The Rev. Debra Haffner
Does your congregation have two babysitters in the room at a time? Are there two adults in the car when they are driving children to congregational events?
These are two risky areas many congregations overlook, according to the Rev. Debra Haffner, president of the Religious Institute, a multifaith organization dedicated to advocating for sexual health, education, and justice in faith communities and society.
At a workshop Thursday afternoon, Haffner spoke about making congregations safer and more sexually responsible. The institute is developing a new Sexually Responsible and Safer Congregations program, which she hopes to roll out by next year’s General Assembly. She envisions a program congregations can undertake so they can be designated a “Safer Congregation” – just as they can be designated a “Welcoming Congregation” if they have become inclusive of people with marginalized sexual orientations and gender identities.
A 2010 Religious Institute survey found that: one third of congregations had no written safety policy; one-third had no sexual harassment policy; and one-third did not screen or background check volunteers or staff. At more than half of the congregations that did have policies, people did not know where the policy was. The study also found that: 78 percent of congregations had no safe congregations committee, 78 percent had no sex offender policy; and 80 percent had no education for parents.
To make congregations safer from abuse, harassment, and misconduct, there are several key components to address, Haffner said. They include: sexual harassment prevention,
religious leaders training and creating expectations; creating staff and volunteer expectations; abuse-prevention and education for children, youth, and adults; having a policy on ministry to sex offenders before it becomes an issue in the congregation; and online policies.
Haffner said that congregations should have written policies surrounding staff and volunteer behavior on social media. Policies should address questions such as: should staff interact with minors online? Should adults friend youth on Facebook? Should minors be “tagged” in photos of congregational events?
Haffner said the Religious Institute is seeking congregations where it can pilot the Safer Congregations program this year in advance of its national rollout next year. She said she thinks the designation is the only way to get people to move from, “Yeah, I think we should do this,” to “we are committed as a congregation and a denomination” to making congregations safer.
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Michelle Bates Deakin, a member of First Parish Unitarian Universalist of Arlington, Massachusetts, was a UU World contributing editor from 2006 to 2011 and a UU World senior editor from 2011 to 2014. She is the author of Social Action Heroes: Unitarian Universalists Who Are Changing the World (Skinner House, 2011) and Gay Marriage, Real Life: 10 Stories of Love and Family (Skinner House, 2006).