Yesterday I went to my first business meeting at Friends Meeting at Cambridge (Massachusetts, not UK), where I’ve generally been attending since I moved to Boston this summer – and where a long process of discernment on protecting children at the meeting from child physical and sexual abuse is beginnning to come to resolution.
The business meeting
I was pleasantly surprised at how well it functioned.
The main Sunday morning meeting for worship, in my experience, ranges from pleasantly lively to wretchedly noisy and uncentered. To me it often feels so little like a “Quaker meeting for worship” that I rarely see much point in going, though I appreciate a lot else about the community, and attend the 5 p.m. worship. (I apologize to anyone connected with FMC I might have just offended, but that’s honestly how I feel – on what is a very important issue to me.)
So I was unsure what the business meeting would be like, especially considering it was a very charged issue on the table, and with 90 or so people present, many of whom I believe were people who don’t ordinarly come.
But it actually was one of the best I’ve attended. Most people seemed to be listening to one another, and willing to hold their own perspectives a little loosely. And clerking was amazing – clear, warm, guiding, yielding all at once. I noticed how she would thank and affirm every speaker for their message; I believe it was the first time I’ve seen a clerk do that so much, and I think I like it. Even after someone stormed out angry upon realizing the meeting wasn’t going to go his way, she later reminded us that many people have very tender feelings on this subject, and anger is one way that is sometimes expressed.
Child abuse and Friends meetings
“But what was the business?” you may be asking.
Well, a concern over the risk of child abuse at the meeting has arisen over the last several years, in part due to an actual incident about 20 years ago.
I wasn’t around for most of this process, but as I understand it, around March of last year, an extensive child sexual abuse risk-reduction policy was passed (along with a “Minute of Concern”), which seems clearly to be the most important level of protection.
However, adding a further level of protection in the form of background checks has been a lot of what the meeting has been struggling with over the past year or so, if I understand correctly. As you might imagine, many in the meeting are strongly in favor of them, especially parents. But others have serious concerns about participation with the arguably classist, racist, and otherwise unjust and oppressive “criminal justice” system, and about the need for previous offenders to be given the opportunity to re-integrate into society. And others worry about the climate of mistrust such a policy might foster.
So at the meeting yesterday, the clerks proposed the following policy, modeled on the AFSC’s, which is a compromise (inspired or no I can’t yet tell) between the two extremes:
Proposed policy for Background Reviews for Adults Working witih Children and Youth at FMC (February 11, 2007)
- As part of screening those who work with our children, FMC will do a criminal background check for any current and prospective paid staff and volunteers whose work involves (a.) direct interaction with children and/or youth in group settings as well as one-on-one settings and over-night activities; and/or (b.) possible unsupervised access to children and youth. (In a search to fill a paid staff position, only finalists will be checked.)
- We will check only for convictions of physical or sexual abuse of children & youth.
- We will use a national search service like Oxford Document Management (used by AFSC) to conduct checks. [For some this is preferable to using a governmental agency, and allows screening out offenses unrelated to child abuse. ZA]
- Results will go to the presiding clerk and clerk of Ministry and Counsel (CBC Discernment Committee), who will keep the information strictly confidential. The CBC Discernment Committee will give the candidate /volunteer an opportunity to respond; they will discern prayerfully based on guidelines from the Meeting (see 5); they will advise the search committee of their decision but not the reason.
- Persons who have been convicted of physical or sexual abuse of children or youth will be excluded from paid or volunteer work in any FMC program that involves work with or unsupervised access to children or youth. Advance guidelines from the Meeting will indicate whether and when the CBC Discernment Committee might consider exceptions to this.
- FMC commits itself to praying and working for reform in the criminal justice system, especially around issues of reentry and CORI reform.
(very lightly edited by me)
I won’t try to rehash the entire meeting, but broadly speaking the meeting came close to adopting the proposal with modifications, even as people at each end of the spectrum voiced their dissatisfaction with it.
But after three hours or so, there still was not real unity, and the clerk recognized this. A special meeting will take place in two weeks, where it seems there is a good chance of it being resolved.
Personally, as a newcomer, I don’t feel clear to take a very active role in the process, but it does seem an important enough issue to blog about. Does anyone know of other meetings that have dealt with this issue? Afterwards, I heard someone talking about how Rochester Meeting some time ago was struggling with a pedophile who wanted to be a part of the life of the meeting…