Making church safer for all

Across Canada, parishes are obliged to train those working with the vulnerable: seniors, shut-ins, children. Photo: Contributed
Across Canada, parishes are obliged to train those working with the vulnerable: seniors, shut-ins, children. Photo: Contributed
Published May 9, 2016

The Anglican Communion’s Safe Church Consultation emerged from painful revelations in the 1990s that Christian churches-supposedly places of trust-were sometimes magnets for bullies and predators and sites of misconduct and abuse.

In 2008, the consultation addressed this phenomenon at Creating a Safer Church, an international conference in Woking, U.K., and in 2011, a second international conference, Partnering for Prevention, in Victoria, B.C., continued the scrutiny of religious structures that perpetuate abuse.

In a revitalized commitment to improving the welfare of all people in Anglican churches across the Communion’s provinces-clergy, parishioners and community members alike-renewed efforts in education, training and screening are under way to ward off abuse and when, inevitably, it happens, to quickly respond.

And the scope of efforts now extends well beyond sexual misconduct to the bullying and mistreatment of a broad range of victims. “Initially the focus was on preventing abuse of kids, youth and vulnerable adults, but as we got started, we realized we needed to help parishes prevent abuse in all forms, regardless of the victims and the abusers,” said Lorraine Street, a program and staffing risk-management consultant providing support and resources for SafeR Church, a project of the Halifax-based diocese of Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island.

SafeR Church deliberately took its name from the comparative rather than the absolute form of the adjective. “The reality is, it’s not possible to make church or any other place completely safe,” said Street. That thinking can be “a delusion and even a danger” because the resulting complacency allows parishes to move on to other concerns.

In this country, safer-church efforts have been spurred by landscape-changing legal decisions such as the 1999 Bazley v. Curry decision of the Supreme Court of Canada. After a youth in a Vancouver group home was molested by a staffer, this ruling established that all not-for-profit organizations, churches included, must manage the risks generated by their enterprises. “This case blew open the door for vicarious liability in not-for-profit enterprises,” said Street.

As in many other dioceses, every parish is now obliged to have a plan for initial training and refresher courses for those working with the vulnerable: seniors, shut-ins, children. To that end, the diocese has produced 20 webinars on abuse prevention and response, and is preparing a more limited set of training podcasts.

A strong practical impetus for these efforts has been the Ecclesiastical Insurance Office, which made harm-prevention and risk-management measures standard requirements for church insurance coverage. This has led to tighter screening and supervision and even police record checks of church employees and volunteers.

However, cautioned National Indigenous Anglican Bishop Mark MacDonald, there is more to safe church than acknowledgment of legal liability. “There has to be a deeper sensitivity to the issue as a gospel or a theological matter,” he said. “When we get to the level where we understand how integral this is to our gospel participation, we will reach a level where safe church is much more automatic, much more real and less a case of checking off boxes.”

According to MacDonald, although considerable progress has been made, some of the forces at work remain difficult for people to absorb, especially the concept that problems of safe church arise when those who had power no longer feel empowered. “There is not a full appreciation of the dynamics across the leadership sector,” he said.

Archdeacon Tanya Phibbs oversees safe-church initiatives in the diocese of Huron, where all regional deans are trained to do basic instruction. “In the past two years, we’ve increased our work to get parishes completely compliant and make sure churches are safe places for all who come through their doors-employees, volunteers, parishioners,” she said.

Times are changing. Huron diocese now gets more complaints under its anti-bullying provisions than under its sexual misconduct policy. “Most people have stepped up and embraced the need to do things differently than in the past,” Phibbs said. “In a case where someone in the parish has been making inappropriate sexual comments or bullying for the past three or four decades, which were previously dismissed as, ‘Oh, that’s just Joe,’ that’s not how we deal with each other now in a Christian community.”

The first remedial steps are conversation and reconciliation, but, said Phibbs, “sometimes you just have to say to someone, ‘You have to find another church,’ which can be very hard in a small community.”

The diocese of British Columbia has been offering safe-church training for the past six years, based first on a secular Red Cross program and then on an interfaith clergy-oriented program based on scripture. Now the Rev. Sheila Flynn, canon pastor responsible for sexual misconduct and screening in faith, has written a customized plan, drawing on the two earlier programs but adding locally relevant elements such as homelessness and First Nations issues.

Training for parish people will soon be under way, with travelling workshops scheduled up and down Vancouver Island. Flynn and British Columbia Bishop Logan McMenamie will train clergy.

“I hope we can make church a safe and truly welcoming place for all those who cross its threshold,” said Marcia McMenamie, who co-ordinates the diocesan safe church committee. “In many cases, it’s been a place of hurt and exclusion.”

With implementation falling to dioceses and parishes, approaches to church safety vary widely across Canada. And Canon Bruce Bryant-Scott, rector of Victoria’s St. Matthias Anglican Church, would like to see the current patchwork replaced with national standards like those adopted by the Anglican Church of Australia “so that the policies used in the Arctic are the same as those used in Toronto. Right now, how sexual misconduct is handled depends an awful lot on where you are.” Bryant-Scott added that the Canadian church also lacks common screening policies and education processes, “all of which hinders us in dealing with the potential for future misconduct and dealing with the legacy of misconduct in the past.”

Though mandated programs are now increasingly in place, the path has not been easy, and the idea of church as harmful remains a reason for grief. “Many parishes are really grieving that their churches are just like other not-for-profit organizations,” said Street, a member of St. John’s Anglican Church in the parish of Horton, Wolfville, N.S. And this awareness of potential harm can lead to paranoia, paralysis and a reluctance to do Christ’s work, including pastoral visits, home care and street outreach. But the church cannot be risk-averse.

“Church is by definition risky,” Street said. “If you get rid of risk, you might as well close the churches.”


  • Diana Swift

    Diana Swift is an award-winning writer and editor with 30 years’ experience in newspaper and magazine editing and production. In January 2011, she joined the Anglican Journal as a contributing editor.

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