#SilentCofC: Child Sexual Abuse and Churches of Christ

There is a looming crisis of faith in the Protestant world. An issue that we have so long relegated to the inevitable consequences of mandatory celibacy in the Catholic Church is coming home to roost in our own traditions. Many believe (myself included) that the Protestant sexual abuse scandal will by far outstrip anything that has happened to the Catholic Church in the last two decades. 

Most concerning to me (and at the point of the collision of my professional life and my religious tradition) is that if our past is any indicator, if our current practices (or more importantly, our lack thereof) suggest anything, it is that for too long the Churches of Christ have been a safe place for perpetrators of childhood sexual abuse and a dangerous place for our children. 

(Allow me a moment of disclaimer so that those who disagree might be better enabled to actually engage with my argument: This article is not to suggest that this has (necessarily) been a conscious choice in the schools, universities, and churches within our tradition. But it is to suggest that our polity structure (both in the church and in the family), our lack of intervention for victims, a lack of consistent and pro-active prevention, and our unwillingness or lack of ability to at least keep pace with the rest of the Protestant world has made the Churches of Christ particularly vulnerable to the kinds of predators that I am discussing here.)

So this is what I want to attempt to explore in this long, sometimes tedious, and yet extremely important conversation. 

  • Childhood sexual abuse is prevalent in our society, and it is particularly prevalent in the context of religious communities. 
  • We have stories and documented incidents within our own tradition that should have served as an impetus to address this issue years ago. 
  • This is an issue, alongside adult sexual violence, (e.g., teen dating violence, sexual assault on campus, intimate partner violence, and domestic violence) that affects every church and institution in our fellowship. 
  • We have failed to keep pace with the vast majority of the Christian world in implementing policies and practices that prevent child sexual abuse in our churches.  
  • We must find ways and resources to break our silence, confess our complicity, intervene for victims, and prevent further abuse as swiftly as possible.

THE PREVALENCE OF CHILDHOOD SEXUAL ABUSE IN SOCIETY

This information is drawn from the following resources:

US Department of Justice – National Sex Offender Public Website
RAINN (Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network)

From RAINN:

  • 15% of sexual assault and rape victims are under age 12.[i]

  • 29% are age 12-17.

  • 44% are under age 18.

  • 80% are under age 30.

  • 12-34 are the highest risk years.

  • Girls ages 16-19 are 4 times more likely than the general population to be victims of rape, attempted rape, or sexual assault.

  • 7% of girls in grades 5-8 and 12% of girls in grades 9-12 said they had been sexually abused.[ii]

  • 3% of boys grades 5-8 and 5% of boys in grades 9-12 said they had been sexually abused.

Victims of sexual assault are:[iii]

  • 3 times more likely to suffer from depression.
  • 6 times more likely to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.
  • 13 times more likely to abuse alchohol.
  • 26 times more likely to abuse drugs.
  • 4 times more likely to contemplate suicide.

 From the National Sex Offender Public Website:

  • As many as 1 in 3 girls and 1 in 7 boys will be sexually abused at some point in their childhood.[iv]
  • Most perpetrators are acquaintances, but as many as 47% are family or extended family.
  • In as many as 93% of child sexual abuse cases, the child knows the person that commits the abuse.[v]
  • Approximately 30% of cases are reported to authorities.[vi]
  • Approximately 1.8 million adolescents in the United States have been the victims of sexual assault.[vii]
  • 33% of sexual assaults occur when the victim is between the ages of 12 and 17.[viii]
  • 82% of all juvenile victims are female.
  • 69% of the teen sexual assaults reported to law enforcement occurred in the residence of the victim, the offender, or another individual.
  • Teens 16 to 19 years of age were 3 1/2 times more likely than the general population to be victims of rape, attempted rape, or sexual assault. [ix]
  • Over 63,000 cases of child sexual abuse were reported in 2010.[x]
  • Children ages 12–15 have the highest percentage of sexual abuse, among all types of abuse, for children under 18 years of age.[xi]

Myths and Factors about the disclosure of abuse by children:[xii]

