“We will not bury our heads to act as if abuse does not happen,” said Ivan Williams, director of the North American Division (NAD) Ministerial Association during his opening remarks on the first day of the NAD enditnow Summit on Abuse, September 24, 2018.
The two-day summit, held at the NAD headquarters in Columbia, Maryland, United States, was organized to help equip pastors, teachers, volunteers, church staff, and members with the tools and knowledge to help end abuse within their scope of influence. As part of the Church’s enditnow campaign, the summit featured a number of experts ranging from church leaders and administrators to advocates, attorneys, and women who shared their encounters with abuse.
“This is an annual event with different presenters and different topics every year because we know it’s not about just hearing it once,” said Erica Jones, assistant director of NAD Women’s Ministries and the organizer of the summit. “We have to be reminded [of this issue], and there’s always new information coming out.”
Local pastors, leaders, teachers, and students were invited to attend presentations in Spanish on September 24 and in English on September 25. In addition, the meetings on both days were streamed live on Facebook and YouTube, so that viewers from across the division’s territories and also other countries, including Mexico, Belize, Latvia, Estonia, and Bermuda, were able to send questions to the presenters and receive the summit’s resources.
“Foundational and invaluable principles about and against abuse are being shared here. Kudos,” said participant Lemuel Llaguno Niere through a Facebook comment.
The Facebook live stream in Spanish received nearly 6,500 views within 48 hours of its broadcast, with 858 reactions, comments, and shares. The English stream received 5,572 views within 24 hours, with 1,223 reactions, comments, and shares.
The Church’s Stance
The opening session for the English program was given by Alex Bryant, executive secretary of NAD, who outlined the Adventist Church’s policies about abuse. As executive secretary, Bryant oversees the creation, distribution, and inclusion of all of the division’s policies.
“The Church does not tolerate abuse of any form, whether physical, sexual, emotional, or mental,” said Bryant. He said the basis for the policies about abuse is built on the belief that all human beings are made in the image of God and therefore, if we mistreat another person, we’re in turn mistreating God.
“We have a God-ordained responsibility to work to protect those vulnerable around us. So, our policies, our teachings should be done in a way that will protect the most vulnerable among us, including the children, spouses, and persons in abusive relationships,” said Bryant.
While the Church has numerous policies in place to properly handle abuse situations, Bryant said he aims to make it easier for leaders to gain access to the policies.
“I think one of the things we can do to help you is to put them all in one place. Right now, they’re scattered throughout our policy book,” said Bryant. “One of the things I have pledged myself to do is to try to collect and put them in one place so they may be more easily found, seen, and understood.”
The Cost of Inaction
Kate Ott, associate professor of Christian social ethics at Drew Theological School, and lecturer in practical theology at Yale Divinity School, spoke on the importance of creating healthy boundaries, especially in faith communities. She said that while the policies and laws we follow help enforce those boundaries, more is required.
“Religious institutions are not exempt from secular laws, and we shouldn’t be. In fact, we should want higher standards,” Ott said. “We are communities of care, trust, respect, and justice. We should be saying ‘The law doesn’t go far enough. What else can we do?’”
“In faith communities, we have the moral responsibility and the capacity to respond justly and fairly. We can do this,” Ott said. “The integrity of the ministerial relationship and our religious institutions is at stake.”
“Doing nothing is not a good alternative,” said David Fournier, vice-president and chief client care officer for Adventist Risk Management, the official insurance provider of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
“Too often, what we the church are accused of, and where we lose our reputation, is for all the things we didn’t say, the things we didn’t do, the results we never achieved.”
In addition to being held accountable by Church policies, the leaders, teachers, and volunteers of Adventist churches and schools are held accountable by the law to report cases of abuse.
“Legal responsibility comes under mandatory reporting,” said Krista Blakeney-Mitchell, associate director for the Improving Criminal Justice Responses to Sexual Assault, Domestic Violence, Dating Violence and Stalking Assistance Program for the U.S. Department of Justice.
According to Mitchell, a mandatory reporter is someone whose professional job or position makes them obligated to report any suspected abuse.
“Mandatory reporters recognize, respond, and report [abuse], and then you’re done,” said Mitchell. On the other hand, “accountability can be a lifetime commitment.” Mitchell defined accountability as being informed, knowing limitations, providing ongoing support, and making a difference.
“Community accountability, especially when it’s in the church, is going that extra mile. We know we have a moral, God-fearing responsibility, but in addition to that, we have a responsibility to try to make this world a better place,” said Mitchell. “If we truly believe in doing that, it’s not worrying about whether you’re a mandatory reporter or not.”
Some may find it difficult to hold a fellow Christian accountable for their actions, especially if the perpetrator is well known and loved. However, that should not impede the reporting process.
“Our duty is to report,” said Tony Anobile, NAD vice-president for Multilingual Ministries. “It is uncomfortable, and sometimes it puts us at odds with people, but I would rather do that and know that I’ve done my job and have a clear conscience than try to look the other way and not do anything.”
Mitchell emphasized the same sentiment. “Regardless of whether you’re a mandatory reporter, you’re accountable for your brother, your sister. When communities take on the mission of accountability, progress is imminent.”