A local organization is addressing a growing national concern for sexually abused children.
People often consider their churches or congregations a part of their family, and one of the places they feel most safe and welcome. Unfortunately, that can include sexual predators. According to national studies, 93 percent of sexual offenders consider themselves religious, and 20 percent of congregations have at least one convicted sex offender among their ranks. Those and other statistics have spurred the National Child Protection Center into action.
The center, based in Winona, has brought in faith communities from all corners of the country this week for a course on sexual assault, called Chaplains for Children. It's the first program of its kind, and it's addressing a problem that experts say is bigger than people realize.
"We increasingly realized in the child protection community how often sex offenders are engaged in religious activities," said Victor Vieth, executive director for the center. "Research says sex offenders prey on the gullibity, they prey on the belief that this could never happen in our congregation. They consciously seek out congregations that never talk about child abuse, and don't have good child protection policies."
Priests, pastors and other members of the faith community traveled from nine different states to take part in the conference. That includes Amy Hartman, a minister from Minneapolis. She says she attended Chaplains for Children to better recognize abuse in children and how to talk about it with her congregation.
"When we see the trauma that happens, we can be inspired to do our very best to make sure it doesn't happen," Hartman said.
Hartman says her church and others can't turn a blind eye to the statistics highlighting child abuse, both in the church and elsewhere.
"We can't just assume that it's not happening, that none of our kids are having this happen," she said. "We have to be aware that it probably is, and we have to be prepared for it."
That preparation is what this program is hoping to instill in each one of its participants.
"Every faith community needs to be engaged," Vieth said. "We need to take our game to a higher level."
Hartman will be one of the speakers at the program, which runs through Wednesday. Along with her work in the faith community, she also runs a program called Cherish All Children, that works with churches to reach out to kids in the religious community.