A business meeting at Cambridge on child abuse

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)

  1. 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.)
  2. We will check only for convictions of physical or sexual abuse of children & youth.
  3. 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]
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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…

4 Responses to “A business meeting at Cambridge on child abuse”

  1. 1 batswing Feb 15th, 2007

    Thank you, that was fascinating to read. I’m now wondering how our meeting deals with this. I don’t know how much you know about legal stuff over here but Scotland’s laws and police checks are more stringent than England’s so I’d be interested in how that translates to the practice of the Society up here.

  2. 2 Marshall Massey (Iowa YM [C]) Feb 16th, 2007

    I was a member of Mountain View Meeting in Denver, Colorado, in the 1990s, when it went through this issue. It went through it twice, actually.

    The first time, it had the challenge of dealing with an actual, known, pedophile who was volunteering in First Day School. The Oversight Committee handled this very simply and wisely, by arranging a policy, with the pedophile’s full agreement, that no one would be allowed to be with the children alone.

    The second time, there were no actual pedophiles or child abusers involved, but people who held high office in the meeting decided that there must be, and that the people that they liked least in the meeting were probably pedophiles or child abusers. So they decided to investigate (writing letters on meeting stationery) to gather evidence to support their suspicions. I won’t go into the horrid details of what followed, but it was very damaging, and a number of families resigned their membership in the meeting, including my own family.

    What did I learn from these experiences?

    I learned that witch-hunts are not appropriate to Quakerism — whether the sort of witch being hunted is the one who worships Satan, or the one who is a Communist, or the one who molests children. Why are they not appropriate? Because witch-hunting breeds suspicion, false charges, and a wrong-headed assumption that the way to deal with the target is to exclude him, rather than to work for his redemption.

    And I learned that a better approach than witch-hunting is simply to remove temptation from the path of the weak — and to provide the weak with a way of getting support in their struggles to live rightly, as the Oversight Committee did for the pedophile.

    Leanore Goodenow, who clerked the Oversight Committee when it dealt with the first case so very well, said it bluntly: We must believe in the possibility of redemption. Those words moved me deeply at the time, and they have inspired me ever since.

  3. 3 Pam Feb 19th, 2007


    thanks, that’s lovely.

    My meeting deals with this by simply arranging that children are never left alone with only one adult as well - it makes a lot of sense, not only in terms of forgoing excessive exclusion of those who have been convicted, but also in terms of protecting the children (by the time someone is convicted they have probably done a lot of damage)

    Unfortunately, we occasionally fail. Recently 3 of the four teachers for my first day school class failed to come (I told one other teacher, the one who showed, I don’t know what the other two did) - but generally even so a member of FDS comittee checks to make sure eveyrone has two adults, and stays if they don’t, works pretty well.

    Your note also brings up a larger question, how to we labor for redemption with those who need it? - and many of us need it who have never done anything prosecutable, but are imperfect beings nonetheless



  4. 4 Zach A Feb 26th, 2007

    Batswing, Marshall, Pam, thank you for your comments. As I said, it’s been a crazy couple weeks for me, and I apologize for not contributing to the discussion.

    Marshall, thank you for your stories. I couldn’t agree more. I don’t know how the Cambridge situation will play out, but there are definitely many who are seeking to make sure nothing of a witch-hunt climate takes root.

    For anyone still following this issue as it relates to Cambridge, the adjourned business meeting was held yesterday, but I didn’t make it, and haven’t heard what happened. I’ll post an update when I hear more.

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