  • Myth: If a child is sexually abused, she or he will immediately come and tell.
  • Myth: Children disclose immediately after the abuse and provide a detailed account of what has occurred.
  • Myth: Children are more likely to disclose if directly questioned by their parent or an adult authority figure who can help.
  • Myth: Disclosure is always a one-time event.
  • Fact: Disclosure of sexual abuse is often delayed; children often avoid telling because they are either afraid of a negative reaction from their parents or of being harmed by the abuser. As such, they often delay disclosure until adulthood.
  • Fact: A common presumption is that children will give one detailed, clear account of abuse. This is not consistent with research; disclosures often unfold gradually and may be presented in a series of hints.
  • Fact: Children might imply something has happened to them without directly stating they were sexually abused—they may be testing the reaction to their “hint.”
  • Fact: If they are ready, children may then follow with a larger hint if they think it will be handled well.
  • Fact: It’s easy to miss hints of disclosure of abuse. As a result, a child may not receive the help needed.

CHILDHOOD SEXUAL ABUSE WITHIN RELIGIOUS COMMUNITIES

Sometimes there is the naïve assumption that because of our religious convictions that Christian churches and organizations would inherently be more safe than other contexts when it came to the potential for childhood sexual abuse. This is a myth. While most of the instances of sexual abuse we hear about in churches are perpetrated by clergy (give a couple of example links), we fail to recognize that religiosity is actually in many cases a predictor of perpetrators.

One important study even suggests that “stayers” (individuals who have maintained religious involvement from childhood through adulthood) had more victims, more convictions, and younger victims than people with lesser degrees of “religious affiliation”. 

One of the chilling conclusions of the study is this:

…an explanation for the positive relationship between religious affiliation and sexual offending may be found in current research indicating a peak in sexual offending once offenders’ reach their late 30’s (Hanson, 2002). It has been suggested that this peak is the result of increased opportunities (eg. greater access to victims as offenders become fathers, attain trusted positions in the workforce or family). It is highly possible that situational dynamics within the church community may lead to a rise in opportunities for unsupervised access to vulnerable victims. It is a reasonable assumption that the “stayers” possibly continued to offend because the proximate causes of the crime, such an environment, lack of supervision, and continued opportunities, were not disrupted (Sampson & Laub, 2004). (pg. 286)

Sexual abuse perpetrated by clergy often has a number of different dynamics than abuse perpetrated by people in churches who lack official position and authority. There are studies exploring the dynamics of clergy offenders, as well as other resources and organizations dedicated to the complexities of child sexual abuse in churches by both clergy and laity such as the Gundersen National Child Protection Training Center, the Faith Trust Institute, and GRACE (Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment).

One of the most helpful introductory resources for this conversation is a great article (published in the Journal of Psychology and Theology) entitled, What Would Walther Do? Applying Law and Gospel to Victims and Perpetrators of Child Sexual Abuse by Victor Vieth.

Here are eight key insights (among others) from this rich article:

False allegations of child sexual abuse are rare.

“Although all child protection professionals need to be mindful of the possibility of false allegations, a number of studies conclude that false claims of sexual abuse are rare (Oates et al., 2000) and that when children do lie, it is usually done to protect the perpetrator, not to get anyone in trouble (Lawson & Chaffin, 1992). … Accordingly, it is unreasonable for any pastor to automatically assume that an allegation of abuse, even against a respected member of the church, is untrue."

There is great fear for the child when it comes to disclosure.

“…the secrecy is often a source of fear in which the perpetrator conveys to the child that bad things will happen if there is a disclosure. Bad things may include the abuse of the child’s sibling, non-offending parent, or pet. Disclosure may result in the victim’s placement in a foster home. Disclosure may result in the child’s embarrassment in front of fellow classmates who learn details of the sexual abuse through media or other sources. The child may fear that disclosure will result in his or her condemnation in their church community.”

Children “cope” with the trauma of sexual abuse in a variety of ways ranging from self-justification (“I am protecting _____” or the promise of some pending reward), dissociation (pretending or imagining to be in a different place) during the abuse, or some form of mental illness.

“Clergy and laity alike should not assume that Christian victims of abuse are immune form dissociative identity disorder. … If a child cannot figure out a way to cope emotionally, what Summit (1983) calls a psychic economy, feelings of rage may cause a child to commit suicide, engage in self-mutilation, become promiscuous, or develop other harmful patterns of behavior. Clergy and laity unaware of these and other dynamics may be quick to dismiss a child’s allegations of abuse, concluding the child is exhibiting mental illness or is not credible given the closeness with a perpetrator and the many “kindnesses” a child has received from an offender. Similarly, the Christian pastor or lay member may unwittingly focus on delinquent or other behaviors without realizing these behaviors reflect deep-seated childhood trauma.”

