By Shawn T. Yingling
Churches and other faith-based organizations that supervise or work with youth are under a legal and moral obligation to protect against sexual abuse and misconduct. Some suggestions:
Employee / worker selection. Formal applications, professional and personal reference checks, and face-to-face applicant interviews — followed up with thorough background checks for employees, volunteers, board members and others affiliated, or doing regular work with, the organization — will help mitigate the risk.
Investigation and response procedures. Investigate allegations of sexual abuse or misconduct, even if the accusation might seem unbelievable. Follow the legal requirements in your state to report allegations or incidents of sexual abuse or misconduct to appropriate law enforcement or child protective services organizations.
Internal investigation procedures. Following standardized internal investigation and interviewing procedures will help ensure uniformity and fairness. It’s recommended that those within the organization designated as internal investigators receive training on how to respond appropriately (and legally) to sexual abuse or misconduct suspicions or accusations.
Increase awareness of how to report sexual abuse and misconduct. Victims and witnesses of abuse or misconduct might not complain where there’s a lack of knowledge (or trust) of internal reporting, investigative and resolution processes. Ensure persons affiliated with the organization are aware of internal and external complaint and investigation procedures. Publish a written sexual abuse and misconduct prevention policy that’s easy to understand, and deliver it to persons associated with the organization.
Lack of knowledge. Periodic and wide dissemination of how to report sexual abuse or misconduct helps empower the most vulnerable to seek internal or external resolution.
Lack of power. Victims of abuse and misconduct are often persons without power, authority or tenure. They might fear lodging a complaint against a long-term and respected individual within the organization. Victims, witnesses or others made aware of wrongdoing might not trust the neutrality and transparency of the organization’s internal investigation or response processes when the alleged offender is a prominent figure in the organization. Consider maintaining a business relationship with an outside risk management consultant or group to highlight the organization’s pledge to avoid an abuse of power, internal cover-up or lack of transparency.
Training for all groups. Train employees, volunteers and youth associated with the organization and their parents or guardians on the prevention of sexual abuse and misconduct. Allow the opportunity for questions to be answered during and after training sessions. A victim, witness or other person that suspects or learns of sexual abuse or misconduct might feel most comfortable asking a trainer questions in confidence after a group training session because of the serious nature of the subject matter. Consider using a professional from outside the organization to facilitate training on sexual abuse and misconduct prevention for all groups.
Signed acknowledgement forms. Employees, volunteers, board members and youth affiliated with the organization and their parents or guardians should receive and sign acknowledgement forms. Well-written forms include statements that the organization will conduct a prompt and thorough internal investigation and complete a conflict-of-interest check to ensure persons named in a complaint will not be part of the investigative team or efforts. Persons should also acknowledge their understanding that an outside third-party investigator might be used to resolve allegations of wrongdoing. Lastly, give persons an opportunity to ask questions about the organization’s sexual abuse and misconduct policy, accompanying training and content of the acknowledgement form.
Shawn T. Yingling is the president of Glatfelter Religious Practice in York, PA.