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Coming together to fight child abuse in religious communities

“You can start a revolution that will flame up and burn out quickly when you rally folks against a problem, but if you want to stoke the fires of long-term transformation, we must first give people something to be for; something to agree upon.”

With those words in April 2013, I joined the board of directors of the Child-Friendly Faith Project, an Austin-based, national nonprofit organization that educates the public about child abuse and neglect that is enabled by religious and cultural ideologies.

As a local minister and hospice chaplain, I hear the stories of those who have experienced damage at the hands of some persons acting in the name of religion. Often they carry that baggage with them, even to the end of their lives.

I also hear from concerned parents, helping professionals, clergy and persons of faith who grapple with how to care for children in a way that keeps them safe, but does not squelch the rights of adults to practice their cultural and religious beliefs.

For example, a mom stood in a kitchen at a holiday party last year and said to me: “I want to take my kids to church, but I don’t want them to have the same bad experience I did, and I don’t even begin to know where it’s ‘safe’ to take them.”

During a focus group at a seminary last spring, a well-respected youth minister in our community shared: “I’m concerned about the language we’re using with our teens in faith communities. Are we aware of how our words are impacting them? I know none of us want to inflict harm on our kids, but I worry that if we’re not paying attention, we will, unintentionally.”

A former hospice social worker colleague shared over coffee: “I’m struggling with how one family I’m working with is handling their child’s illness, but their actions are based on their religious beliefs. How do I respect the adults’ religious freedoms while honoring the child’s rights to emotional and physical safety? Where is that line and what is my responsibility here?”

Many want to know how to rebuild trust in an institution now often shunned. We people of faith have repair work to do, and those who have suffered deserve to know that we’re willing to drop our defenses and strive to understand.

To begin the work of healing, and ensure a healthy, nurturing environment for our children, we must engage in meaningful discussions about these issues. Debating our theological differences or focusing on the potentially damaging aspects of religion will ultimately resolve nothing.

Rather, we can find common ground and recognize that, regardless of our religious or philosophical outlooks, we all care about protecting the most vulnerable among us. Ultimately, that unified foundation is our best place to start.

The Child-Friendly Faith Project is committed to fostering such productive conversations. Through our educational programs, we seek to empower and equip faith communities and professionals in their efforts to protect children from maltreatment.

Furthermore, we understand that this kind of change can only be achieved through education and positive and respectful dialogue. I invite you to join child advocates, professionals, clergy, persons of faith and survivors of maltreatment in this conversation. Our upcoming conference will be the next intentional step toward a positive difference for our children, and for us all.

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