Few things are worse than the sexual abuse of children. One clinical social worker at Texas Children’s says, “sexual abuse usually does not injure the body, but it devastates the soul.” While many of us would like to believe this kind of thing only happens “out there” and not in our churches, it does. The recent story of sexual abuse at the hands of a Houston church worker reminds us of the vigilance needed in protecting our children in all settings.
A new book by Jeanette Harder called Let the Children Come: Preparing Faith Communities to End Child Abuse and Neglect is written with such vigilance in mind. Harder asks,
•Are children safe at your church?
•What precautions have you taken to ensure they won’t be abused?
•Do you know how to recognize the signs of child abuse and neglect?
•What should you do if you suspect a child in your church or neighborhood is being abused or neglected?
As the pastor of a church, these questions are basic to our care for all our children. Training for volunteers, sexual abuse prevention policies and procedures, background checks for all workers: all necessary for each and every congregation in Houston. But even more is needed. Harder busts certain myths that are still prevalent in our culture, including:
Myth #3: “Children are more often abused by strangers than they are by people they know (pg 21).”
Myth #8: “Abused children will usually discuss the abuse in an effort to stop it (pg 23).”
Myth #10: “It is the government’s responsibility to respond to child abuse and neglect (pg 25).”
Education and transparency are central components for faith communities to battle this problem. She says that we need to:
once and for all shake the notion that sexual abuse occurs at the hands of strangers who jump out from behind bushes and attack our children with brutal force. Sadly, that does happen, but not nearly as often as it does at the hands of parents, stepparents, grandparents, siblings, teachers, coaches, and youth ministers – family and friends whom the child knows and loves. Physical force is rarely necessary as the offender entices and deceives the child.
As the survivor of childhood sexual abuse, I know firsthand how abuse can devastate the soul. It twists your self image and can produce dysfunctional behavior. A secondary crisis for many of us is how our faith community responds, or doesn’t respond, to our story. I hid my story for years, letting it fester, only to be rebuffed by trusted church members upon my own “confession.”
This story is sadly repeated in many churches in our city. No one is immune. But neither is it inevitable. Faith communities who are pro-active as a social system go a long way in ending childhood abuse in our communities. For instance, Mennonite Church USA has addressed this issue systemically, providing copies of Let the Children Come to every congregation, mandating clergy training and annual accountability, and encouraging participation in the Safe Sanctuaries program. One simple rule for any church to implement immediately is the “two adult” rule, ensuring a child is never alone with an adult. A quick look at this Self Evaluation Form for Local Church’s may also go a long way in a short time. Along with Let the Children Come, nearly every Christian denomination has excellent resources for education and prevention of sexual abuse. Has your faith community been vigilant? Check out The Dove’s Nest non-exhaustive list of denominational resources to guide you to your church’s own resources. If your church doesn’t already have a policy, volunteer to help create one.
But no matter how prepared any church is, the risk of abuse is always present; churches are, after all, made of people. So its equally important for faith communities to respond with wisdom and grace to victims of child abuse. Harder says,
Too often the church tries to handle sexual abuse by itself. Perhaps the church does not truly believe the abuse occurred. Perhaps the church wants to avoid negative publicity. Well-intentioned, many churches think they can take care of it themselves, and, sadly, this often denies the child the help she needs and gives the offender further opportunity to sexually abuse the same child or others… The church is not equipped to handle the complex nature of sexual abuse but rather must join in partnership with local professionals who can assist in keeping the child safe, gathering evidence, and bringing hope and restoration to the child and non-offending family members. (pg 89-90)
I would add that faith and faith communities often play a valuable roll in rebuilding trust, dignity, self-love and the ability to love others. Most victims are overcome with shame, fear, and the overwelming sense that there is something inherently wrong about who they are. For people of faith, nothing can simultaneously address all these deep needs but faith in God and the power of healing and hope.
In my next post, Kids and Evil, we’ll look broadly at how and when to talk to young children about evil, bad people, strangers, sexual abuse, etc…. But for now, seek the peace of the city where you live, and that includes caring for the most vulnerable among us, especially our children.
How does your faith community minister to the abused? What do you do to prevent abuse?