The organization reviews and updates its training program annually to keep up with the latest trends.

“Adapting policies and practices as additional knowledge becomes available is key, especially in scout-like organizations which face unique challenges as they conduct youth programming in such a wide variety of situations,” Garibay added.  

Another Christian Scout-movement giant, Trail Life USA, has had child protection policies since its launch in 2014. The South Carolina-headquartered organization often markets itself as an alternative to Boy Scouts, drawing 11,954 adult volunteers, 22,829 youth participants and 34,783 members in total as of September 2021. Its 870 nationwide troops are owned and operated by charter organizations, typically local churches.

Last year amid the Boy Scouts bankruptcy, Trail Life CEO Mark Hancock weighed in with a statement on youth protection. “In our opinion, the direction BSA has taken over the last five or six years seems to indicate they’ve blurred the lines of sexuality at a time when boys can have a lot of uncertainty and confusion in their lives,” Hancock wrote. “This is dangerous and doesn’t protect boys—or girls—from sexual abuse or exploitation.”

Hancock tells MinistryWatch that Trail Life’s child protection policies include background checks both on first entry and periodically, safety and protection training for every adult member every other year, lanyard and member ID credentials with expirations documented in the troop management system, buddy systems, prohibiting one-on-one adult interactions and requiring at least two adults in proximity. If a violation is reported, members are immediately suspended while the incident is evaluated, and reporters must notify local authorities as mandated by their locale. To keep the process independent, Trail Life’s headquarters operation doesn’t perform its own investigations. 

Hancock says adults are enthusiastic about these commitments. “At most gatherings of adult membership where the home office [headquarters branch] is present, the question is asked, ‘Who is in charge of youth protection?’ And the answer is, ‘I am!’ as every adult takes personal responsibility for the safety of the boys.”

As the ECAP prepares to launch its accreditation program, it’s looking to engage more organizations nationwide, particularly Christian schools. Dalrymple estimates the ECAP will need around 20 to 25 charter members to launch the full program, adding, “These early trials will help us know how much adjusting will be necessary.”

Dalrymple emphasizes the need for ministries to step up in this area, even if they don’t use the ECAP. 

“There are many companies and organizations doing good work in the field of child protection, but there’s still a long way to go,” Dalrymple says. “Greater improvement for organizations starts with assessing your organization’s program. How do ministry leaders know that they’re doing what they need to do to protect children?”

Resources and further reading for ministries:  

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Shannon Cuthrell

Shannon Cuthrell is a journalist with a background covering business, technology and economic development. She has written for Business North Carolina magazine, WRAL TechWire, Charlotte Inno and EE Power, among other publications.