Safe Church—Observe and Report
In a perfect world those who take advantage of vulnerable individuals would not exist. Until then, our Seventh-day Adventist churches, schools, and institutions should be safe havens to all. Members and visitors should expect that they will be safe from the reaches of those who target weak persons.
Predators (who take advantage of those who are weak and/or elderly, and children) often find in churches or schools ideal places to search out their next victims. We often think of sexual predators who take advantage of children and vulnerable adults, but predators also prey on seniors in our congregations, especially as it relates to finances.
Churches and schools need to be like families, taking care of each other. The expression “if you see something, say something” is often heard in our societies. But before individuals are in a position to say something, they need to be educated, to be trained to observe, and to know what to look for. Leaders of local churches need to educate members to recognize symptoms of physical, financial, and sexual abuse. Training such as that required by the North American Division for all volunteers should be the goal of every organization.
The Seventh-day Adventist Church Manual states: “In order to safeguard our children, churches are encouraged to adopt policies that would provide a measure of safety and protection for children.”¹ Such policies should include, among other things, volunteer screening that requires “all volunteers [to] complete a volunteer information form, check their references, and, if required by law, do a police background check.”²
The Church Manual also states that churches should “provide regular training for teachers and volunteers to help them understand and protect children and how to nurture their faith.”³ Training is important so that individual members not only know what is required by law in their particular jurisdictions as far as reporting to authorities, but also understand what signs to look for.
If observation is made, how should church members handle what they have observed?
Rather than taking matters into their own hands and investigating on their own, they should first report to the pastor or head elder, who then should report all such incidents to the authorities. Members should be vigilant and observant, so that predators will recognize that opportunities for abuse do not exist in environments in which every member is vigilant.
There may be times individuals accused and convicted of such offenses ask to be admitted back into church membership. According to the Church Manual: “When dealing with perpetrators of sexual abuse, it should be remembered the restoration to membership does not remove all consequences of such a serious violation. While attendance at church activities may be permissible with properly established guidelines, a person convicted or disciplined for sexual abuse should not be placed in a role which could put them in contact with children, youth, and other vulnerable individuals. Neither shall they be given any position which would encourage vulnerable individuals to trust them implicitly.”⁴
Church members and leaders must protect the church and all who come within its doors.
At the same time, we have to be careful not to spread false rumors before accusations have been duly investigated by the authorities. Authorities must be allowed to do their work in an efficient and timely manner.
Karnik Doukmetzian is director of the Office of General Counsel for the General Conference.
¹ Seventh-day Adventist Church Manual (Silver Spring, Md.: General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, 2016), p. 175.
⁴ Ibid., p. 67.
"Safe Church Features" article was originally published in Adventist World, September 2019. Online article posted 09-01-2019.
Published in Mosaic newsletter, 2020 Q3