Congregation Policies and Practices
Congregations need to consider three major components to assure that theirs is a safe space for children, youth, and vulnerable adults. They are:
- Policies and procedures developed and implemented for keeping children, youth and vulnerable adults safe from sexual abuse.
- Policies and procedures developed and implemented for educating adults, youth, and children in the congregation about child sexual abuse and prevention.
- Policies and procedures developed and implemented for responding to a person who has been convicted or accused of sexual offenses against children, youth or adults.
These components will vary by congregation. The size of the congregation, the physical layout of the congregation, the personal histories of the minister and the congregants, and other factors will influence development and implementation. If such policies and procedures are not now in place begin the process of addressing these issues. Adapt or modify these suggestions to meet the specific needs of your communities. Guidelines and forms are templates for discussion and deliberation. There is no “one size fits all approach” to these complex issues. Each congregation will decide what is right and fitting for you. Further this is a process—it may take a year or two to put all of these recommendations into place. The following recommendations are offered as starting points, as procedures to consider. They are based on best practices of existing congregational policies, expert advice and consultation.
A congregation may have a Task Force on the Sexually Healthy Congregation which will provide recommendations to the Board of Trustees and the Ministers on all areas of sexuality: worship, pastoral care, lifespan education, welcoming and affirming congregations, social action, and safe policies. Other congregations that view these areas of sexuality as distinct and separate may choose instead to have a “Safe Congregations Committee” that has the responsibility for developing safety policies and procedures without the broader responsibilities of the Task Force mentioned above. In other cases, a new committee may be formed to deal with child sexual abuse prevention and safety. [For more information on creating sexually healthy congregations, see D.W. Haffner, “A Time to Build: Creating Sexually Healthy Congregations,” CT: Religious Institute on Sexual Morality, Justice, and Healing, 2003.]
However named, the committee will meet to review this manual and its suggested policies. Committee members will review the background information on child sexual abuse prevention and sex offenders and seek assistance from local community resources, the UUA District Office serving that congregation and/or from the UUA's Congregational Services staff as needed.
The committee will recommend to the Board of Trustees adapting, amending, or adopting policies for screening of all employees and volunteers who come into contact with children and youth and a draft of a Limited Access Agreement or check list.
The committee, with the advice and consent of the Board of Trustees, will name a Sexual Misconduct and Abuse Response Team (or other name deemed appropriate) generally made up of the minister, the Religious Educator, and three members of the congregation, preferably with experience in sexual abuse issues. Gender balance will be given consideration in appointments. Some congregations have developed a panel of six to eight members of the congregation who can be called upon as needed to form a response team. Although some congregations form such a response team only after there has been an allegation, this is unlikely to provide the wisdom and continuity that is required.
The Sexual Misconduct and Abuse Response team will generally have the following responsibilities:
- Know about community resources for child abuse, treatment for sex offenders, and support groups for survivors.
- Know about state laws regarding reporting.
- Be a resource for people to share their concerns.
- Evaluate applications for religious education teachers and youth group leaders that are flagged by the religious professionals in the congregation as needing more information or follow up. Facilitate annual training for religious education staff and volunteers on issues, policies, and procedures relevant to sexual/physical abuse.
- Work with the Religious Education committee to assure that the sex abuse education sections of the Our Whole Lives curricula are offered at each age level.
- Meet with sex offenders to develop a Limited Access Agreement for participation in church activities.
- Receive allegations of possible abuse, and develop a process for expediential handling of such allegations.
This committee will offer a report at each annual meeting of the congregation. Policies will appear at least annually in the congregation newsletter, will be used as appropriate in training/orientation for leaders and teachers, and be included in new member packets.