It happens. We wish it didn’t happen and perhaps even try to pretend it doesn’t happen. But the tragic and undeniable reality is that there is abuse within the church. I recently spoke with Boz Tchividjian to ask some key questions for every Christian and every church.
How prevalent is child sexual abuse in the Christian community? In the Protestant community specifically?
Research has consistently found that approximately 1 in 4 females and 1 in 6 males will be sexually victimized before their 18th birthday. With 75 million children in the United States, this translates to almost 15 million children who will be sexually victimized over the next 18 years! Another way of understanding the prevalence of this horrific offense is that child sexual abuse is 75x more common than pediatric cancer. Also, keep in mind that when we talk about child sexual abuse it includes the astonishing rise of children sexually abusing other children. For example, a 2013 study found that nearly 1 in 10 young Americans between ages 14 and 21 acknowledges having perpetrated an act of sexual violence at least once.
There is no evidence that these heart-wrenching statistics are any lower within Christian communities. In fact, some older reports by church insurance companies show that child abuse allegations against American churches average 70 per week! One of my concerns is that too many of my Protestant friends seem to think that these statistics focus namely on the horrific abuses we have all come to learn about within the Catholic Church. Some may be tempted to watch this film with disgust for the Catholic Church and a sigh of relief for Protestant churches. Such a belief is simply unfounded and misplaced. A number of years ago, the three companies that insure most Protestant churches reported that receiving approximately 260 reports a year of minors being sexually abused by church leaders and members. This is compared to the approximately 228 “credible accusations” a year of child sexual abuse reported by the Catholic Church. There is no doubt that in reality both of these numbers are much higher due to the fact that sexual abuse is the most underreported crime. In reality, the likelihood is that more children are sexually abused in Protestant churches than in Catholic churches. Protestants are going to have to accept the fact that we have many more similarities than differences with our Catholic brothers and sisters when it comes to how we have failed to protect and serve God’s children.
One of the first steps to protecting children is the recognition and acknowledgement that the prevalence of child sexual victimization isn’t any lower within the very communities where children should be most protected, our churches. We also need to acknowledge that both adults and children perpetrate sexual abuse.
Christians must also come to grips with the troubling reality that our churches are filled with child sexual abuse survivors, many of whom are suffering in silence having never disclosed the abuse out of fear of how others will respond. Using the 1 in 4 and 1 in 6 statistics mentioned above, a 200-member church (100 women and 100 men) would have approximately 41 child sexual abuse survivors…..20.5%!! Yet few pastors ever mention it let alone preach a sermon about it. Think about it, how would pastors and other church leaders respond if 20.5% of their congregation had cancer or 20.5% of their congregation had lost a child or if 20.5% of their congregation had lost their homes in a natural disaster? My guess is that addressing and ministering to these members would immediately become a primary focus of church ministry. We would probably see support ministries started, sermons preached about the issue, and an ongoing public dialogue within the church on how best to love and serve those who have experienced such trauma. When it comes to this painful issue, too many of our churches still prefer silence over service. My hope and prayer is that the as we work to educate and equip our Christian brothers and sisters on the prevalence of this issue and the lifelong pain it inflicts upon precious souls, God will transform His Church into the safest community for children and the most welcoming and hope-filled community for those who have been abused. I believe Jesus calls for nothing less from His people.
Why should a church have a child safeguarding policy?
Psychologist Anna Salter says, “It’s precisely our lack of knowledge and understanding that gives predators their edge, and there’s nothing wrong with leveling the playing field a little.” Churches can level the playing field by cultivating a proactive culture of protection that prioritizes their children’s safety. A safeguarding policy is a necessary component of a culture that protects children from abusers. A safeguarding policy provides clear safety standards that can be uniformly applied to all members of the church community. Without such a policy, church leaders and church members are left to apply their own individual standards based upon beliefs that often lack any basis in knowledge of this issue. This approach does not protect children, it only fosters confusion and inconsistency. Furthermore, without a safeguarding policy that includes an abuse response protocol, churches are left responding to abuse disclosures in an inconsistent and uniformed manner. Such responses will inevitably further wound victims and empower offenders.
I have found that one of the most significant challenges for churches who want a child safeguarding policy is the actual process of creating one. Due to the fact that most churches don’t have child abuse experts in their congregation who can draft a thorough and well-informed policy, most churches end up cutting and pasting policies from other churches and ministries. The problem with this approach is that churches end up not fully grasping the content of their policy and have very little understanding for the rationale behind the policy standards. Having a policy that few if any understand will not make our churches safer places for children. The best policies are those that are developed within each church as a result of a process that requires the policy makers to become educated about abuse and to work through the many difficult issues that have to be addressed in the policy.
I realize that such a process can seem daunting and overwhelming. That is precisely the reason why I co-authored this Child Safeguarding Policy Guide. This book was written to help churches walk through the A-Z of developing a child safeguarding policy in a user-friendly manner. Our prayer is that the result of working through this guide will be an effective child safeguarding policy that is personalized to each particular church and is fully understood and followed by both leadership and the congregation.
What people in the church should receive training on child safeguarding?
Though I certainly advocate for having a group within the church who are better educated and trained on this subject, my years of experience teaches me that the safest churches are those where all members are educated and trained in some degree on the issues related to child protection.
Having said that, I do believe that safeguarding education must begin in some manner with church leadership. The on-the-job training of pastors and other church leaders in preventing and responding to child sexual abuse isn’t working – it is dangerous and all too often has devastating consequences. A problem with on-the-job training is that it allows for mistakes. That is okay when you are cooking hamburgers, but not when it involves the safety of children. GRACE recently completed development of a 3 credit hour seminary curriculum on child protection that was taught for the first time this summer at a Biblical Theological Seminary. I realize that not all pastors and church leaders attend seminary. However, I believe this breakthrough curriculum is a major step in the right direction.
The Child Safeguarding Policy Guide was written as the primary resource for the recently launched GRACE Child Safeguarding Certification initiative. The ultimate objective of this first of its kind initiative is to educate and equip every demographic of a church on the most important issues related to protecting children and serving abuse survivors. Each participating church is assigned to a GRACE certification specialist who walks them through the entire certification process that includes policy development, on-site training, and a walk-thru to identify vulnerable areas of the church building. We have already completed the certification of almost a dozen churches and have many lined up for the future. If your readers are interested in learning more about this initiative, they can go to www.netgrace.org/certification or email us at [email protected].
What are some common and perhaps well –intentioned mistakes churches can make in safeguarding children?
I think one of the most significant mistakes a church can make when it comes to protecting children is to believe that “this doesn’t happen here”. If our children are going to be safe, we must accept the difficult reality that this type of abuse is prevalent both outside and inside of the church. As one convicted offender remarked, “I considered church people easy to fool…they have a trust that comes from being religious.” Such a misguided belief not only endangers our children, but it emboldens offenders, whether they are family members or strangers. I think this type of willful ignorance also discourages churches from becoming educated on such a critically important issue.
Another common mistake is the belief that having a policy alone will keep children safe. As mentioned earlier, a child safeguarding policy is just one component of many in developing a comprehensive culture of protection for children in our churches. Both the Child Safeguarding Policy Guide and our Safeguarding Certification initiative highlight a number of other steps churches and ministries should be taking in order to vigilantly protect the most vulnerable amongst us.