Stay vigilant

At a recent event, I had the opportunity to meet and talk with people involved in youth ministry at local Catholic parishes. They were familiar with the child sexual abuse prevention efforts of the church, but many were unfamiliar with the Protecting God’s Children program, and were surprised by my suggestions of behavioral best practices for safety.

Many of them said that individuals involved with ministering to youth really have the best interests of children at heart and would not really harm anyone. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. They also felt that it was important to form more intimate personal relationships with the young people in order to accomplish their youth ministry goals. No amount of explanation or encouragement really changed their mind, until I said:

“When you do the things you are talking about, you become part of the problem. Those actions that you are justifying condition young people to accept more intimate touch from adults. You may not have bad intentions, but the next person who interacts with the young person may have a different purpose, and now that person will have an easier time of it. You just helped that predator break down the barriers that keep children safe. In addition, your actions condition the community to accept these behaviors as part of ministry, and that also opens the door to predators.”

We must continue to raise the bar. We can do that easily by looking at two specific things.

Social media and electronic communication

There can be no compromise regarding the use of social media and contact through the internet and other electronic means. Recent news stories have included too many stories of adult youth ministers from many different denominations who used social media and electronic communication to seduce young people, share pornography and initiate contact that led to alcohol and drug use and sexual assault.

If your parish does not have a policy about social media and electronic communication, establish one. If you have a policy in place, check to see that it includes the following points:

• No private contact with any young people involved in youth ministry (other than the volunteer/employee’s own children and family).

• No “friending” of any parish young people other than through group/organization sponsored webpages that keep everyone informed.

• Text or e-mail young people only as an emergency “group” communications, and send notices to everyone.

• Text or e-mail other communications to parents to forward to young people or pass on to them verbally.

• Do not exchange pictures/videos with young people.

• If young people initiate electronic one-on-one contact with you, decline to answer and communicate the incident to a supervisor. The supervisor should notify the parent or guardian that one-on-one electronic communication between youth ministry volunteers/employees and young people is not allowed.

Also, make sure that the policy contains provisions to regularly update the policy on electronic communications as technology improves and new methods of communication become part of the electronic landscape. When policy updates happen, require each person to read and accept updated versions.

Review and monitor all behavior

In addition to raising the bar on electronic communications, it is important to review all activities and interactions with the “no conditioning” standard in mind. Make sure that none of your actions or those of other adults in ministry can be characterized as behavior that conditions children to lower their barriers to inappropriate contact.

There are some behaviors that sometimes creep back into the picture because they are justified or rationalized as “just how she (or he) is.” These include full-on hugs, a single person giving a child a ride home and meeting a young person outside of the office to “talk” about something that is bothering them. The problem is that these are not “harmless” as predators are counting on us to water down our vigilance and open the gate.

Volunteers and employees who minister to youth must regularly review the policies and examine their own behavior to see if there is anything that has appeared or reappeared in the interactions with youth that creates a risky environment. They must also review the policies with other ministers and volunteers, and reinforce the message that there is a no-tolerance policy for those who work in youth ministry. Monitor each other and communicate when you see something risky.

Follow the policies, practice the safe environment standards and make sure your interactions are consistent with the established guidelines for protecting all God’s children. Parents and others who see the rigorous standards slipping must step in and demand that child protection and prevention of child sexual abuse be a priority.

Raise the bar on youth protection! It’s everyone’s responsibility.

This article is the copyrighted property of National Catholic Services, LLC (National Catholic), all rights reserved, and is republished here with National Catholic’s permission. It originally appeared on the VIRTUS Online website as continuing training for adults at www.virtus.org. For more information about VIRTUS Online or other VIRTUS products and services, call 888-847-8870 or e-mail helpdesk@virtus.org.