Louis A. Butcher, Jr., Making places of worship safe havens for children, Lancaster Online

Ever since the child abuse scandals in the Roman Catholic Church a number of years ago, there has been a heightened awareness that children need to be protected even in places that already should be considered safe havens.

Now, because of the recent crimes against children by a trusted, public figure — former Penn State football coach, Jerry Sandusky — the whole issue of child protection has been brought to the forefront.

New state legislation has placed a greater emphasis on the need for nonprofit organizations and places of worship of all sizes and creeds to maintain a healthy, safe environment for all children involved in the community they create. There now must be more thorough screening and closer scrutiny of the volunteer corps that help run these organizations. While training and greater awareness is clearly essential for those serving children, Samaritan Counseling Center of Lancaster has been ahead of the curve.

In 2011 under the leadership of Linda Crockett, Samaritan Counseling Center initiated a program called SafeChurch. Samaritan’s premise, according to the explanation on their website, is that a “safe church sees itself as a sanctuary where one finds protection, support, guidance and the presence of God.” They point out that their SafeChurch Project is designed to protect children and youth from sexual abuse. Their program helps churches to “create policies and guidelines developed in alignment with (their) mission and theological understanding to create a sanctuary where all can gather in an atmosphere of trust and safety.”

The concept they use is to form clusters of churches from different traditions to attempt to shift the congregational culture toward the protection of children — those faith institutions are encouraged to provide and foster an environment in which youth are protected from sexual harm wherever they live, play or go to school.

A typical cluster consists of six to nine churches. This model is working and 47 churches have completed training programs through Samaritan.

According to Diane Renfro, program administrator for education and consultation at Samaritan, the concept of SafeChurch was born when Crockett was working with individual churches and pastors. The idea emerged that there would be value in having congregations trained before situations arose that would be devastating to a child and the congregation as well. As a result this training program was established. Samaritan secured a grant to develop policies and procedures that could be used by churches to help prevent sexual abuse.

Churches were engaged in the SafeChurch project prior to the Sandusky case, but in the years since his crimes were made public, a much greater sensitivity to the need to protect children has developed. The Sandusky case also prompted the passage of legislation that now mandates that volunteers who work with children have a child abuse certification and are mandated reporters — that is, they must report abuse to civil authorities. It’s not optional.

The program is structured in the local church under a team concept. Team members are designated to go to the trainings and develop policy and procedures for their church. There are typically six team meetings over the course of a year and then a seventh in which staff, volunteers and others come together to celebrate what has been accomplished.

Churches that have finished the program are listed on the Samaritan Center’s website so that the public may know what churches have completed SafeChurch training.

All churches should know that there are now compliance issues. Churches are not mandated to have training; however, to help ensure that their facilities are safe havens for their young people, there are policies and procedures available through Samaritan Center that can really assist congregations in meeting their goals.

We live in a different era today. People from all walks of life abuse children. Because of their open and welcoming nature, churches and other faith-based institutions could be places frequented by those who wish to exploit children.

We must be vigilant.

A program like SafeChurch can make the job easier.

Full article: http://lancasteronline.com/opinion/columnists/making-places-of-worship-safe-havens-for-children/article_4c867a1a-6df3-11e5-a93e-0b1a96a784cf.html