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Ten years later: safe sanctuary movement fights complacency

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A UMNS photo by Larry Nelson

Participants sing a hymn during worship at the “Do No Harm” conference.
Aug. 2, 2006

By Marta W. Aldrich*

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (UMNS)—Ten years after the United Methodist Church launched its “safe sanctuary” movement to protect children from sexual abuse, the attorney who spearheaded the program believes the church must guard against complacency or be prepared to face a multitude of lawsuits.

According to the Rev. Joy Melton, safe sanctuary policies and procedures are wonderful--except when they are merely on the books and not followed. Then, when a child abuse incident does occur, such policies actually open up churches to lawsuits that can lead to massive settlements and damage awards.

“We’re going to have a plaintiff’s lawyer be able to turn to a jury and say, ‘How much more negligent can the church be than to know how to prevent this problem and be too busy to bother?’” said Melton, who consults with churches and denominations on child abuse prevention and risk management for ministries. “Friends, when a jury hears a plaintiff’s lawyer (ask) that question, all they’re going to do is add more zeroes to the end of the dollar amount they choose.”

Her comments were made during the July 26-29 “Do No Harm” conference sponsored by five United Methodist agencies on sexual ethics. The author of Safe Sanctuaries: Reducing the Risk of Child Abuse in the Church and Safe Sanctuaries for Youth, Melton is also a clergy member of the North Georgia Annual Conference.

A decade ago, Melton could settle church child abuse cases out of court for less than $1,000 to cover the costs of medical care and counseling. “Now our society realizes churches can be brought into court, and the demands for settlement are in the millions,” she said. “Sexual abuse in the church is the one and only issue that has the power to bankrupt our church.”

Melton urged strict adherence to safe sanctuary policies, such as background checks for all people who work with children and youth, and as much insurance coverage as churches and conferences can afford.

In 1996, the United Methodist General Conference, the denomination’s top legislative body, passed a resolution calling on every church to develop policies and procedures to reduce the risk of child sexual abuse in its ministries and facilities. Regional training sessions followed, inviting conferences to send representatives who could return and train local churches on safe sanctuary procedures.

“Since that first training, some conferences have really embraced it, some are just now getting started, and some who did it early have waned and need to pick it back up,” noted Mary Alice Gran, director of children’s ministries for the denomination’s Board of Discipleship.

According to Gran, the biggest hurdle is church leaders who are in denial that child sexual abuse can occur in their congregation. “They say, ‘We’re a family. It can’t happen here.’”

Melton pointed out that three million incidents of child abuse are reported annually in the United States, and 88 percent are perpetrated by an adult who is known, loved and trusted.

“With numbers like this, we can’t think of child abuse as a Catholic problem,” she said, referring to a barrage of lawsuits against the U.S. Catholic Church, charging many of its priests with child sexual abuse.

Melton added that sexual predators are increasingly targeting the church because other child-serving institutions like scouting, youth athletics and schools have implemented policies to screen out potential abusers and to find trustworthy workers.

“(Predators) know they can get into the church easier than they can any other institution. We can never let our guard down,” she said.

*Aldrich is a freelance journalist in Franklin, Tenn.

News media contact: Tim Tanton, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or

Video Highlights: The Rev. Joy Melton

“Which 1 out of 3 will be a victim?”

“We are going to be sued with new allegations.”

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