One of the largest seminaries in the United States has become the first to require that aspiring clergy take a course on preventing child sex abuse.
Completion of a one-hour course called Ministry Safe will now be among the graduation requirements at Dallas Theological Seminary (DTS), which will also introduce a class on the subject that students can take as an elective next semester.
DTS places sixth in the nation among full-time enrolled students. In the 2015-16 academic year, the interdenominational school enrolled 1,059 full-time students and had a total enrollment of 2,130, according to the Association of Theological Schools.
The Dallas Morning News reports that Mark Yarbrough, vice president for academic affairs and academic deans at the school, said attorneys Kimberlee Norris and Gregory Love gave a guest lecture at the school last year about their field of expertise. He said their lecture made him realize the information they were communicating was critical.
“I can remember sitting there listening to his very informative presentation and thinking about my hometown church that I’m a part of,” Yarbrough told the Morning News. “I thought, ‘We’re not as prepared as we should be.’
“We sent our entire team through the Ministry Safe program.”
Developed by Love and Norris, the Ministry Safe program teaches church officials how to spot potential predators and prevent the organizational breakdowns that can lead to child abuse.
Ministry Safe covers several aspects of child sexual abuse — misconceptions about child predators, the “grooming” process, how to respond to allegations — over the course of several videos that take about an hour to watch. At the end of the course, trainees take a 25-question quiz. If they pass, they receive a certificate.
“This is not exhaustive, and there is more work that needs to be done by all of us as a culture,” Yarbrough said. “But this is a way we can help students become informed so that when they are leaders, they are better equipped on how to help establish appropriate parameters in working with children.”
While sex abuse scandals in the Roman Catholic Church made headlines in the early 2000s and were the focus of the critically-acclaimed film Spotlight, Evangelical Protestants have had their own share of child sex abuse allegations. In 2013, Sovereign Grace Ministries (SGM), a network of about 80 evangelical Neo-Calvinist churches headquartered in Louisville, Kentucky, faced a an amended class action civil lawsuit filed by 11 plaintiffs alleging church leaders of covering up child sex abuse crimes through the 1980s and 90s, and requesting about $50 million dollars in damages against SGM (a judge dismissed nine of the eleven plaintiffs based on an expired statute of limitations, and the other two on a question of jurisdiction).
In early 2016, ten women filed a lawsuit against Bill Gothard, accusing the minister and Institute in Basic Life Principles (IBLP) founder of sexual abuse and harassment. Gothard’s teachings are popular in some conservative Christian homeschooling circles.
Mainline Protestants have also faced allegations, with charges of systematic sexual abuse at an elite Episcopal school in Rhode Island, St. George’s, coming to light last year. The St. George’s case produced a report from an independent investigator describing a “private hell” for at least 61 students and marked a “betrayal of trust” for those students and their parents, according to the Providence Journal.
According the Morning News article, Love, Norris and Yarbrough acknowledge that a one-hour training session isn’t the solution to the issue of child sexual abuse in churches. But they said it’s an important first step — a step they hope has a positive impact on children across the country.
“That’s why this is important,” Yarbrough told the Morning News. “We’re talking about children. We’re talking about the future of our society.”