- The Washington Times - Friday, May 26, 2006

HARRISONBURG, Va. — The case study was grim: Congregants ministering door-to-door had discovered “Kate,” an 8-year-old girl covered in bruises and left home alone.

The Rev. Rob Hoskins, a United Methodist pastor, had a decision to make. Should he notify child-protection authorities? Was the girl a victim of neglect?

The seminary never covered lessons like these. But now it’s part of the training for Methodist clergy in Virginia.

The denomination’s Virginia Conference has made its pastors “mandated reporters” to help protect children. But some worry that clergy with little expertise in identifying child abuse will make baseless claims.

Virginia Methodist leaders will spend the next several months holding three-hour training courses, like the one Mr. Hoskins and about 60 other pastors from western Virginia attended recently in a Harrisonburg church.

The sessions offer pastors tips on everything from handling anger at abusers to using simple language to help children open up, said Ann Davis, director of children’s ministries for the Virginia Conference. Pastors also learn how to protect themselves — talking to children in open spaces like parks rather than closed offices, for example.

The classes are being held one year after leaders of the Virginia Conference began requiring all clergy to report any inkling of child abuse, even if revealed in confidential settings.

The Methodists are one of several denominations that started taking a closer look at child welfare after abuse accusations rattled the U.S. Roman Catholic Church in recent years, said the Rev. Kibbie Ruth, of the California-based Kyros Ministry.

Ms. Ruth has spent two decades offering training on child abuse, sexual harassment and domestic violence through Kyros to pastors of Lutheran, Episcopal and other denominations nationwide.

“I wish I could tell you it’s important because they’re suddenly valuing children more,” she said. “But it’s mainly driven by insurance.”

Insurers can face enormous expenses in negligence lawsuits against churches. Some Catholic dioceses have been paying settlements in the tens of millions of dollars in recent years — and insurance companies in many cases are responsible for covering part of that amount.

GuideOne Insurance and Church Mutual Insurance Co., the nation’s two leading church insurers, now publish educational pamphlets on preventing abuse. Episcopal and Methodist leaders have developed their own training programs.

But not everyone supports this approach. Kimberly Hart, executive director of the National Child Abuse Defense and Resource Center, worries that ministers will feel compelled to notify authorities simply to gain immunity from a lawsuit. Her Ohio-based center hosts an annual conference training defense lawyers on combating false child-abuse claims.

“People will make the call, just to give them the cloak of protection,” Ms. Hart said. “What we see is an overreaction to report everything and let somebody else ferret it out.”

In Virginia, accusers can contact authorities anonymously and are required to have a reasonable suspicion, not any specific evidence.

But the Rev. Kendra Grimes-Swager works to ensure that Virginia clergy are as close to being experts on child abuse as possible. The United Methodist Family Services trainer offers straightforward advice — such as avoiding hugs and telling congregants up front that anything revealed in a counseling session could be reported.

Mrs. Grimes-Swager must also quell the fears of clergy worried about being revealed as tipsters. The Harrisonburg group chattered anxiously as the Rev. Jim Harris told his own story of uncovering abuse — one that ended with the accused father ransacking his office.

“My family felt threatened; if he would tear apart my office, he would come to the parsonage,” said Mr. Harris, a minister at a church in nearby Augusta County.

Perhaps most troubling to clergy is the specter of violating the bond with congregants, who often share everything from medical conditions to marital troubles.

Some resent becoming ersatz social workers, Ms. Ruth said, especially concerning an issue they think “doesn’t happen here.” Others fear congregants will clam up.

“I think it will make people more closemouthed,” said Mr. Hoskins, pastor at a church in Dayton, outside Harrisonburg. “Then problems won’t get addressed at all.”

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