Spiritual injuries result from childhood sexual abuse

“There are a number of studies documenting the impact of abuse on spirituality. For example, in one study of 527 victims of child abuse (physical, sexual, or emotional) it was found that there were significant “spiritual injury” such as feelings of guilt, anger, grief, despair, doubt, fear of death, and belief that God is unfair (Lawson, Drebing, Berg, Vincellette, & Penk, 1998).

Rarely is there only one victim.

“…church leaders [fail] to recognize that many pedophiles molest hundreds, even thousands of children without ever getting caught (Abel et al., 1987).”

Child molesters manipulate both children and the church.

“Child molesters, particularly those meeting the diagnostic criteria of pedophilia, are extremely manipulative of not only their victims but also the church as a whole. According to Salter (2003, p. 28) ‘If children can be silenced and the average person is easy to fool, many offenders report that religious people are even easier to fool than most people.’ In the words of one convicted child molester:

I consider church people easy to fool… they have a trust that comes from being Christians… They tend to be better folks all around. And they seem to want to believe in the good that exists in all people… I think they want to believe in people. And because of that, you can easily convince, with or without convincing words. (Salter, 2003, p. 29).

Not only are child molesters skilled at lying to pastors and parishioners alike, they are often proud of their abilities to fool leaders and members of their congregations. In the words of one convicted child molester:

(T)here was a great amount of pride. Well, I pulled this one off again. You’re a good one … There were times when little old ladies would pat me on the back and say, “You’re one of the best young men that I have ever known.” I would think back and think “If you really knew me, you wouldn’t think that.” (Salter, 2003, p. 199)

Many child molesters offend with others present.

“In many instances, a child molester offends with other children or even another adult present. According to one study, 54.9% of child molesters offended when another child was present and 23.9% offended when another adult was present (Underwood, Patch, Cappelletty, & Wolfe, 1999). The abuse, of course, may be subtle and not easily detected. … The fact that many sex offenders molest victims with others present is critical for clergy and laity to understand. Without this recognition, offenders often argue that a child’s allegations are absurd—after all, who would sexually touch a child with others in the room? A pastor acquainted with studies such as those cited in this article will tell a suspect that, as it turns out, many sex offenders engage in precisely this conduct.

Child molesters often abuse children in the name of God.

Child molesters often use religious or spiritual themes in the abuse of children. Child molesters may cite a child’s biological reaction to abuse and contend the victim equally enjoyed the abuse and is equally sinful. It is not uncommon for a molester to pray with his victim and ask God’s forgiveness for both. A molester may tell a victim that if he or she disclosed the abuse, the church will condemn the victim for his or her sin. … According to one sex offender treatment provider, sexual abuse in the name of God creates a “triple trauma” involving the abuse itself, the betrayal of trust, and spiritual harm that often includes “threats regarding God and damnation” (Pendergrast, 2004). According to Pendergrast:

Fear of retribution from God, whom the abusers related ‘gave me permission to do this to you,’ and ‘if you tell anyone, God will punish you in hell for eternity,’ produces an intense fear as well as feeling of confusion. The confusion results from the fact their religion teaches them that what they are doing is wrong and sinful, but the religious abusers teach them that the God of their religion gave them permission to sexually abuse them. (p. 285)

DOCUMENTED INCIDENTS OF CHILDHOOD SEXUAL ABUSE WITHIN OUR OWN TRADITION

Don’t assume for a moment that this is not an issue that can readily be found within Churches of Christ. In fact, some of the more public and legal precedent cases of the last few decades have been from within our tradition. To assume that this is an issue “in the denominations” or for Catholics is at best naïve and more likely cowardice. 

Here are just three (although there are more) examples of how this issue has impacted our tribe:

The legal precedent-setting case before the Colorado Supreme Court concerning individual and church financial liability in regard to the response to allegations of clergy sexual abuse involving the Bear Valley Church of Christ.

The highly publicized story of the family of Les Ferguson, Jr. Their disabled son was sexually abused and then later murdered along with the boys mother by the abuser. You can follow more of Les’s journey through this ordeal here.

