“…the pace of child-abuse allegations against American churches has averaged 70 a week (Christian Ministry Resources).”

That was the shocking statistic that our Kids Ministry Director shared with me as we reviewed our Children’s Safety Policy. It was disheartening and sobering, pointing to the responsibility that each of us bear as church leaders.

That statistic mandates a diligent approach as churches find themselves to be likely targets. We focus on children, we seek to create emotional connections between leaders and children, and we strive for a culture that wants to believe the best in others.

This means that your church is not the exception and your people are not automatically above it. It means your leadership is not immune to it. It doesn’t matter how large or small your church is. Abuse pays no regard to anything except opportunity.

Opportunity is they key word to focus on in this conversation. It’s the battleground where we fight and our accountability before God and one another. As leaders, we may not be directly responsible for whether or not it happened; however, we are responsible for how likely it was to happen, and that is all about opportunity.

In the article entitled, Child Sex Abusers in Protestant Churches: An Offender Typology written by Andrew Denney, he urges for accountability saying, “From a policy standpoint, the responsibility to prevent, intervene, and report instances of sexual abuse within one’s church fall squarely on church officials’ shoulders.”

Like it or not, this is our problem and our battle. Take some time to review the two sections below, which focus on what we need to know and what we need to do. Additionally I would strongly encourage you to check out the resources at the end.

WHAT WE NEED TO KNOW

  • Three types of offenders (Denney)
    1. On-site offenders (violators perpetrating on your premises)
    2. Off-site offenders (violators perpetrating under your Church’s care but not on the premises)
    3. Serial offenders (violators with more than one victim)
  • Six themes prevalent in most cases of church sexual abuse (Denney)
    1. Family members, friends, and victims ignored warning signs
    2. The niceness culture – Churches operate on the premise of people being friendly to one another and that behavior can disguise flirtatious behavior that is a sign of grooming
    3. The ease of private communication. Messaging a child has never been easier
    4. No oversight
    5. Multiple roles – someone could be privy to secretive information and be in a closely trusted mentoring role. They could use that information in a manipulative way to their advantage.
    6. An inherent trust in the the sanctuary
  • Warning Signs (See the Mayo Clinic resource below for an exhaustive list)
    • Sexual behavior or knowledge that’s inappropriate for the child’s age
    • Pain in private areas
    • Inappropriate sexual behavior with other children
    • Disassociation, depression, anxiety, withdrawal
    • It’s not entirely uncommon for children to show no symptoms

 

The Church is a target for a reason.

At your church, how many adults interact with children weekly? How many of those interactions involve trust? On the other hand, outside of a church setting, how many adults  does a child interact with within a trusting relationship who isn’t their teacher or parent?

Do you see the problem? Churches create increased opportunities compared to most places where adults and children interact. To a predator, churches require little effort to begin grooming compared to other avenues they may pursue.

Just because your own children haven’t been abused doesn’t mean others couldn’t.

Predators intentionally avoid scenarios where they are likely to be questioned or caught. They do what they can to be trusted. That includes creating safe relationships with children of leaders to avoid the likelihood of accusations communicated and believed elsewhere.

Staff are not immune to this…

“For example, pastors potentially have access to every church member, whether children or elderly, simply by their position. Second, those in positions of power generally have little oversight. This lack of oversight allows them to move (and potentially abuse) freely with little chance of discovery. Third, these individuals might be privy to knowledge (e.g., marriage difficulties, sexual activity among teens, etc.) due to their positions that can then be used to exploit a situation.” – Denney

People use religion as a means of manipulating others into vulnerable relationships. It’s sad, but it is nothing new. Perpetrators have been found to tell a child that they are upsetting God or that by telling on them, they could destroy the church.

Abusers have an escape route.

They have answers planned, and they will misconstrue any allegation. If they are willing to commit a crime that is one of the most perverse and disturbing acts, they have already thought about how to get out of it. We can not simply take someone’s word regarding this area.

THE MAIN COMPONENTS OF MANDATORY REPORTING (mandatedreporter.com)

1. A Child is anyone under 18

You only need to have reasonable cause to suspect that a child is a victim of abuse. Once a report is received, specially trained child welfare professionals will determine whether the child is a victim of abuse and what action is necessary to ensure a child’s safety and well-being.

A reporter is not required to provide the identity of  an alleged perpetrator, if it is unknown to the reporter.

2. An act or a failure to act

An act is something that is done to harm or cause potential harm to a child.

A Failure to Act is something that is not done to prevent harm or potential harm to a child.

3. A Perpetrator

A parent of the child, a spouse or former spouse of the child’s parent, a paramour or former paramour of the child’s parent, a person 14 years of age or older who does not reside in the same house.

WHAT WE NEED TO DO

Establish a culture where a safe environment supersedes all relationships.

