Sexual Abuse

#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

#SilentCofC: The Trust Deception (Jimmy Hinton)

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: 

  1. 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. 
  2. Churches are desperate for volunteers.  When someone—heck when anyone—volunteers to help out, especially with kids, we describe them as “gifts from heaven.” 
  3. 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.

#SilentCofC: Autonomy and the Culture of Silence

Yesterday we explored this idea:

ALL OF OUR PRACTICES ARE EMBODIMENTS OF OUR THEOLOGICAL CONVICTIONS (ABOUT GOD AND THE WORLD) EVEN IF THEY HAVE NEVER BEEN ARTICULATED.

Today I want to briefly explore one of the most treasured (and misused!) elements of our ecclesiology: Congregational Autonomy.

For brevity, allow me to simply caricature what happens in our tradition when it comes to congregational autonomy.

First the elements of congregational autonomy that we celebrate...

  • Each congregation is run by its own elders. An eldership cannot exercise authority over other congregations or the members of those congregations.
  • Each congregation is enabled to make its own decisions about its life and doctrine without needing the pre-approval of some larger governing body.

Now, the more functional and dangerous components of this idea...

  • Lacking the authority structure to impose theological conformity, Churches of Christ result to social pressure, rhetoric, and a string of publications and outlets aligned with others of a similar orientation and practice.
  • Potentially embarrassing events (such as sexual abuse) can be addressed at the local level with nothing else done because it's not our problem and/or we don't have any authority or "right" to say something.
  • Autonomy typically means functional isolation, as if each church lives within a vacuum, although in dialogue with other equally self-contained congregations. This means that churches who do have resources to deal with things like sex abuse prevention are isolated from churches that need the same help.

In Churches of Christ, our "autonomy" has served to enable sexual predators to move from congregation to congregation with impunity.

In the last week since posting the introductory post in this series I have been contacted by four individuals who have stories of abuse being covered up (some in the distant past, and some in the last month!) and the perpetrator being asked to no longer attend that congregation, but to attend at a different Church of Christ! What the hell?!?!

Remember this excerpt from the outstanding 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.

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)

Congregational autonomy as it currently functions in Churches of Christ is at the very least problematic, and increases the risk that sexual predators are able to move within our tradition with impunity. It's time for the sake of our children and our witness in the world to think about how our functional isolation endangers the most precious and vulnerable members of our church family. 

Increased cooperation, communication, and commitment to protecting our children is the only faithful way forward.

#SilentCofC: Our Theological Assumptions About Children are Dangerous

I have this deep conviction that shapes the way I think about the world, my faith, and my place in God's mission:

ALL OF OUR PRACTICES ARE EMBODIMENTS OF OUR THEOLOGICAL CONVICTIONS (ABOUT GOD AND THE WORLD) EVEN IF THEY HAVE NEVER BEEN ARTICULATED.

Yesterday's introductory post to this conversation has absolutely exploded. With 200x the traffic of any other post I have ever written and with emails and Facebook messages coming in from around the world we have clearly struck a chord. Painful stories from victims, messages from people who were ostracized for their bravery to expose abuse, people asking "have you ever heard about _____?". The narratives are heartbreaking, and a number of them will be featured here in the coming days and weeks.

But today, I want to explore what I think is one of the most important underlying realities that have made addressing this issue all the more complicated in Churches of Christ. What I am about to suggest may be seen as controversial by some and offensive by others, but it is written out of deep love and respect for our tradition and from a genuine concern for the children (including my own!) in our churches and their formation in the way of Jesus.

What do our practices say about the value we place on children?

Worship Practices

Typically (and I am thankful for one that the congregation I attend is a wonderful exception) children are not utilized (and certainly not our young girls!). While I understand that this some will suggest that this is merely for pragmatic reasons, I believe that this also betrays a much more elemental theological assumption that I will explore shortly.

Education Practices

Our children are typically segregated from the rest of the church for their education from birth through college age. I recognize the need for age-appropriate formation, but this practice (distance from the "adults") again underlines and reinforces the root conviction that we need to talk about.

Mission Practices

Our children have little (if any) role in the larger mission of the church. Perhaps bringing some change for the missionaries, or being taught about basic moral principles (like kindness, sharing, and obedience... not particularly Christian traits), but they are not (in my experience) treated as "equal" in value or in their ability to contribute to the work of God in the world.

So what is the underlying theological conviction here that I believe makes our children more susceptible to abuse (sexual and otherwise) and neglect (spiritual and otherwise)?

WE DO NOT TREAT OUR CHILDREN AS EQUAL MEMBERS OF THE KINGDOM OF GOD. WE INSTEAD TREAT THEM AS IF THEY ARE "CHRISTIANS IN WAITING" OR POTENTIAL CONVERTS WHEN THEY REACH THE APPROPRIATE AGE.

The results of this unspoken (and perhaps unconscious) assumption are the following:

  • Sometimes we view the formation of our children as the duty that should be filled by those who are willing. We spend time begging, recruiting, or relegating certain adults to a "life sentence" of "children's ministry" (why isn't it just ministry?) and in congregations of all shapes and sizes it can be a perpetual challenge to maintain. Well, guess who is always willing to go above and beyond?
  • A child's "distance" from the life of the church creates a dangerous "gap" in their formation. Our unwillingness to allow children to participate fully in the worshiping life of the congregation (for example by denying them admission to Communion, not allowing them to lead the congregation in the ways that they are able and gifted, and the total exclusion of our girls) creates within our children a great disconnect between their lives and the lives of (adult) members of the Kingdom of God. Well guess who is willing to tell them what God "wants them to do"? (Remember what we said in the previous post about "stayers"!)
  • Our segregation of children minimizes "safe" adults. If an abuser has placed themselves within our children's formation in our churches (bible classes, Vacation Bible School, youth ministry, short-term mission trips) and the children are largely isolated, or more accurately, segregated from the rest of the church, we have significantly diminished the number of safe adults which our children can know, love, and seek help from in instances of abuse.

For more about this read my previous post:
A Gospel Big Enough for Little Ones?


One of the conversations that we need to have in Churches of Christ is not merely about prevention policies and procedures for addressing disclosures of abuse. We need to talk about the underlying assumptions about God, the Gospel, and the mission of God in the world that shape the way our churches treat and shape and protect our children. The consequences are too high for us to do otherwise. After all, it was Jesus himself who said:

"If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea." (Matthew 18:6, NRSV)

So, are our children as important as we say they are? What kinds of changes in our practices and language would need to take place to address some of the things that I have only mentioned briefly here?

#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)