The Stated Clerk of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is urging churches to do more to protect vulnerable people from sexual abuse. The Reverend Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, II, has sent a letter to the church, reminding leaders of all councils to approve sexual misconduct policies.

“While we as a denomination have talked about providing a safe space for individuals to live, work, and play while carrying out the mission of God in Christ, our sexual misconduct policies have not always been effective in protecting vulnerable persons among us,” the letter states. “Tragically, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has sometimes failed to listen to the long-silenced voices of survivors of sexual misconduct by church leaders.”

The General Assembly of the PC(USA) approved a number of policies related to sexual misconduct in the 1990s. The 222nd General Assembly (2016) appointed the Safe and Sacred Task Force to discuss ways to help congregations implement child/youth and vulnerable adult protection policies.

Nelson writes that the prevention of sexual abuse and the protection of the vulnerable needs to be a focus throughout the denomination.

“Make them a priority in the coming year — or if you have such policies, but have not updated them, make them a priority,” he writes. “Train staff, your council leaders, and all who supervise and care for minors on your policies and best practices.”

The Office of the General Assembly has sent questionnaires to leaders across the denomination and has not gotten the response for which it had hoped.

“The questionnaire asks stated clerks about allegations and charges of sexual misconduct in their presbyteries. It’s important to fill it out, but it is voluntary. We need the information in order to help the church become aware of the extent of the problems,” said the Reverend Tricia Dykers Koenig, associate director for Mid Council Relations. “Obviously one instance of sexual abuse and misconduct is too many.”

Dykers Koenig says that only 41 stated clerks out of 170 presbyteries have completed the questionnaire. She currently serves as staff resource for the Survivors of Sexual Misconduct Task Force.

She says there appears to be more of an intentional effort by all denominations to educate churches about the problem.

“Being in a church does not make people not offend. Sometimes being in a church gives people more of an opportunity to offend because people are supposed to be trusted,” she said. “You wouldn’t expect church leaders to be predators, so there are those who are going to abuse because they have a lot of opportunity. When that trust is broken, it is very devastating, a tragedy.”

Nelson concludes his letter by saying that the church should take all steps possible to prevent sexual abuse and to send a message, “those who would prey upon victims, the PC(USA) is watching and determined to protect those they would seek to victimize.”

For more information about policies and prevention, click the Creating Safe Ministries page or  workbench from the Insurance Board.

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