Think Your Church is Safe from Sex Abuse? Think Again.
A Review of The Child Safeguarding Policy Guide by Boz Tchividjian
The Catholic Reaction
Not only is this not the case, but the cracks are starting to show. While the Catholic church is now entering its third decade of rethinking and reacting to the abuse cases and abusers in their ranks, the very point that hamstrung them initially – that of being a massive, top-down organization bent on protecting themselves – is now working in their favor. The prevention and response policies that they have developed over the years can be organized from the top and then filtered directly down the pole.
My younger two kids are going to a Catholic school this year, and wow! those guys are careful. To do anything at all from helping in the classroom to driving on field trips to volunteering basically anywhere near kids, you have to get a background check and then go to a three-hour training on child safety and protection that requires a refresher with further training every subsequent year your kids attend school. These policies for the school are implemented by the diocese.
In contrast, neither Christian school my kids have attended has required this level of volunteer preparation (or any preparation at all including background checks). Unlike the Catholic organizational system, Protestantism is a slivered mass of denominations and independent churches, none of whom are beholden to or cooperate with each other. When one group produces new policies, none of the other groups benefit, which makes our response time slow and increases the likelihood of abusers falling through the cracks by denomination- or church-hopping.
Help Figuring Out Best Practices
In the process of spending most of the 2015-2016 school year researching and reporting on two specific sex abuse cases in a church setting, which involved an inadvertent crash course in the miserable realities of abuse dynamics, I came across Boz Tchividjian’s organization, GRACE (Godly Response to Abuse in a Church Environment). GRACE is a two-pronged organization that both investigates organizations experiencing abuse complaints within their systems (investigations are at the organization’s request) and that provides training for churches on best practices for sexual abuse prevention and response.
Boz himself spent a decade prosecuting sex abuse crimes specifically in Florida and has amassed a board full of other Christian leaders in the field on both the legal and counseling/psychology ends. To aid church leaders in preparing protection policies for their congregations, GRACE has put out a new book called The Child Safeguarding Policy for Churches and Ministries.
I received a free review copy and have spent the last several days reading it. It’s extremely helpful and covers these and other topics:
—Protecting the children in a Christian environment from child abuse
—The warning signs of child abuse
—Crafting and implement a child protection policy
—Responding to abuse allegations
—Caring for victims of child abuse
—The legal implications and requirements for churches and Christian ministries
While it is easy to think that this material is solely the purview of the Children’s Pastor, that is not the case. Signs of child abuse can be alarmingly subtle, and if a child chooses you as the person they trust enough to disclose their abuse to, that conversation will likely not start off sounding like it’s about what has happened to them. It will start with slightly odd things that are the child’s way of testing whether or not you are a safe person for them to tell. If you don’t know what you’re looking for, you’ll miss it and that child will sink back into tortured silence for years or quite possibly the rest of his or her life (well over 90% of children don’t disclose, and of the ones who do, children who were abused by teachers or church leaders typically wait at least ten years before they ever say anything).
The Scope of the Sex Abuse Problem
What about scope? How many people are we talking about? Estimates by the Department of Justice are that 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys will be abused by the time they turn 18. So, yes. That’s 20% of your congregation since many of those kids are now adults dealing with the after-effects (which don’t look tidy either, by the way. The effects are often so severe that I’ve started thinking that in many cases the resultant mental illness would be more accurately described as mental or emotional injury). If your congregation has 200 people in it, that would be forty of them who have experienced some form of sexual abuse (and that’s probably low because it’s more common in church than even in the general population, and 93% of sex offenders describe themselves as religious. Abusers love churches. Churchgoers tend to want to believe the best about people, so they are very slow to believe someone could actually do such a thing, and are often overly quick to forgive even when abuse is discovered.).
What if 20% of your church was victim to a natural disaster or a targeted scam or industrial poisoning? What if the employment rate in your church was 20% or if 20% had cancer? Would that be discussed from the pulpit? Would we be talking about how to support those 20% and show them love and care? Would we be talking about Biblical responses and how Jesus loved, believed, and cared for the hurting and grieving? You bet! But we don’t do that with child abuse or really abuse of any kind at all. And so it goes unnoticed, unchecked, and the people suffering leave, unloved. The scope of the problem in the Protestant church is at least the size of the problem in the Catholic church (and no, celibacy for priests wasn’t the primary problem. 80% of abusers are married men. Contrary to popular belief, marriage does not provide a protective or curative effect). For the last five years in a row, sex abuse of minors was the top reason that churches were sued.
This is our problem. We are culpable. We are responsible both for our own turning away from victims in the past and for turning towards them in love now and in the future. We are responsible both for protecting children and the vulnerable and for handling abusers Biblically by turning them over to God-appointed authorities, which in the case of criminal activity means the police. We can do better. We have to do better. We shame the very Gospel when we don’t.
For further reading, start by clicking through all the links in this article and reading Anna Salter’s book Predators: Pedophiles, Rapists, and Other Sex Offenders