Jimmy Hinton, a minister at the Somerset Church of Christ in Pennsylvania, conducts seminars abuse sex abuse prevention after his father, also a former minister in Churches of Christ was convicted of sexual crimes against a minor and sentenced to 30-60 years in prison. More information about his seminars here 

Finally, you can simply take a look at the search results for “sexual abuse” from the Christian Chronicle

(UPDATE: Because of some complications with the search engine at the Christian Chronicle this link displays no results. This was not my intention. The Christian Chronicle has been an outspoken voice on this issue and I am thankful for their desire to articulate the need for change over the last decade. So, when you click this link you will have to do your own search. Erik Tryggestad, the editor at the Christian Chronicle has helpfully suggested the following terms: "sexual abuse", "child abuse", and "molestation".)

THE CURRENT STATE OF PREVENTION IN OTHER CHRISTIAN TRADITIONS

I am of the opinion that many in our tradition when confronted with this conversation appeal to one of two cop-outs. (1) This is not a problem that Churches of Christ have. (2) No one else is doing anything about it either.

Hopefully, this foray into this issue has proven the first idea to be patently false. Secondly, here are a brief listing of resources from various other Christian traditions who have in fact done something to address this issue within their traditions:

Southern Baptist Convention
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America - Sexual Abuse Prevention /// Clergy Sexual Abuse Prevention
The Episcopal Church
Seventh-Day Adventist 
Unitarian Universalist Association
Church of the Nazarene
United Methodist Church
United Church of Christ
Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)
Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Roman Catholic (in the United States) 

Resources from Churches of Christ (that I am aware of): NONE.

MOVING FORWARD TOGETHER AGAINST CHILDHOOD SEXUAL ABUSE

So consider this a call to no longer be silent, but to be proactive within Churches of Christ for the protection of our children and the care of those who are already victims of this horrible sin.

I wish to call on ministers, elders, school administrators, scholars, counselors, moms and dads, grandparents, and siblings, victims, and concerned people throughout our tradition to no longer be silent in the CofC about sexual abuse.

There are certainly other important and interrelated conversations that we could be having (adult sexual abuse, domestic violence, etc.), and those are important. But I believe we should start here and now with our children, with the most innocent and most vulnerable among us.

To this end, I want to begin a conversation. Using the hashtag #SilentCofC I want us to share resources, invite people into conversation, share our stories of abuse that perhaps have gone unspoken until now. It is time for this to no longer be a peripheral issue for our tribe.

I will attempt to collect and link all of the material that is generated by #SilentCofC here (create page).

In the meantime, speak up. We need you.


ENDNOTES

[i] U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, Sex Offenses and Offenders. 1997.

[ii] 1998 Commonwealth Fund Survey of the Health of Adolescent Girls. 1998.

[iii] World Health Organization. 2002.

[iv] Briere, J., and D. M. Eliot, “Prevalence and Psychological Sequence of Self-Reported Childhood Physical and Sexual Abuse in General Population.” Child Abuse & Neglect, 2003, Vol. 27, Issue 10, pp. 1205–1222.

[v] Douglas, Emily, and D. Finkelhor, Childhood Sexual Abuse Fact Sheet. Crimes Against Children Research Center, May 2005. (http://www.unh.edu/ccrc/factsheet/pdf/CSA-FS20.pdf)

[vi] Finkelhor, D., “The Prevention of Childhood Sexual Abuse.” Future of Children, 2009, 19(2):169–94.

[vii] Kilpatrick, D., R. Acierno, B. Saunders, H. Resnick, C. Best, and P. Schnurr, “National Survey of Adolescents.” Charleston, SC: Medical University of South Carolina, National Crime Victims Research and Treatment Center, 1998.

[viii] “Sexual Assault of Young Children as Reported to Law Enforcement: Victim, Incident, and Offender Characteristics.” U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2000.

[ix] “National Crime Victimization Survey.” U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1996.

[x] U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, Administration on Children, Youth and Families, Children’s Bureau, “Child Maltreatment 2010.”

[xi] Truman, Jennifer l., Ph.D., BJS Statistician, “National Crime Victimization Survey 2010.” U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics, September 2011. (http://bjs.ojp.usdoj.gov/content/pub/pdf/cv10.pdf) (November 1, 2012)

[xii] Canadian Centre for Child Protection Inc., “Child Sexual Abuse–It Is Your Business.” (https://www.cybertip.ca/pdfs/C3P_ChildSexualAbuse_ItIsYourBusiness_en.pdf) p. 10. (November 1, 2012)