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A proposed strategy to deal with incidents of sexual abuse by clergy in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America was endorsed Thursday by the church's Council of Bishops, meeting in Philadelphia.
The strategy, budgeted for $350,000, to be implemented over a four-year period if approved, stresses prevention and healing in dealing with the problem of clerics who misuse positions of trust and authority and engage in inappropriate sexual activities.
The proposal was put together by a panel of counselors, bishops and other church officials chaired by Joanne Chadwick, executive director of the 5.2-million-member Lutheran denomination's Commission on Women.
The 65-page proposal now goes to the denomination's Church Council, which meets Nov. 6-9, for final approval.
Under the plan, most of the $350,000 would be used in training events for the church's 19,000 pastors, seminarians and synod staff members.
The goal, said Chadwick, is "to speak to the whole church in a healing way."
In outlining the formal steps to be taken in abuse cases, the proposal stressed "appropriate disclosure of information" as part of the healing process.
Often religious groups dealing with clergy sexual abuse are accused of secrecy. Cases are hushed up, pastors are quietly moved to a different locale, and the pattern all too frequently repeats itself.
"Except in the most unusual circumstances, disclosure is always necessary," the proposal said. "Experience has demonstrated that where disclosure is made to the congregation served by the pastor in question, the healing within that congregation is better realized, even though the initial trauma may be greater."
At the same time, it said, those making complaints should remain anonymous.
The proposal described incidences of sexual abuse as "serious violations of God's laws about proper respect and care for the neighbor, proper care and stewardship of our sexuality and proper use of the authority of the ordained leadership of the church."
In an opening section, the statement called sexual abuse in the church "a fundamental theological issue" that transcends legal, psychological, economic or political realities. "Only as the church sees this concern in light of the saving gospel will it deal appropriately with the deep human hurt with powerful hope."
The proposal calls on each of the denomination's 65 synods, or regional governing bodies, to review existing policies and procedures and adopt a series of practices and policies both for the handling of formal complaints and for education, training and prevention of sexual abuse.