Beth Swagman, director of the Christian Reformed Church’s office of Abuse Prevention, will be sworn in as an attorney this week in a Grand Rapids, Mich., courtroom.
After five years of attending Cooley Law School in Lansing and Grand Rapids, Mich., Swagman has earned her law degree and recently learned that she passed the bar exam for the State of Michigan. The hour-long swearing-in ceremony takes place on June 5.
“It has been a journey. My job at the church has always come first. Fortunately, Cooley offered me the flexibility I needed to take classes at nights and on weekends,” she says. “Part of my job has always been to keep abreast of legal changes, so attending law school made sense.”
Swagman has worked for the CRC for 15 years. She also has a Master Degree in Social Work from the University of Michigan.
“Many legal issues confront me regularly on this job. In the civil law arena, for instance, how do ecclesiastical and legal proceedings interface?” she says.
“I work with insurance companies and attorneys frequently. What will likely happen if a church is sued? Overall, a law degree helps me to be better educated to understand these complex issues.”
In her studies, Swagman says she was interested, and even a bit surprised, to find out that the law by its very nature is vague, in order to allow for judges to make interpretations and determinations in different situations as to a person or organization’s guilt or responsibility.
“The fact that things aren’t black letter law (that is, black and white) is what creates the adversarial relationship for attorneys to present the various sides of a case before a judge,” she said.
As for her work with the CRC, she says her knowledge of the law should help her in the education she does on topics of abuse and abuse prevention. “I can’t give legal advice, but I can inform claimants, church members and church leaders that there is a body of law that they may have to consider before taking a specific action,” said Swagman.
Although she is now an attorney, she says she will continue to do as she always done, which is to advise churches, councils, and others – in Michigan and elsewhere -- to seek advice from their own legal counsel.
“You need to refer legal matters to people who do this for a living every day and specifically for the people or organizations they represent,” she says. “When the law is clear that you have a specific duty or responsibility, like to report a reasonable suspicion of abuse, people need to acknowledge that the law can hold you accountable even if the church might not choose to do that.”
Swagman says she will not be practicing as an attorney in her job for the CRC. “I cannot represent the denomination nor any of its churches. Instead, I serve the church through education and resources, which has always been the priority for me. But as a lawyer, I hopefully can do it even better now,” she says.