“So, you got your Resolution for Safe Churches and Healing Communities.” A woman said to me in the parking lot after the vote had been taken by the Annual Gathering delegates. Every year, 145 United Church of Christ congregational representatives from the Southern California/ Nevada Conference (i.e., diocese) gather to assess the work they do together and propose new initiatives. She smiled and walked to her car.
“My resolution?” I thought. It’s OUR resolution. An overwhelming majority of the people who could vote voted for this, representing the collective church, based upon a central UCC principle of ‘covenant.’ Coming from a Catholic background, I jokingly call the UCC the ‘church of you can’t make me.’ The UCC operates from a grass roots, local governance model, unlike other more hierarchical models, which have been critiqued as more bureaucratic or practicing window dressing when it comes to preventing and responding to sexual abuse. This local governance model is refreshing and democratic, as well as frustrating in that it can seem very time and labor intensive to reach consensus and then implement what was reached by consensus.
My church sent the Resolution to the Conference and now it will go to the National Synod next year for acceptance by the National UCC, and I am proud of this effort.
Perhaps the only reason my church got involved with this issue was because five years ago a registered sex offender showed up one day and asked to be able to participate. And that later became the catalyst for me to take up a formal role as a Commissioned Minister for Healing and Healthy Environments, a first in the UCC and perhaps in any faith tradition. Church leaders from across the country called my pastor to ask for our policy and he urged me to take up this formal ministry (to coach ministers and lay leadership teams to create meaningful abuse prevention policies and healing practices) that I naively thought would be enthusiastically received.
I had already experienced betrayal, sexual abuse and abandonment by religious leaders through my initial experience of sexual abuse by a priest and his church employee friend, and then subsequent resistance from church leaders when I came forward in 2003. Beginning in 2010, as a Commissioned Minister, I have often experienced individual and institutional denial and resistance to engage in this work, even though I have brought resources to help. And so to speak about sexual abuse in a larger church setting with ordained and lay leaders was extraordinary.
As one person who spoke on behalf of the Resolution stated, “This isn’t the Catholic Church. We deal with things here. That’s why I’m a member of this Church.” Here is what a Church group is addressing in one region and will propose to the national denomination to respond to:
- One out of four girls and one out of six boys will be sexually abused by their 18th birthday (Finkelhor, 1990).
- The rate of child abuse is ten times the rate of cancer (Sadler, Chadwick, & Hensler, 1999).
- Ninety-three percent of sex offenders describe themselves as “religious” (Abel et al., 1987).
- Offenders known to have abused many children who maintained significant involvement with religious institutions “had more sexual offense convictions, more victims, and younger victims” (Eshuys & Smallbone, 2006).
- In a survey of 2,864 church leaders, 20% knew of a sex offender who was attending or serving as a member of their church (Liautaud, 2010).
- Many victims suffer significant emotional and spiritual damage.
And what is it that UCC members from around the country be discussing and voting on next year? I will include the actual resolution on Safe Church and Healing Communities:
“Whereas, the safety and well-being of all God’s children is of utmost importance and concern in our life and our service as the Church body of Christ;
And whereas, all forms of abusive behavior and especially sexual behavior, exacts immeasurable spiritual, psychological, and physical costs in terms of suffering, human potential, social stability, and damage to the credibility and commission of all churches;
And whereas, an estimated thirty-nine million people, alone, in the United States have experienced sexual abuse in some form;
And whereas, we , as an instrument of Christ’s compassionate peace, are called as a Church body to create environments and communities in which victims of abusive behavior can find support and healing;
And whereas, we, as an instrument of Christ’s justice, are called as a Church body to prevent abuse and abusive behavior and to deal with and resolve directly and fairly instances of abuse should such arise in our communities;
Be it resolved, that the Southern California Nevada Conference recommends the provision within the Conference of an educational program of direct curricular study and resource availability to furnish and support: 1) the development, creation, and assessment of safe church policy at the congregational, association, and conference levels; 2) the creation and maintenance of healthy and healing church communities and environments at the congregational, association, and conference levels; 3) and the development of a safe church and healthy and healing communities support network.”
No one cheered. This was no press conference or photo opportunity, although I wanted to cheer for this historic, courageous and visionary stance.
I have found that religious groups are too often places where people with imperfect lives, let alone with past trauma and shame, particularly related to sexual abuse aren’t really welcome to bring their imperfection. That is why this Resolution, this covenant, is as big as the declaration of independence.
To me, the Resolution means that we declare that we will no longer go along with the tyranny of exploitation, harassment, intimidation or sexual abuse. We covenant to begin in our own local communities the profound work of recognizing and responding to our own experiences of abuse and trauma. We commit to take action to eliminate human trafficking in all its forms, particularly commercial sexual exploitation of children.
There is an old UCC bumper sticker that reads, “To love is to care and to care is to do.” I hope the Southern California/ Nevada Conference will take action to implement this resolution and be an example for the rest of the UCC Conferences and churches across the country.