The Book of Order states in G-3.0106 that “all councils shall adopt and implement a sexual misconduct policy and a child and youth protection policy.”

Laurie Griffith, associate stated clerk and associate director for constitutional interpretation in the Office of the General Assembly, said that nearly all councils have adhered to this governance. However, many policies may be due for reconsideration as churches develop new models for worship and ministry.

Although congregations may not be gathering in person as much these days, Griffith said it is important to not let your guard down when it comes to preventing abuse of children, youth, and vulnerable adults.

“We are still seeing behaviors that would be considered transgression of boundaries,” she said.

Mike Kirk, general counsel for legal services and risk management for the PC(USA), suggested one particular area councils may want to revisit: electronic communication.

Kirk said the General Assembly amended its Child/Youth/Vulnerable Adult Protection Policy in May 2021 to add a “virtual meeting code of conduct.”

There is a new reality as Sunday schools, youth groups, and other events and meetings move online, so Kirk said “some features were added to the GA policy to get councils to think about how we can address this.” Transgressions can occur among adults and minors, but with the rise in social media has come a rise in peer-on-peer abuse among young people.

“You want to think the best of people, but then you find out that there were certain people participating in church functions who didn’t have everyone’s best interests at heart,” said Kirk. “It’s not always easy to spot, and I think these online processes make it even harder. All you can see is this (a face on a screen), and you’re not always sure what else in going on around the person or in the chat. So, it’s a little bit harder to suss out what’s going on in terms of transgressing boundaries.”

Griffith concurred. “We want to remind congregations and mid councils to check and see if they have policies about the use of electronic and social media.”

Although there is less in-person contact these days, it is still important to continue background checks of any individuals — members or nonmembers — who will be working with children, youth and vulnerable adults, even if the contact is virtual. Kirk recommends creating a background check policy and keeping the process timely and consistent. “Make it a routine thing so that nothing falls between the cracks,” he said.

Many churches also open their facility to third-party groups. “The simple fact is that anything that happens on your property becomes your potential responsibility and liability,” said Kirk. He recommends that the church and third party have a covenant or lease specifying that “you expect that group to comply with all church policies that apply to them, including any sexual misconduct and child youth and vulnerable adult protection policies, and attach this to your agreement.”

Other ways to reduce risk include walking through the church building and looking for areas of vulnerability, such as dark hallways, unoccupied wings and doors without windows. Griffith also urges mid councils to establish Response and Prevention Teams, made up of people who are trained and familiar with the issues of sexual misconduct and abuse and can help congregations when situations arise.

Two GA committees are working on issues related to abuse prevention and recovery: the Safe and Sacred Space Task Force, which Griffith said may bring some suggestions to General Assembly next year that will help congregations with their policies and procedures, and the Sexual Misconduct Survivors Task Force, which is likely to recommend that an appendix of resources be added to the Book of Order.

Griffith and Kirk agree that the priority is protecting children, youth and vulnerable adults. Many resources are available to help congregations keep their ministries safe for all.