Many Christian groups have done much to increase the physical safety of those within their walls. In fact, most denominations have set policies for this. Sunday School classrooms have inside windows, as do the offices of most pastors. In some children’s groups, a teacher is not allowed to take a child to the washroom on her own; two adults must take the journey with the child. In most churches there are fewer dark, secluded places where a child can be physically hurt.
Unfortunately, many churches and Christian leaders have missed the point. Gaining people’s trust and being a safe person are not simply a matter of installing a few new windows. While these actions and safeguards are necessary and important, they are only the beginning. Many of us have reduced safety to an aspect of building design; but providing a safe place begins, instead, with who we are. Safety begins with our internal world. In attempting to provide safety for people and reduce the risk of lawsuits, some people have missed the point altogether.
While we do need to be wise, we don’t need to strain after gnats and swallow camels. Physical, sexual or emotional abuse of any kind does not happen simply because the physical environment is unsafe. People are hurt and trust is broken when we are emotionally and spiritually unsafe people.
North Americans have learned the harsh reality that things which appeared safe and secure, like steel office towers, when put under extreme pressure, crumble and fall. For many, our illusions of safety have been shattered. Likewise, physical safety measures alone can crumble when the underlying emotional structure of its leaders is put under pressure.
I suspect that, physically, the homes of most adult survivors of any type of childhood abuse would have appeared physically safe. Outside doors were locked at night. Strangers were not allowed in. Nevertheless, children were harmed in spite of the physical security measures taken.
These individuals were abused not because their physical environments were hazardous but because the individuals who lived there–fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles and other extended family and friends–were not safe. Emotionally, they were exposed to people who were not safe. As children, or even as adolescents, they were unable to do anything to protect themselves from these dangerous people. Either they had not developed the skills they needed in order to acknowledge that this was not a safe situation, or they did not have the power to do anything about it.