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Toward a Safer Congregation

General Assembly 2007 Event 3028
Annie Scott, Director of Religious Education, Atkinson Memorial Church, Oregon City, Oregon, Rev. Dana Worsnop, parish minister, Atkinson Memorial Church

On January 31, 2005, Annie Scott, the Director of Religious Education at Atkinson Memorial Church in Oregon City, Oregon, was sitting at home. It was about four in the afternoon on her day off, and she was watching the local news on television. The lead story was about a man who had been arrested for possessing child pornography, and for molesting his teenaged son. Scott thought that it was odd that the accused had the same name as a beloved member of Atkinson Memorial Church. And then they showed a mug shot of the man—the beloved member of her church was the man who was accused of child molestation.

Scott and the Rev. Dana Worsnop, the parish minister at Atkinson Memorial Church, shared their experiences after the arrest and conviction of this beloved church member in a workshop. They wanted to let other congregations know that such a crisis is survivable. They also wanted to let other congregations know about the safe congregation policies and practices they had in place which allowed them to emerge from the crisis relatively unscathed.

Worsnop found out about the arrest when a member of the congregation called to tell her about it. Immediately after that first call, Worsnop received a call from a local television station wanting her to comment on the arrest. And almost immediately, "the TV news vans were circling the church," Worsnop said. Fortunately, Worsnop had had training in media relations, and was comfortable talking with reporters.

"Most of what we're going to tell you happened in a week," said Scott. "But it felt like about three months."

The first step Scott and Worsnop took was to gather together a team of lay leaders from the church to address the situation. Scott sent out a very brief email message, simply stating that a church member had been arrested, and that when they knew more they would inform the congregation.

The next day, Worsnop called other ministers for advice on how to handle the situation. They provided her with good sound advice, telling her for example that her congregation should retain a lawyer immediately. Staff members at the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) were also very helpful. "The level of support we got was fantastic," she said. "Staff members gave us their home numbers and cell numbers." Rev. William Sinkford, the president of the UUA, even called her to say that he would provide support if needed.

"One of the lessons from this is get help from outside the congregation," Worsnop said.

Based on the advice they received, the congregation retained a lawyer and called an emergency meeting of their board that night so the Board could consult with the lawyer.

At that Board meeting, their lawyer questioned them closely about their child protection policies and practices. Fortunately, when Scott had arrived at the church in 2001, after years of experience as a Director of Religious Education, she helped the congregation establish sound and straightforward child protection policies, such as insuring that there were two adults working with minors at all times. A board member recalled that Scott had made a "big deal" out of child protection at Sunday school teacher training sessions. And all employees were required to undergo criminal background checks. Based on this information, their lawyer was able to tell them that their "liability exposure was really low," Scott recalled.

Worsnop noted that communication with the congregation "became a real conundrum." The church leadership felt they should communicate as much as possible about the situation. But their lawyer told them, as Worsnop recalled, "do not put anything in email that you don't want to see on the front page of the newspaper."

"Who are we going to communicate with, and how?" Wosnop asked herself. The church leadership did "as much face to face communication as possible."

Scott added, "We realized the ones who were closest" to the accused man needed the most immediate attention. Therefore, on Wednesday night, the night after the emergency board meeting, church leaders met with parents of teenagers. This was both because the man who had been arrested had been accused of molesting a teenager, and also because he had had paid and volunteer positions working with teens at the church.

"We had a very simple format" for the meetings, Scott said. "We told them everything we knew, and everything we didn't know." After that, "we gave them a chance to say what was on their hearts and minds, without a lot of crosstalk."

A whole range of emotions came up at these meetings. But, Worsnop recalled, people were not blaming each other, or blaming the church. "Fortunately, the congregation had established good right relations with each other before this all happened."

Worsnop had developed good relations with local media outlets, and that also proved to be a benefit during this crisis situation. They got sympathetic coverage in the local newspaper. Additionally, other news stories quickly became more prominent. "The story died within a couple of days in the news," said Worsnop.

Worsnop went to the accused man's arraignment. She realized from the number and specificity of the counts brought against the accused that this was probably not a false accusation. The man later did plead guilty, and was sentenced to 18 years in prison.

The church decided that while they had to distance themselves institutionally, Worsnop would reach out personally and pastorally to the accused. She visited him weekly in the county jail until he was finally sentenced. Worsnop consulted with the congregation's lawyer to understand how far her conversations with the accused would be protected by confidentiality.

Soctt and Worsnop noted that the church consulted with an expert on pedophilia. They learned that there is a wide range of sexual predators. Worsnop said that they discovered, "We had a sociopath in our midst."

That Sunday, six days after the accusations first became public, Scott met with the children and teens of the church to talk with them in "developmentally appropriate ways" about the situation. The 7th-8th grade group had the most questions for her. The accused had been one of their current Sunday school teachers, and he had been a leader in the Our Whole Lives sexuality education program for that age group. "They asked lots and lots of question," Scott recalled.

Following the worship service, there was a congregational meeting to inform the congregation more fully about the situation, and to allow time for people to ask questions and express their feelings. Worsnop said that the church leadership asked newcomers and visitors not to attend this meeting, and to "respect our need to discuss things among ourselves." During this meeting, Scott arranged for nearby UU churches to provide child care.

On Sunday evening, Worsnop and Scott met with the youth group, consisting of high school age teens. "It was extraordinary to listen to our kids talk about this," said Worsnop, "that this man they had trusted so much, that turned out to be so untrustworthy." In response to a question from the audience, she added, "There were a couple of youth who came back who said, 'Yeah, I never liked him.' And one of the teenagers also said, 'But everyone else seemed to like him so much, so I figured he must be OK,'" Worsnop recalled.

Scott said that meetings with parents also continued. "We had parent meetings until the parents wouldn't come any more," she said.

Scott and Worsnop summarized their basic learnings from this event.

"Get your policies and practices in place," Scott said. "Policies protect the institution, and practices protect the individuals."

"If you have a crisis, get a lawyer right away," Worsnop said.

"Find a sexual abuse expert," said Scott. "And go shopping, find one you can trust."

"Even though you are in shock or denial, pull together without pulling inwards on one another," Worsnop said.

Scott noted that a good relationship between the minister and the director of religious education meant they had a good idea of who would do what. That was important because there was so much to do, especially in the first week.

"Communicate as much as you can, as much as possible face to face, as early and as often as possible," said Worsnop. They were very grateful that they didn't have a church email list, because "that could have made things worse."

Reported by Dan Harper, edited by Jone Johnson Lewis.

For more information contact web @ uua.org.

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Last updated on Thursday, September 8, 2011.

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