Penn State Scandal and Ministry…
If you have been keeping up with the news lately, you have likely run across a disturbing story from Penn State University. There are a lot of parts to the story, but essentially, a high ranking assistant coach from the popular football team was caught sexually abusing a young teen on Penn State athletic grounds 10 years ago. The incident surfaced recently and one of the more disturbing parts of the story is that there were individuals who knew something was wrong yet did not take action to stop the assistant coach or alert the authorities. This man was allowed to coach for another few years before retiring in about 2008. This incident is bringing forward other individuals (now in their mid-twenties) who are admitting to being abused by the same man.
The fact that this man was a trusted individual in the community is shaking. He volunteered; he coached young men, and was a big part of creating an organization intended on helping at-risk youth. These teens who were victims were sometimes as young as 11 ranging up to their mid-teens. No one suspected him as a culprit, yet, this was happening right under their noses.
So why am I reliving these terrible events for us here? Because I know for a fact there are a lot of parents out there wondering, “if they trusted him and he wasn’t safe, how do I know other people aren’t like this?” This story hits parents at their core and they begin to wonder…what about the basketball coach? The teacher? And even their youth group leader?
While you may not need to tell your child the entire Penn State story, this would be a good time to enforce or reinforce some important safety concepts. Most of the kids who were victims were caught in one- on- one situations with the leader that should have never happened. Here are some important reminders for our own kids:
1. Never go anywhere with someone you are uncomfortable with or do not know. In a world with cell phones, it would be fairly easy for your preteen to use their own or borrow someone else’s and call their parent to confirm who is picking them up from school, an event, or practice.
2. Make sure your child knows your contact information by heart. Even if they have a cell phone with an address book, make sure they have at least two ways of contacting you memorized in case they do not have access to their phone.
3. Set boundaries. Even with someone you trust, make sure your child knows that they cannot be one-on-one with an adult unless it is approved by you. I always get parents’ permission to take a student out to lunch when it comes to preteens. Even then, that is in a public forum, which is preferred over private situations in homes.
4. Make sure the adults you are sending your child with are not offended by your safety steps. If someone is offended by you wanting to keep your kid safe you should actually be ok with that. For example, at church; I never meet with a girl alone in my office with the door closed. I do not meet with a student alone off campus unless another adult is present or it’s a group of students. I am sure to keep all touches appropriate – high-fives, side hugs, hand-shakes, etc.
Here at First Free we take some major precautions to insure your child is with safe, God-fearing volunteers:
1. Every volunteer must fill out a volunteer application. Among other things, this application includes references (that we contact via phone call or reference letter) and a personal statement of faith by the volunteer.
2. Every volunteer is interviewed.
3. Every volunteer has a background check completed.
Lastly, in Children’s Ministries, we make a point to not create one-on-one situations where students/volunteer are out of sight yet still provide space and time for kids to build mentoring relationships with those leaders in case they do need to share something private. This is in large part to protect our own staff, as we’ve heard the flip side of the Penn State scandal where students have falsely accused a volunteer in other non-profit organizations of an action.
I know talking about this tragedy does not exactly leave us with warm fuzzies. We usually think, “this will never happen to us” but unfortunately, people like the Penn State Assistant football coach exist. My prayer is that parents would take the time to review important safety information with their kids so that they are prepared. Also, our desire is to be above reproach. If you have any questions about how we handle our students or choose our volunteers at First Free, feel free to call us at any time and we’d be happy to discuss it.