I’m bearing witness to the #MeToo pain of a seven- or eight-year-old Latino boy whom I saw for a few seconds in a hotel parking lot. Unable to intervene or report, I’m telling his story and asking for action in the church.
My husband, Randy, and I were having breakfast inside a hotel, seated at a window table so we could watch the comings and goings in the parking lot. There was a large group of Christian high school students on a retreat or journey to a conference. The leaders were pastors with their families, as we learned from the chatter in the breakfast area.
The group exited en masse to board buses, vans, and family cars. As we watched the happy, jostling crowd move to various vehicles, we saw a family pass by, the mother in front and three children of different ages trailing, including the young boy. Up behind him came a white man about 50 years old, who draped himself over the little boy. In my mind I replay the split-second actions in slow motion as the boy covered his genitals with his hands the instant he felt the man’s touch from behind. The man crisscrossed his arms over the boy, placed his hands over the boy’s hands and squeezed his genitals. Then the man was up and gone, but the look of lonely pain on that boy’s face still burns in my mind and heart. The boy knew his predator. His family had not noticed, and my deep sadness is that most likely the predator will seek him out again.
The sexual abuse of children happens in the church and in Christian ministries more often than we like to think or admit. Even though the headlines report frequently on pedophilia in the Catholic Church, incidents of this nature are actually more prevalent in evangelical churches. We turn our own blind eye as the Catholic bishops did, sometimes due to ignorance, but sometimes due to complicity. We still hear stories of superintendents and bishops knowingly moving pastors who had a sexual predilection for children from one parish to another. Adults used to mistakenly think that children can get over such experiences, and that they are no big deal. But now we know that children do not, and it is a big deal. Children struggle with feelings of violation, confusion, and lack of safety for the rest of their lives.The sexual abuse of children happens in the church and in Christian ministries more often than we like to think or admit. Click To Tweet
How can your church respond?
Here are four things your church or ministry can do to make sure that children are cherished and safe in your setting. These practical steps are just as important to ensure that the next generation grows up to love the church as focusing on relevant worship with great music or developing fun children’s programs.
Do background checks on every person who engages with children: Sunday School teachers, youth leaders, children’s volunteers, even pastors. It is a known fact that 93% of predators are known to the children whom they abuse. Predators take advantage of any easy access they might have to children; don’t assume all adults are safe. The church is responsible to do the necessary checks. Here are resources where you can begin:
- National guidelines for working with children
- Links to the background check requirements in your state.
- The American Camp Association’s recommendations
Bring pedophilia out of the closet. Train and teach your congregation and ministry about child sexual abuse. RAINN (Rape, Abuse, Incest National Network) reports that “every 9 minutes, child protective services substantiates, or finds evidence for, a claim of child sexual abuse.” That means that during the span of a typical worship service, CPS intervenes on behalf of seven children. RAINN also notes that “One in 9 girls and 1 in 53 boys under the age of 18 experience sexual abuse at the hands of an adult.” Out of every nine girls in your ministry, it is probable that one has experienced sexual abuse. Since this crime is often not reported, the true magnitude of the problem is hard to pinpoint.
Therefore, we have a responsibility to the children in our spiritual care to preach and teach about this crucial issue. Along with creating policies for those working with children, churches should offer regular seminars on how to create a safe environment for children. The context for such teaching is what children need most to thrive. The teaching is not just the use of fear tactics about protecting children from evil predators; the predator could very well be the friendly uncle. Here are some great resources for additional information:
- RAINN has a wealth of information as well as a hotline and consultants for supporting organizations and families that want to protect their children.
- On Guard: Preventing and Responding to Child Abuse at Church by Deepak Reju should be read by every pastor, elder, and ministry leader and applied in their churches.
- Books such as I Said No! A Kid-to-Kid Guide to Keeping Private Parts Private by Kimberly King and God Made All of Me: A Book to Help Children Protect Their Bodies by Justin & Lindsey Holcomb help children understand what they can do. Every household should have one of these books.
- Healing Steps: A Gentle Path to Recovery for Survivors of Childhood Sexual Abuse by Sharyn Higdon Jones and Healing the Scars of Childhood Abuse by Gregory L. Jantz and Ann McMurray help adults heal from their childhood abuse experiences.
Pay attention to the children and the adults in your span of care. If a child feels uncomfortable with someone and shies away, make a note to watch the interactions between that child and adult. If an adult continually favors one child over others and tries to create frequent time alone with him or her under the guise of child-friendly activities, disrupt the opportunities before anything happens. Trust the instincts of a child. But also consider that a child will be groomed for sexual favor, so sometimes the child begins to seek out their predator. There are behaviors, warning signs, that you can observe in both the child and the predatory adult.
The child matters more than the feelings of the adult. If you observe something odd, trust that it’s possible that something off could be happening or on the cusp of happening. Grooming for sexual favors can be a long carefully-undertaken process. Lonely or awkward children are the most vulnerable because they are hungry for adult attention. A simple approach is to make sure that several adults are giving attention to that vulnerable child rather than assigning him or her to the care of just one adult.
The bigger the church, the more possible it is that prowlers are in your midst. However, small churches are also vulnerable to this type of darkness. Don’t assume that your church or ministry is too hip to have predators. Prowlers do not belong to one specific demographic, as we see from examples ranging from Michael Jackson to the fifty-year-old white man who fondled the little boy on a church trip with his family.The bigger the church, the more possible it is that prowlers are in your midst. However, small churches are also vulnerable to this type of darkness. Don’t assume that your church or ministry is too hip to have predators. Click To Tweet
I am brokenhearted for this little boy. In this small way I am attempting to represent his voice and the voice of all children who are tormented by sexual abusers. I am praying for him and for the predator who is in his life, who also needs the grace and healing of God. On behalf of the vulnerable, the children in our lives and churches, please don’t leave this issue to chance. Children in your care, under your ministry umbrella, are treasured by Jesus. Help your church treasure them too, by creating a safe environment for them to truly know what it’s like to be loved by healthy adults who follow Jesus.
 David Finkelhor, Anne Shattuck, Heather A. Turner, & Sherry L. Hamby, The Lifetime Prevalence of Child Sexual Abuse and Sexual Assault Assessed in Late Adolescence, 55 Journal of Adolescent Health 329, 329-333 (2014)