Losing “important” people to protect innocent children seems like it’s the exact thing that Jesus would want us to do if push came to shove. We must communicate clearly that no one is above accountability or suspicion. We should review our policy (see below) regularly and at critical stages with every volunteer in these areas. We should have difficult conversations up front that serve to help prevent and make it easier to confront later.

The message should be, “If a person does this behavior, we will have this result, regardless of who they are.” That culture clearly sends the message that we will err on the side of the child’s perspective (studies back children anyway).

Develop policies.

Consult your insurance agency or other churches to create your own policy that you review annually with your volunteers. No system will be perfect, but the efforts will be worth it.

Some examples of things to consider in your policy (courtesy of our Kids Min Director Rachael Quinn):

  1. Six month rule – how long does someone need to attend before they work with children?
  2. Record keeping – what is your process and who sees it?
  3. Mandatory reporting information – see link below.
  4. Screening volunteers – require background checks and ensure they don’t lapse.
  5. Signs of abuse – review resources below.
  6. Rule of TWO – There is never a scenario where a child is allowed to be in a room with less than two unrelated adult leaders.

 

Invest in deterrents.

With recent technological advancements, cameras have become so cheap that there  isn’t a good excuse not to have them all over. Of course, they don’t prevent everything, but every little effort we put forward sends out a message saying, “This is not the place for you to find a victim.” Likewise, it would be best to consider creating safer spaces by installing glass doors, windows, removing walls, increasing lighting, etc. This is all money well spent.

Anticipate the weakness of the flesh.

We, of all people, shouldn’t be surprised by this. We have given our lives to studying the depths and depravity of sin. We have counseled countless people who have fallen victim to the corrupt and perverse desires of the flesh. If the “right” opportunity arrives for the “right” person, they will take it. We shouldn’t blindly trust anyone.

Voice suspicions in safe spaces.

Part of the reason that many instances of abuse lie in dormancy is because many people are skeptical about lack of factual grounding. We have recently stressed a culture amongst our core staff team that says, if you are uncomfortable about something, record it on an incident report form that is only viewable by 1 non-staff observer and us (we chose a professional in this field). Our goal here wasn’t to go on a witch hunt but to identify trends of suspicion that we otherwise would have missed.

Too often the response to abuse from multiple observers was, “I didn’t feel right about that person.” Let’s love all our people well and yet also be wise about who we trust.

Don’t forget to scrutinize offsite activities.

If your onsite policy requires two unrelated adults present with kids, your offsite policy must also reflect those numbers. Short of missions trips (which don’t escape the rule of two), minimizing overnight trips/activities isn’t a bad idea.

Avoid situations with no accountability like the plague.

If no one can hold you or a member of your staff or church accountable, it’s an accident waiting to happen (if it hasn’t already). Everyone needs to answer to someone, and neither power nor relationship should prevent honest conversations from happening.

Think like a hunter.

I was raised as an outdoorsman and it has come in handy in this area. I recently had two consecutive weeks off from preaching, and I used the time to attend every ministry function involving kids. I looked at things from the perspective of, “If I was going to try something, where and how would it happen?” 

A perpetrator is a hunter and they will operate in patience, looking for opportunity. They want isolation, and we need to prevent it. They are trying to create trust, and we need to keep tabs on it. They will try to desensitize by increased touching and pushing the boundaries on appropriate conversations. We need to educate and train. They want this all to seem very normal. We want this to be anything but normal.

Take some time and observe every possible situation once per year to ensure that what is happening under your care doesn’t have the opportunities a predator is trying to find. If you are in need of preaching assistance to make this possible, take advantage of the EFCA East Pulpit Supply Tool.

DID WE DODGE A BULLET?

I recently got a phone call from two different parents. They were concerned about an event we had at one of our student ministry nights. The teens were playing a game I grew up playing called Sardines. I didn’t know our Student Min leader was doing that particular game, but even when the parents called and said they were concerned about the game, I initially thought to brush it aside. I had great memories playing that game. The parents calmly and quickly reminded me that all the lights were off in the building and young boys, girls and leaders silently wandered around.

They were right. It was a bad idea. I sigh as I write this because while there were no reports or indications of anything nefarious happening, the reality is, I don’t know with certainty. I may not know for 10-15 years. At that point, someone may speak up and share that they were molested, and if so, alongside the tragedy it would be, I would bear a level of accountability for it.

I understand that this isn’t our primary initiative. Our primary initiative is the Gospel. However, if we get this area wrong, it significantly derails our primary initiative with the potential for decades of fallout. Clearly, we have to do our best here.

RESOURCES

Mayo Clinic symptoms of abuse

Psych Central symptoms of abuse

Mandated Reporting

Department of Justice

National Center for Victims of Crime

It’s not just priests who sexually abuse children; families should be alert to anyone watching kids. 

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Matt Saxinger has served in the EFCA for 14 years. He currently is the Lead Pastor at Susquehanna Valley Church in Harrisburg, PA. He has a heart for the gospel and seeing the next generation rise up in leadership.

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