Lessons from Penn State, and more
Because of vacation, I prepared this week's Echoes entry early. As it turned out, I prepared it on the day that the official report on the Penn State athletics child sex abuse scandal prepared by former FBI Director Louis Freeh was hitting the press (July 12, 2012). As you'll remember, the case involved the now convicted coach Jerry Sandusky and those at Penn State who failed to follow up as aggressively as they should have (including legendary coach Joe Paterno).
Anyone who leads programs for children must take the report seriously.
Specifics of Penn State aside, anyone in that position is also well aware of how difficult it can be to protect everyone's rights in tough situations — including folks who've been accused of misconduct or crimes. Anyone following the travails of the Catholic church, or disturbing revelations about some church-related schools for Native American in the last century, or recent revelations from a Presbyterian camp in Michigan, or other examples, also knows that balancing rights and responsibilities must never mean taking the safety of children lightly or protecting the "reputation" of an institution before protecting those in its charge. We must never delay in responding to concerns. We must set clear boundaries, training leaders well, and more. We must take accusers seriously and help them talk about what they experience — even while hearing concerns of people who might feel unjustly accused.
And when I think of the church, I'd say that we must do this not because we don't trust each other, but because we do trust each other. We trust each other with our children — not only their bodies and their minds, but also their souls. We trust each other with a precious thing: God's love, lived out in the church. And we trust each other with a gospel that serves justice. We create environments of confidence and trust. To the best of our abilities, we create environments that assure that all are protected.
At Pinnacle, staff and lay leadership continually review policies and procedures in this regard, and we'll do that again in the coming months.
So let me broaden this out to some related questions. As the church seeks best practices for preserving safety in ministry to children and youth, and as we advocate for safety in all circles of society, we should also speak openly about all the pressures on children and youth today. The Christian Science Monitor's editors made the point on the day the Freeh report came out when they wrote that "Penn State and other organizations that work with youth must also diligently affirm and protect that which makes children unique: their innocence" (editorial, 7/12/12, csmonitor.com). I think that's right.
So much in the media, so much in mass marketing, and so much in our culture at large steals childhood from children. It steals innocence from adolescents. And it steals hope from young adults. One example: to get audiences and sell products, more and more of primetime television glorifies sexual activity and recreational substance abuse among teens. It encourages sarcasm and disregard of educators, parents, and other adults — not just toward fools and predators but toward all adults. We see fewer and fewer models of healthy relationships across generations.
Beyond this, pressures to succeed can come so soon — maybe too soon — for many of our kids. Teenage sports and other activities are now big business. Healthy free time is lost in activities sometimes organized more for adults to make money than for kids to be kids. And economic uncertainty leaves young adults with little confidence in the future. These are real challenges.
We have every reason to want much for our children and youth, and to give them every opportunity we can. They're capable of much and shouldn't be kept from growing up. And as we work to create safe environments we should also help them have all that they need: confidence that they're known by God, energetic exploration of life, healthy questioning without unhealthy acting out, respect for wisdom, compassion for those in need, appropriate friendships across ages, responsibility fitting their age, awareness of how to get help when they need it, openness to the divine, hope for the future, and some fun along the way. That's what we also protect, for the sake of the innocence we all deserve.