#SilentCofC: Changing Our Response (Gina South)

Today's guest post in the #SilentCofC conversation is from my new friend Gina South. Here is a little bit about her, and you will see quickly that her voice is both informed and generative. Let those who have ears to hear...


Gina M. (Tur) South is the State Director for the Alabama Network of Children’s Advocacy Centers, and a member of the Alabama State Bar Association. Mrs. South is committed to advocating for children, and works with legislators to protect children in her capacity as State Director. Additionally, she provides education/awareness for both professionals and members of the community. Prior to her work with the CACs, Mrs. South taught Criminal Justice and Legal Studies at Faulkner University for 8 years. Mrs. South graduated from the University of Oklahoma College of Law, from Freed-Hardeman University, and from Mars Hill Bible School in Florence, Alabama. Mrs. South is married to Jason South, the Children’s Minister at Vaughn Park Church of Christ, and a Theatre Professor at Faulkner University. Together they have four children. The Souths are also current foster and adoptive parents for Agape of Central Alabama.


People were bringing little children to Jesus to have him touch them, but the disciples rebuked them. When Jesus saw this, He was indignant. He said to them, “let the little children come to me,
and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.”[i]
 

Did you see that Jesus was indignant – regarding a children’s issue? Children are our some of our most precious treasures in this life. Our Lord did not want children to be treated as though they were less important, as though they had no business being placed in front of the Savior, as though there were far more important matters to be brought to the feet of Jesus. 

My heart is heavy when I consider that many of our churches are doing this very thing today. When our church leaders would rather discuss praise teams or event planning than address the direction of our children’s ministry, when paying down the church debt is more important than prioritizing child safety, when worship styles or church décor is more of a hot topic than the focus of our children’s hearts, I believe that we grieve the Holy Spirit, disappoint God, and bring Jesus to a place where He is indignant. With us. With how petty and short-sighted we are. Surely we can do better.

In my line of work, I see the aftermath of when we fail to protect children. I see the numbers of children, the cost to society, the hours of counseling needed to induce healing; I see the insidious way that it spreads, silently, secretly, and from generation to generation. Do you truly believe the statistics? Do you believe that one in four girls, and one in six boys are sexually abused before the age of 18? Do you believe that only one in ten will actually disclose the abuse?[ii] Before my work with children’s advocacy centers, I did not. I was naïve. I assumed that the church cases were few and far between; I assumed that the statistics applied to the world, not to the church – not to any church I’d ever attended. But statistics are real, no matter what building you are in. Please do not believe for a second that because we are part of a small church family, or a close church family that we are insulated from it.

I grew up in the Church of Christ, and graduated from a Church of Christ high school and college. The Church of Christ values and the importance of God’s Holy Word have been deeply instilled from my childhood. These are my people; these are my roots. But just as most families have a skeleton in a closet, I have seen what I believe to be our skeleton, and it is the way we deal with accusations of child sex abuse, and the subsequent way that we treat the offender.

 In the situations that I have known about, the victim is told to stop talking about it, and the offender’s “record” is sealed shut. We silence the child because we do not want it to be true, or we think the child must be mistaken, or we do not want to ruin the lives of the offender, or the offender’s family. We seal shut the record of the offender and allow the offender to move on to another congregation, to molest more children, or we allow the offender to quietly resign, and seek employment in yet another place where he or she will have contact with children. Despite the fact that a sex offender molests on average, 117 children before being caught[iii], we do not press charges, or seek prosecution. We think that by not making a child face prosecution, we save them from public humiliation, or somehow protect them. We do not seek counseling for the child.

In doing so, our actions teach the child that it does not matter who touches them. It does not matter what happens to their bodies. Our actions highlight the truth: that we do not want to talk about the uncomfortable, that we will not discuss the painful topics, and that we will protect other adults to the detriment of our children’s safety. Is that really what we want to teach children?

It is remarkable that in Matthew 18, Jesus actually states, “if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea,”[iv] and almost directly after that, He begins to address what to do when your brother sins against you.[v] The statements go together: it is our Savior’s desire that we protect children from evil behaviors. It is our Savior’s desire that we get to the truth of the matter.

Additionally, there is one small phrase we overlook. “If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church…”[vi] When we have enough reasons to know that a person actually committed a crime, there is a Biblical mechanism in place to warn our church family. Are we doing what God has instructed of us? Are we warning our brothers and sisters? Keep in mind that you are not committing slander against an individual when you state the truth.[vii]

We must improve the way we deal with child sex abuse in the church of Christ.

The counselors who work with abused children tell me this: some Church of Christ children (and many other church-going children) are raised in such conservative homes that they are gravely unequipped. They lack the actual tools that children need to protect themselves. They do not receive the message “my body belongs to me,” and “it’s ok to tell someone NO.” Oftentimes, the children even lack the vocabulary needed to explain what has happened to them.

What can we do to improve? For parents, the following steps would be a good step in the right direction.

  1. Equip your preschooler. Teach them the actual names of their body parts, and teach them that nobody is allowed to touch them in a way that makes them feel bad, or uncomfortable unless it is the doctor, and is medically necessary. Make sure they understand that other children (not just adults) cannot have access to their bodies.
  2. Keep the lines of communication open. Tell them explicitly that they can tell you anything or ask you anything. Ask them if anyone is touching them, or doing anything inappropriate. Revisit the topic frequently enough so that as they grow, and get older, that they will always feel like they can talk to you about their bodies, or about sex, or about inappropriate situations they may have encountered.
  3. Educate yourself. Download the free McGruff Mobile smartphone app, where you can view an interactive map displaying crimes and sex offenders in your neighborhood. Actively seek information about how to talk to your child about body safety.
  4. Find out what your congregation is doing to protect children, and join in and assist.

What can churches do to improve?

  1. Give all members of the congregation (men, women and children) a voice in contributing to and implementing child safety policies. Seek the input of child safety professionals in your congregation. Create an environment where knowledgeable, qualified women and men can both advise and make policy decisions about child safety.
  2. Implement policies and procedures for child safety. Most church insurance plans have a model child safety policy that the congregation can implement. The Methodist churches have an impressive child safety plans (Safe Sanctuaries) in place today, and it is an excellent program that is a model for other religious groups.
  3. Hold regular seminars for both church staff and parents to teach them the signs and indicators of child sex abuse, and about how to identify individuals that are “grooming” children for abuse.
  4. Conduct background checks of all members who will have direct access to children.
  5. Make certain that your congregation has a policy of 2 workers for every class. No teacher should ever be alone with a child, regardless of whether the teacher is male or female.

Do not be naïve about the facts of child sex abuse. Do not neglect the children in your church family. Do not turn a blind eye, and do not fail to give your child the tools he or she needs, for who among us would dare to send an innocent, unarmed lamb into a battlefield, without so much as a warning? “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.”[viii]


ENDNOTES

[i] Mark 10:14 NIV

[ii] Theresa Harvard Johnson, Angela Williams, Courage to Speak (Marietta: Voice Today, 2013), 20.

[iii] Nancy E. Grabe, et al., The Grooming Mystery (Marietta: Voice Today, 2013), 4.

[iv] Matthew 18:6 NIV

[v] Matthew 18:15-17 NIV

[vi]  Matthew 18:17 NIV

[vii] Disclaimer: the contents of this article are for informational purposes only, and should not be construed as legal advice.

[viii] Matthew 10:16 NIV