Lawsuit calls attention to duty to protect children
“Children are the living letters we send into a time we will never see.” This quote describes an adult’s sacred duty to care for a child. It is cited in Circle of Grace, a sexual-abuse prevention curriculum produced by the Catholic Archdiocese of Omaha, Neb. In 2011 a donor provided funding for a copy of Circle of Grace for every Mennonite Church USA congregation.
Tragic incidents and allegations remind us why churches need resources like Circle of Grace. They show the urgent need for churches to protect children from sexual abuse. They remind us of the far-reaching consequences when warning signs are not heeded or when secrecy prevails.
A conservative Mennonite denomination currently faces allegations of child endangerment. On Feb. 11, a national group of sexual-abuse attorneys filed a lawsuit against the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite, commonly known as the Holdeman church. The suit alleges that leaders of Mountain View Church of God in Christ, Mennonite, near Bonners Ferry, Idaho, knew that a member of the congregation was abusing his stepson but failed to report it to law enforcement.
The attorneys claim that “putting children in peril by refusing to report sexual abuse is common for Holdeman Mennonite churches.” They cite cases in British Columbia and Texas where Holdeman members were convicted of child sexual abuse or of failing to report abuse.
We hope the allegations against the Holdeman church prove to be untrue. We hope justice is done for the victim if the allegations are found to be true.
All Mennonite churches should consider the lawsuit against the Holdeman church a sobering reminder of the need to implement child-protection measures and, when evidence of abuse is found, to report it to the authorities.
Too often, a church tries to handle sexual abuse by itself, writes Jeanette Harder in Let the Children Come: Preparing Faith Communities to End Child Abuse and Neglect (Herald Press, 2010). “The church is not equipped to handle the complex nature of sexual abuse,” Harder says. It “must join with local professionals who can assist in keeping the child safe.”
There is no exemption for those who believe that a church should deal with its members’ sins internally rather than involving secular authorities. Failure to report abuse is not only a crime but an irresponsible betrayal of the child. Harder compares it to discovering that someone has heart disease but deciding the church can find a cure without medication or a doctor’s care.
Harder observes that many churches are in denial that abuse could happen in their congregation. But no church or community is immune. The nightmare that one might think is inconceivable is, in fact, possible. It does happen. The perpetrator can be a person one would never suspect. We do not have to be suspicious of others in the church, only prudent and careful, making sure a child is never left alone with an adult.
Mennonites have made progress in raising awareness of the need to prevent sexual abuse. Attention especially has been given to the abuse of women. Many congregations have implemented child-safety policies, and many more need to do so. Resources are available from Dove’s Nest, a child-safety advocacy group; SNAP-Menno, the Mennonite chapter of a survivors network that began with Catholics; and OurStoriesUntold.com; a website devoted to preventing sexualized violence among Mennonites.
According to Circle of Grace, one in four girls and one of seven boys will be sexually abused by age 18. By heeding experts’ advice to make our churches safe environments, we surround the children entrusted to our care with a circle of protection for body and soul.
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