Today's guest post is from my new friend Jimmy Hinton. He serves as the minister at the Somerset Church of Christ in Somerset, Pennsylvania. He writes often about issues of abuse at his blog and is in the initial launch of his new ministry, Church Protect. Jimmy's journey into helping the Church think about the scope and cost of child sexual abuse came in the aftermath of learning that his father, a Church of Christ minister, was a pedophile with dozens of victims. His voice is important in our fellowship and I am thankful for his contribution today.
WARNING: Jimmy doesn't sugar-coat the nature of abuse. This is important, but for some, especially those who have been victimized in the past, it may serve as a trigger. For the rest of us, please consider Jimmy's honest and unsanitized perspective as an exercise in learning empathy for victims of this horrific evil.
I had just spoken as a keynote at a large conference for professionals who deal with abuse. For many theological and psychological reasons that I won’t unpack here, I take a strong stance that pedophiles should not have access to our children, even (especially!) in worship. A man came up to me after my speech and said, “You’re a preacher and you say that pedophiles and children should be separated.” “Yep,” I said unflinchingly. “Let me just ask you, where is the trust and forgiveness in that?” I assured him that mistaking forgiveness and trust is a grave mistake. They are not the same thing. We can forgive people who should never be trusted again. It’s a strange notion that we somehow magically believe that people who say, “Sorry” will never struggle with temptation again.
This man’s response is not uncommon among church leaders. I regularly get challenged by people who have never spent time either with a pedophile or with their victims. They haven’t had to face the reality of witnessing the lies, manipulation, and denial from pedophiles. Nor have they heard the horror stories from survivors who were humiliated, stripped naked, poked, prodded, and caressed with the tongues and fingers of their perpetrators. I have. And I acknowledge what the Bible and psychologists both agree upon—Children need responsible adults to protect them.
When I shared this man’s response with my ministry partner, who happens to counsel incarcerated sex offenders, without hesitation he offered me the following advice.
“Always keep a 3x5 notecard and a pen in your pocket. Next time someone is adamant that you are ‘unfair’ and need to integrate pedophiles into your church, take down their name and personal number. Write down their home address as well as their church address, number, times of service, etc. And just tell them, ‘You know what? You’re right and I’m wrong. Pedophiles do need a place to worship among children. We are not equipped to make that happen but we are willing to pay for the flight, bus ticket, gas, or whatever to send the next pedophile we meet directly to your home. Thank you so much for agreeing to integrate them into your own home and church.’”
Now before anyone draws too harsh a judgment, let me be clear. I want pedophiles to be redeemed. I’m not arguing that we ban them from church unless, of course, they show no signs of remorse or repentance. What I’m arguing is that, according to the Bible, we have the highest calling to protect our children and so, pedophiles who have repeatedly perpetrated upon children have no business being surrounded by them. We should offer an alternative worship service without kids where temptation does not cause a repentant pedophile to stumble. We do it with drug addicts. We don’t serve booze to alcoholics. So why do we insist that we serve our children on a platter to someone whose appetite is so insatiable that he or she has repeatedly stripped a child of their clothes, innocence, and decency? God “does not willingly afflict or grieve the children of men” (Lamentations 3:33), so why do we?
The most common cliché I hear from churches who insist on not taking any precautions to protect their children is this—“We have a group of volunteers we trust so why would we upset them by demanding background checks and watching over them every time they want to serve?” Great question. Let me tell you about a story of a man who trusted his own father. . . who happened to be a well-respected father and preacher! My dad has dozens of victims who all have dramatic stories of shame, pain, and humiliation. He was able to gain access to children precisely because everybody trusted him. Let me also tell you about hundreds of other people who have shared similar stories with me as I listen to their painful stories. They all tell a similar story: “Nobody questioned my abuser because he was the guy everyone loved and trusted.”
I can assure you that if you are, like I was at one time, looking for the creepy guy standing behind the bushes by the ice cream truck, you’re looking in the wrong place. A successful pedophile is not someone who offended a child and got away with it. No, a successful pedophile is someone who offended children over and over while gaining the love, respect, and trust from those closest to him. The successful pedophile is the last person anyone would suspect as an abuser and the first person someone would choose to care for their kids. And there is a lot of success out there, especially in our churches. My dad once wrote me from prison, “Churches and Christian daycares are the easiest places to offend.” Touché.
I call this the “trust deception.” We Christians are deceived precisely because we want to trust. Dr. Gene Abel did a massive study among over 1,000 pedophiles and found that 93% of them identified themselves as religious. That’s a huge deal! We picture pedophiles as monsters with 3 heads who deny God and mock Jesus. It’s simply not true. The vast majority of them believe in God and identify as Christians. The reason I make such a huge deal about this is because religious people typically go to church! If 93% of pedophiles are religious, that means the majority of pedophiles are frequenting your churches. It gets worse.
The reason churches are among the highest risk for sex offenses to occur is that we have created the perfect storm. As the famed Dr. Anna Salter once told me, “They (churches) are such inviting targets.” There are 3 main ingredients to our Molotov concoction:
- Christians by nature are generally naïve. Quite honestly, we don’t want to know what kinds of things happen outside our own happy bubbles. It disrupts our happy time and forces us to think about something tragic and actually do something about it. Let’s be honest—prophets like Jeremiah weren’t exactly known for gaining converts through uplifting sermons.
- Churches are desperate for volunteers. When someone—heck when anyone—volunteers to help out, especially with kids, we describe them as “gifts from heaven.”
- We wrongly trust everyone because “church folk” are safe people and church is a safe place. Wrong! Going to church makes a person a trusted individual no more than standing in a garage makes them a car. The only way church will be a safe place is if we make it a safe place. And this can be done. The refusal by many church leaders to adopt healthy policies to protect their kids is mind-numbing.
There are 42 million survivors of child sex abuse in the United States alone. As someone who does church consulting and regularly conducts workshops on abuse in the Churches of Christ across the nation, let me tell you, it is an epidemic. Am I an alarmist? No, I’m a realist. Just in the last few months, I’ve had somewhere around 100 survivors of child sex abuse share their stories of churches either actively covering up accusations of abuse or just flat out denying that it happens. Shame on us. We can do better than this for the very children Jesus called us to imitate. Christ became indignant when his disciples blocked them from coming near him. How much more indignant should we become when church leaders deny children a safe environment to worship? Children should not have to cower in fear every time they enter an assembly to worship. Let’s vow to do better at preventing abuse.