How often have you heard church peeps say, “We’re not worried about child protection issues. After all, we’re a small church, everyone knows everyone, and we’d immediately know if something was wrong?”
If you’re like many Episcopalians, you’ve heard this before. That’s particularly the case as you contemplate a not-so-fun day spent in sexual misconduct prevention training.
But we’re here to tell you: Not only are chances good that you have at least one predator right under your nose, but you probably wouldn’t know one, even in your own family.
For starters, many dioceses have transitioned to all-online training. That’s a huge mistake, as key messaging in large organizations is seldom delivered via canned videos.
Why is that?
The answer is simple: it’s because people need interaction to engage.
As a former diocese sexual misconduct prevention trainer, my experience is that people learn best when they are invited into conversation.
Thus, questions like, “Are there situations in which a clergyperson can have an intimate relationship with a parishioner and it is the parishioner’s fault?,” encourage church members to explore issues while respecting the fact that they often instinctively know the answers.
On the other hand, online training often becomes a case of letting the video run in the background while talking on the phone, cooking dinner, or writing Sunday’s sermon. As a result, it’s a case of in-one-ear-out-the-other-mark-the-checkbox-and-done.
In other words, in many situations, online-only training is worse than no training because it creates the illusion of compliance but none of the expected education. That produces a false sense of security.
You won’t know him when you meet him
To illustrate the importance of meaningful training, I’d like to share my experience with a pedophile in my family.
For many years, one of our favorite couples in our extended family were James and Mary (not their real names). They taught at a prestigious college on the east coast, with Mary holding her Ph.d. and James completing all his doctoral requirements except for his dissertation.
We enjoyed spending time with both. Educated, sophisticated, and articulate, James and Mary had a lovely apartment in an area with numerous restaurants, museums, and other attractions.
For this story, it’s also important to know that I’m a former police officer.
As a result, I carefully observe my surroundings. It’s just second nature.
At any given moment, I can accurately describe the last ten people to pass by, tell which mile marker we’re at, and where the nearest exit is.
I’m also the sort of guy who remembers the license plate of the odd car in the neighborhood, spots the inconsistencies in written testimony, and quickly spots a liar.
But one day, I got a really ugly surprise.
It was late one evening, and we were sitting in front of the fireplace, enjoying a cold glass of wine.
Uncharacteristically for that time of day, the phone rang, and it was Mary.
“James has been arrested,” she said breathlessly. “And the police are at the door.”
I initially thought this was a case of DUI or maybe marijuana–offenses prevalent in college communities.
So, my reaction was to say, “Tell them to get a warrant. Then pick up the phone and call an attorney. Say nothing otherwise.”
But as the story unfurled, the details were alarming.
James, it turned out, had crossed state lines to meet with what he thought was a 12-year-old female. Instead, law enforcement was on the other end of the chat, and he was facing possible state and federal charges.
James eventually posted bail, and the local courts granted Mary an emergency divorce. But not before Mary discovered that James had opened credit cards in their joint names, running up mountains of debt.
Moreover, his reason for leaving the apartment, ostensibly to make photocopies for his dissertation, was a lie.
He had done nothing to prepare for his dissertation, even as he told the school where he worked that it was a work in progress.
When the police eventually searched the apartment, they found a carefully guarded laptop with child pornography, printed materials, and sex toys relevant only to a child predator.
Mary was beyond horrified. And police were initially dubious, as James’ sex toys were almost in plain sight. But as the investigation progressed, it was clear that Mary was as much a victim as anyone.
To add to the mess, a Google alert for his name popped up on a bulletin board on Yahoo! India while James awaited trial. It turns out this is a common tactic for pedophiles, and he previously had held group sexual activities in the basement of their apartment building when Karen was not around.
I want to tell you I had my suspicions, that something felt off, or that James had shifty little weasel eyes. But none of this would be true.
Indeed, in retrospect, the only thing was a fleeting thought that James’ parents must have been helping out, as their apartment was nicer than I would expect for two struggling graduate students. But that was a passing thought, and I gave the matter no further thought.
Nor is my experience uncommon.
Indeed, in a case near me, Episcopal clergy testified about the defendant’s stellar reputation in the community.
That, until another child without any connection to the original case came forward with allegations startlingly similar to the original complaint.
The moral of this story is simple: don’t think for a moment that your church is safe because it’s small. Or because everyone knows everyone. Or because your members with access to children have been members for years.
Because if, with my background, I didn’t recognize the predator right under my nose, it’s not likely you will.
And child abuse is considered widely under-reported, possibly by as much as 80 percent. Thus, official statistics, which show that one in five girls and one in ten boys are sexually abused before they turn 18, are too low.
Even worse, given that my predator-in-law was holding group orgies in the basement of his building, it seems clear that these deadly riptides, which run right below the surface of society, are broader, deeper, and more treacherous than any of us realize. Indeed, my understanding is that James’ computer has proved to be a treasure trove of emails, IP addresses, URLs, and other information about hundreds of child predators worldwide.
So, next time your church has sexual misconduct prevention training, please don’t sigh and think about all the other things you could be doing with the time.
And if you are a bishop or other judicatory, know that the current reliance on Praesidium courses is a huge mistake. While online courses are important in preventing abuse, nothing replaces in-person training.
The current approach, which relies almost exclusively on virtual training, places adults, children, and the church at profound risk.
And finally, there is nothing more disheartening than to see that multiple dioceses, including Virginia, have not yet adopted the model policies and audit requirements mandated by General Convention 79. Adopting these measures should be among the church’s highest priorities, yet almost 6 years later, people still can’t be bothered.
How very sad.
– E. Bonetti, editor