Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Is Your Child Safe at Grace Episcopal Church/Grace Episcopal School? Possibly Not

A big issue in recent years within The Episcopal Church has been how to protect children and other vulnerable populations from sexual misconduct and other forms of abuse. To that end, the church has established policies and training designed to reduce the possibility of abuse. Unfortunately, St. Dysfunction aka Grace Episcopal Church is woefully non-compliant with these requirements.

To be fair, some provisions have been implemented. For example, there is a requirement that two unrelated adults be present at all youth activities. This generally is followed for church functions. However, it was not enforced at all when the church rented use of the building in summer to Steve and Kate’s Camp, a for-profit that used the premises for several seasons (and which Bob Malm approved in advance of the vestry even knowing about the issue). While there is no evidence to suggest that sexual misconduct occurred, there was at least one harrowing incident, in which a little boy became trapped in the men’s bathroom when the motion-sensing lights turned off while he was inside. Even worse, the boy’s terrified screams met with no response for approximately 20 minutes, and  when he was reunited with nearby camp counselors, one said with a shrug, “I wondered where he was.” That is pretty damned appalling and dysfunctional, and you can quote me on that.

Additionally, most of the building is compliant with the requirement that interior doors have windows in them, although some have been covered over in recent years.

On other fronts, things are not so good. For instance, one recommendation is that unused portions of the building be secured so as to deny a potential abuser private areas in which to be alone with a child. Despite this, much of the interior of the church is unlocked at any given moment, including remote areas on the third floor, many closets, the vesting rooms, and all meeting rooms. Even then, almost of the interior is keyed alike, and with almost every parishioner having a copy, the place might as well be standing wide open.

Even worse, the building de facto DOES stand wide open 24/7. The lower entrance to the building is on an electronic access system, and codes are in wide circulation, given to church members by office staff upon request. In fact, if you know where to look, the codes are available even without asking. That means that the entire building becomes a private area when the sexton leaves at 9 PM on weeknights that can be used to be alone with children or other vulnerable populations. And given that the sexton comes and goes in the evening, sometimes leaving groups alone in the building (there has been more than one elevator entrapment during which no church staff were to be found on site), even times before 9 PM are risky.

To make matters still worse, there are ten known registered sex offenders in the immediate area, and 41 if you consider adjacent zip codes. And, of course, that’s just a subset of the larger population of sex offenders, as the registry only reflects those who have been caught. Plus, there is a parishioner who is known to have boundary issues with children; that individual likely has 24/7 access to the building, as his family members certainly do. Bad enough, but compounding the fact is that the parish has no written guidelines on how to care for this parishioner while still ensuring child safety.

In other cases, there are groups that use the building that are known to have among their membership registered sex offenders. While it serves no useful purpose to identify here these groups or individuals, their presence, combined with the church’s lackadaisical attitude toward the issue and lack of safeguards, should give any parent cause for concern.


Source: Virginia sex offender registry

And while I believe churches should be centers of welcome and hospitality to the community, there always is the issue of wanted sex offenders. In the case of Alexandria, for example, there are 16 such individuals within the city. In other words, churches that fail to take sexual misconduct prevention seriously do so at their own peril, and the peril of their children and other vulnerable populations, particularly when, as in Grace’s case, the church serves the homeless and other potentially higher-risk  pools.

Source: Virginia sex offender registry

Nor are the only risks ones involving sexual misconduct. For example, for many years the sexton’s closet behind the office has been routinely left unlocked, which could allow a child to access and possibly ingest cleaning chemicals. While the latter are stored high up, children can be remarkably adept at getting into things, and it is telling that no one bothers to proactively address these sorts of risks.

So why doesn’t Grace Church take these issues more seriously? I believe the answer is because “leaders” don’t take these issues seriously. That includes rector Bob Malm and vestry members alike.

Playing into that, of course, is the whole, “It can’t happen here,” routine. But the reality is that child abuse can and does happen here, there, and everywhere. 

Nor would you necessarily know that there was a problem. Several years ago, a former in-law of mine, much loved within the family, was arrested and convicted of attempting to abuse under-aged children. While the issue came up in a jurisdiction far from here, and I did not see that person on a daily basis, I can assure you that no one saw that one coming. Abuse can and does occur, and it happens when you least expect it.

There’s also evidence to suggest that there may have been past allegations of abuse at Grace Episcopal School. While I do not know the details, there was litigation a number of years ago against the parish in connection with the school. The matter appears to have been settled and the records are kept a closely guarded secret, which in itself is troubling. Confidentiality is vital in any church, but secrecy is not; indeed, it is dangerous.  If nothing else, if the matter was innocuous, why go to the trouble of keeping things secret? Why not just be upfront about the matter? If I were about to shell out the more than $21,000 in annual fees it costs to send a child to Grace Episcopal School, that is one skeleton in the closet about which I’d sure want to know more.

That is the great irony in all of this. While Bob Malm attempts to convince people that somehow I’m a threat to the church he turns a willfully blind eye to the real issue, right under his nose, which is that Grace Church, in its typical sad, dysfunctional fashion, plays fast and loose with the safety of its children.