SAFE SPACES FOR CHILDREN CONVOCATION by Kirsten Lee, Second-year M. Div.

The Wartburg Seminary community recently met for a convocation entitled “Creating and Maintaining Safe Spaces for Children” in our congregations, communities, and homes. Victor Vieth, Senior Director & Founder of the National Child Protection Training Center at Gundersen Health System lead the convocation. Victor is also a current Wartburg Seminary student expecting to graduate with a Master of Arts this spring.

The convocation addressed the impact abuse can have on a survivor’s spirituality during and after the childhood abuse. A study of 527 child abuse victims reported having “significant spiritual injury”, but also reported praying more frequently and having a “spiritual experience” (Lawson, et al, Child Abuse & Neglect (1998)).  Every child is impacted spiritually; questions of faith, love, and forgiveness remain long after abuse ends. Questions, such as, “How is God present in my abuse,” or “What does this say about God or me” remain long after the abuse occurs.  As church leaders, we are encouraged to find similar questions in scripture as we help survivors find their own words through scripture. Religious and spiritual forms of coping “contribute to decreased symptoms, greater self-esteem, and overall greater life satisfaction.” (Bryant-Davis 2012).

Tragically, clergy may sometimes use a “religious cover” to justify the abuse (i.e. their “good works” overshadow the abuse; God gave this child to me).  Clergy often communicate this cover to the victims, which leads to a greater impact on spirituality. Offenders often seek churches because of weak policies, unconditional love and forgiveness, and as a safe place to have access to children.  This demands a need for churches to create and regularly update policies to protect children from abuse (click here for more information) and provide educational opportunities for both clergy and parishioners.

Vieth also shared insight on how church leaders might address the spiritual needs of both survivors and offenders. He offered practical tips for providing pastoral care to both groups of people based on their unique needs, including the need to stay within the pastoral field of expertise and coordinate with law professionals, mental health therapists, and community leaders.

The following are quotes from students who attended this convocation. Students were asked to reflect further on how they were impacted as church leaders by this convocation. Several students responded with comments on how their own experience with child abuse has impacted their spiritual growth and their growth as a church leader.

“It is a great tragedy that these abuses happen not only at home but also in churches, as the media has been opening our eyes to in recent years. I feel all church leaders should be aware of this and for their own sake take courses on boundaries. Once leaders know their boundaries, it is crucial to become informed on how to spot abuses happening and how to respond. The church should never have and can never again ignore abuse or use Scripture to keep people in abusive situations. In my opinion, the worst thing to happen is for leaders to say to themselves in retrospect, ‘How did I not see this? All the clues were right in front of me and I missed it.’ The Church’s business IS the well-being of the lives of humans.”

“Aside from leaders being educated on the signs of abuse and what to do, churches need to also educate others. We need to offer educational events that are free and open to all to come and learn. Churches can also make it a part of their constitution/mission to safeguard children and all who are abused. In cases of caring for the abused, it takes a village. Churches and their members can offer safe spaces, food, basic needs, resources in the community, and someone to talk to. The worst thing the church can do in any situation of such grief is to ignore or deny the problem/situation. If the cross is truly part of the Church’s identity, we must be ready and willing to enter into the death and darkness of this world.”

“I have attended two ‘Safe-guarding God’s Children’ workshops through the ELCA.  I highly encourage that we students attend one of these training sessions.  After having done so, I saw that my home congregation was very negligent in having safety policies and screenings of volunteers working with children.  We immediately worked on implementing policies and guidelines, as well as background checking all volunteers. This convocation affirmed the necessity for continual reevaluation of policies and training.  I had not previously thought of the abuse that occurs with religion used as part of the abuse.  This was very eye opening to me.”

“My heart is broken, and also uplifted. I was hurt as a child, so it hit particularly close to home. The convocation shows a stark reality of the church’s failure, yet it offers hope because a room full of church leaders were similarly heartbroken. We will go into the church shaped by what we learned, protecting children, and perhaps leading predators to get the help they need. I also see the enormity of the work we have to do. There is no excuse for the church to have let itself become a place where predators go because it’s easy. The church has failed in this. And I hope we can make it succeed.”

“The subject of child abuse of all kinds is often taboo. This convocation brought the language to light. Child abuse must be talked about. The stigma towards admitting the church has a problem must be overcome. The Church can host community forums and offer training, or at least, a location for another organization to do trainings for their volunteers. Churches need a policy with an annual review. Volunteers must be trained. For the sake of children, complacency isn’t good enough. The topic needs to be brought out into the open.”

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