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Two weeks ago, a small town minister stepped away from his podium and told his whole congregation of families with a great deal of passion:

“I have to say something. There is a lot of upsetting news that can be confusing for a Christian. I just want to be clear about where we stand in our church. Children should never be hurt, here or anyplace else. It is unacceptable to harm children. If you see anything that concerns you, you must take action. First, go to the police and get help for this child as quickly as you can. Because my job is to provide support, please talk with me as well. I am now making each of you a mandated reporter – if you think a child might be getting harmed, do not assume that someone else is fixing it. Take personal responsibility by doing something to stop it!

Afterwards, a mother of two young girls from that church told me about his speech. She said, “I so appreciated that our minister gave such a clear message to everyone without ever using the words ‘child abuse,’ giving details about what happened, or singling out any religion.”  She explained to her daughters afterwards that, while some people did things that hurt kids and then tried to pretend it didn’t happen, “we are not going to let this happen in our church!”

Think of how much suffering could have been and will be prevented if every religious and spiritual leader gives and keeps giving this powerful message to their community!

If you are a member of any kind of spiritual or faith community – here’s something you can do to help ensure that children are being treated safely: Ask your leaders make a strong statement like the minister.

It can be as short and simple as, “Harming any child is wrong, no matter who does it! And standing by or covering it up is also wrong, no matter who does it. We are each personally responsible for keeping kids safe in this community.” Make sure that child protection policies and practices, including background checks, are clearly defined and consistently upheld.

Sadly, I must also acknowledge here that in some places, police are not seen as a safe way to get help for children. In this case, the plan might be to make a report to social services or some other outside authority with the power to deal with the problem in a way that promotes safety and support for the children as the first priority.

You can also share these excerpts from the Spiritual Safety chapter in our new book, Doing Right by Our Kids, about how to safeguard children while encouraging them to respect their faith.

Children need people in their lives who they can count on, and we want to encourage respect for the deep commitment and ethics of most religious leaders, teachers, and other members of a religious or spiritual community. At the same time, parents, educators, and other caring adults need to understand that most children are very literal. If we tell them to do what a religious leader says because this person knows best, they are likely to believe us, even if this person is harming them and tells them to keep what happened a secret. If we tell children to believe whatever a religious leader says, they might believe that what this person does is their own fault.

Here are seven important recommendations from the book for keeping kids safe from abuse in a spiritual community – and everywhere else.
  • Don’t force children to hug or kiss anyone they don’t want to, even if this is the common practice in your place of worship, and even if the person asking for affection is your faith’s most respected leader. When kids are shy or reserved, don’t force them to make a connection even by looking at someone. As they get older, let them connect in other ways, such as a wave, fist bump, smile, or handshake.
  • Teach children not to keep secrets about anything that happens at your place of worship or about anything that anyone from your spiritual or religious community does.
  • Teach children that if someone breaks the safety rules, this is against your beliefs and that this person is making a mistake.
  • Make sure that people in positions of authority and trust in your faith follow the same child abuse prevention policies as everyone else – including avoiding special favors, not being alone with kids unless parents know each time, and other potentially risky behavior.
  • Encourage people at your place of worship to teach and practice boundary-setting and help-seeking skills of the kinds taught by Kidpower.
  • Pay attention to your intuition and ask questions if someone’s behavior concerns you.
  • Listen to your kids when they talk with you about their problems, even if it makes you uncomfortable or you think they are confused or being silly, and let them know that you are glad they told you.
  • If you suspect that someone is being harmful to kids, immediately contact outside authorities who can take action.

This is a difficult issue, and we will appreciate learning about your experiences. You can email us with your questions or concerns, and we will do our best to help.

With great appreciation for your commitment to safety,

P.S. Doing Right by Our Kids uses a “safety at all levels” approach that shows how to apply Kidpower skills, strategies, and values as well as other best practices to protect young people at home, with friends and family, at school, in sports and recreational activities, at college, and from harmful social issues such as prejudice. For International Child Protection Month this September, we are sharing lessons from this book for you to use and share with others.


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Published: September 5, 2018   |   Last Updated: September 5, 2018

Kidpower Founder and Executive Irene van der Zande is a master at teaching safety through stories and practices and at inspiring others to do the same. Her child protection and personal safety expertise has been featured by USA Today, CNN, Today Moms, the LA Times, and The Wall Street Journal. Publications include: cartoon-illustrated Kidpower Safety Comics and Kidpower Teaching Books curriculum; Bullying: What Adults Need to Know and Do to Keep Kids Safe; the Relationship Safety Skills Handbook for Teens and Adults; Earliest Teachable Moment: Personal Safety for Babies, Toddlers, and Preschoolers; The Kidpower Book for Caring Adults: Personal Safety, Self-Protection, Confidence, and Advocacy for Young People, and the Amazon Best Seller Doing Right by Our Kids: Protecting Child Safety at All Levels.