Sexual Abuse in Churches: Prevention and SupportBy GCC Staff
May 27, 2022
The recent release of the Sexual Abuse Task Force Report from the Southern Baptist Convention is a sad reminder of how frequently sexual abuse happens in churches and how information can sometimes remain concealed for institutional preservation.
The fallen world we in which we live reaches into and defiles every crevice of human existence with destructive consequences. The depth of hurt and trauma inflicted upon some entrusted to the care of God’s people can scarcely be measured.
In the US context, information compiled by the Evangelical Council for Abuse prevention shows 10% of all children will report experiencing some form of sexual abuse before age eighteen; 44% of Protestant church attenders say they have been sexually victimized with 12% of these instances happening within the church; ten percent of Protestants under age 35 reported leaving a church because of sexual misconduct. And if those numbers aren’t sufficiently staggering, the Department of Justice (US) estimates that only 30% of sexual abuse cases are reported to authorities. Victims have little voice; perpetrators or accomplices often will not hear.
Churches must prepare and remain vigilant. Using a database or other screening process is essential, but so is knowing your volunteers. As Garrett Higbee, GCC’s Leader Care Specialist and longtime counselor, said:
It is not enough to build a process to ensure a safe environment for kids in the church, we need to see the church as a target rich environment for Satan to take advantage of our naivety, lack of intentionality, and denial. Training and screening is essential but we must include regular prayers of protection and personal knowledge of every children’s worker. This type of care is not managed by protocols alone. Preventing abuse is more about knowing your people and managing by relationship not regulation.
Churches should also be aware of not only laws, wise policies, and preventative measures, but dial onto the desperate needs of those who have been victimized by sexual abuse—no matter their current stage of life. They will often need ongoing, specialized holistic ministry.
GCC’s president, Dave Harvey notes:
Abuse prevention and post-abuse ministry are two sides to the same coin. Churches must take every measure to prevent sexual abuse from happening, while also recognizing that the deep trauma caused by this particular sin requires full-hearted, comprehensive ministry to the wounded. Every senior/lead pastor should take immediate steps—if he hasn’t already—to ensure proper people and systems are in place to address this critical need.
“What can my church do?”
The responsibility for ensuring safe environments begins with the leadership. Here a few suggestions toward creating a preventative and restorative environment.
Lead pastors and elder-teams must prioritize screening and training, both initially and ongoing.
All volunteers who work with children and teens eighteen-years-old and younger should be screened for criminal records and trained in recognizing signs of abuse. Church policies should put the safety of children and teens above the convenience of volunteers.
Sexual abuse and sexual assault are sins, but they are also crimes. Each part has to be addressed properly. The first step in any suspected case is to report to local enforcement per the laws in your area. Many locales now have “mandatory reporter” laws that would include any paid staff or volunteers who work with children and teens. It is not your job to determine whether abuse is substantiated; it is your job and that of your leaders to report suspected abuse.
Rush to help the victim.
When ministering to victims, listening well is imperative. Clarity is important so that we can sympathize sincerely with their hurt. Victims of sexual assault or sexual abuse need to know they have advocates, not accusers, in the people of God. When abuse is revealed, that is not the time to discuss forgiving the abuser or abusers. It is the time to cover the victim in loving support, leading them to the healing mercy and restoring grace of God.
Preach against the sin of sexual abuse.
In today’s culture the awareness of sexual abuse and sexual assault is acute. For pastors, failure to address these sins is a failure of shepherding. Further, lumping sexual abuse and assault together with adultery and fornication—in which participants are consensual—is to shame abuse victims for the guilt of their abuser. Those who are guilty of sexual abuse and sexual assault need to know they have sinned against God and their victim(s).
Preach restoration, healing, and wholeness available in Jesus for victims of abuse.
Shame accompanies those who have been abused. Often this shame comes from the abuser as a way to maintain control. Abusers also use fear to control and demean their victims. As the victim loses all knowledge of the Imago Dei upon them, they feel useless and worthless; shame can become an identity. Many feel as if the abuse is their fault or believe they could have done something to stop it. These precious souls need the assurance that God loves them and they can be made whole through the gospel of Jesus Christ.
A few resources
The following resources might be of help as you institute, review, or improve your attempts to prevent sexual abuse and minister to victims. They are listed for your data-gathering convenience, not with blanket endorsements.
On Guard: Preventing and Responding to Child Abuse at Church, by Deepak Raju
The Child Safeguarding Policy for Churches and Ministries, by Basyle Tchividjian and Shira Berkovits
Caring for the Souls of Children: A Biblical Counselor’s Manual, by Amy Baker (ed)
Rid of My Disgrace: Hope and Healing for Victims of Sexual Assault, by Justin and Lindsey Holcomb
In the Aftermath: Past the Pain of Childhood Sexual Abuse, Pamela Gannon and Beverly Moore