Two weeks ago the Pennsylvania Attorney General released a horrific report of widespread and sustained sexual abuse in the Catholic Church in Pennsylvania. Our hearts go out to all the victims, even as we wonder how a system could let such a thing happen, again and again. We also know that Pennsylvania is the tip of the iceberg. This evil was not limited to Pennsylvania. It has been documented around the globe.
And much as we wish it were not so, this evil was not limited to the Catholic Church. While not on the same scale, sexual exploitation in religious circles has affected almost all religious groups, to greater or lesser extent. And we, the ELCA, are not exempt. We, who believe that we are simultaneously saints and sinners, know that human beings are subject to sin. We have our eyes wide open about these things. And we have policies, procedures and enforcement in place.
What is the ELCA Montana Synod doing about clergy sexual abuse? First and foremost, we seek to prevent it. The candidacy process is where it begins. All candidates seeking to be pastors or deacons undergo a criminal background check, and an extensive psychological exam. LPA candidates do the criminal background check. Seminaries provide boundaries training.
And the Montana Synod has a sexual misconduct policy that requires boundary training of all pastors and deacons every three years. This requirement is outlined in the Synod’s Sexual Misconduct Policy, available on the Montana Synod website (www.montanasynod.org). The Montana Synod offers the boundaries training annually, and welcomes LPAs as well as Rostered leaders. We also publicize boundaries trainings offered by other denominations with whom we are in relationship.
The Montana Synod Sexual Misconduct Policy covers all pastors and deacons—active, retired, on disability, on leave from call. It also covers Synodically Authorized Ministers. Every congregation should have a copy. It is reviewed regularly by the Synod Council. Download a copy and have it available in your church office.
Another resource is a brochure that we regularly distribute at Synod Assembly for congregations to copy and make available. It is called “Keeping the Church a Safe and Sacred Place for All!” You can download it from the Synod website. Please download copies and put them in a prominent place where people can find them. You may think sexual abuse has never been a problem in your congregation. But this is not just for your congregation. We have been contacted by visitors who saw the brochure and wanted to report about another situation. The brochure lists people, starting with Synod staff but going beyond, who can be contacted to report misconduct.
Another resource the Montana Synod offers is a model “Safe Congregations Policy.” Approved by the Synod Council, reviewed regularly, and available on our website, the policy is something that congregations can adopt to insure safety in their congregations. The Synod’s Sexual Misconduct Policy covets Rostered leaders and SAMs—people for whom the Synod has responsibility. It does not cover other congregational employees or volunteers. They are accountable to the congregation. It is wise to make sure that the congregation has safety and behavior policies that cover volunteer and lay employees, as well.
Education and prevention are our main tools in dealing with clergy sexual misconduct. But if it does occur, we have policies in place for investigation, disclosure and discipline. These are included in the ELCA Policies and Procedures for Discipline.
Clergy sexual misconduct is often a criminal matter. It is always a spiritual matter—a fundamental betrayal of trust. In matters of clergy sexual abuse, the Synod staff stand ready to accompany all involved, and to make appropriate referrals, and take appropriate action.
May God have mercy!
Jessica Crist, Bishop
Bishop Jessica Crist
Bishop of the Montana Synod of the ELCA