At last year’s General Assembly, a personal resolution was offered urging the denomination to take more seriously the issue of child sexual abuse in the church. The Assembly voted to reconsider the matter at the upcoming 42nd Assembly. Not long afterward, Georgia Foothills Presbytery submitted an overture exhorting the PCA to become more informed about the topic and take a more active stance toward preventing child sexual abuse in the church. That motion was followed by endorsements by 22 other presbyteries.
While these overtures will likely take a prominent place on this year’s docket, a seminar on the topic will also be available during Assembly week.
Theresa Lynn Sidebotham, attorney and founder of Telios Law PLLC, will present on the topic “Child Abuse: Legal and Scriptural Considerations for Policies, Prevention, Investigation, Discipline, and Healing.” Over the years, Sidebotham has worked with numerous faith-based organizations to help them develop child-protection plans and to equip groups to respond to allegations of abuse.
“Because child sexual abuse is endemic in human society, religious organizations must devote time, energy, and money to stop the seeds from sprouting, uproot abuse whenever it is found, heal the wounds, and keep the organization healthy and whole,” Sidebotham explains.
Although experts disagree on the percentage of abusers in the culture, Sidebotham says that a conservative estimate is that one in 10 adult American males has been involved in sexual abuse. What’s scarier is that three-quarters of abuse takes place in “circles of trust” — family members, friends, teachers, coaches, doctors, and clergy members. And usually, people who sexually abuse children aren’t easy to spot. “They’re often charming, engaging, outstanding people that you don’t tend to suspect,” Sidebotham says.
This shouldn’t lead to paranoia, but it should make churches sensitive to the likelihood of some form of abuse taking place within its walls and taking appropriate steps to prevent it. Typically, child abuse requires three factors, Sidebotham explains: “First, a person motivated to abuse; second, a potential victim; and third, lack of a ‘capable guardian,’ or put another way, an environment that gives access. Studies show that addressing these three factors reduces child sexual abuse by limiting chances to commit it.”
Environments that squelch child sexual abuse before it starts are those in which children feel safe reporting any behavior that makes them feel uncomfortable.
Environments that squelch child sexual abuse before it starts are those in which children feel safe reporting any behavior that makes them feel uncomfortable. Speaking up may not lead anywhere, but at least a child has the freedom to express concerns, and it provides churches the opportunity to nip a potential problem early on. Similarly, a safe environment is one in which adults know what’s appropriate and what’s not. For example, male leaders shouldn’t be having boys over for sleepovers or taking them on camping trips alone. Adults need to know what inappropriate behavior looks like when they see it. Having a child-protection plan in place isn’t necessarily a fail-safe against abuse, but it can definitely curb it as well as keep churches prepared should reports of abuse arise.
“Allegations of child abuse are not quite as inevitable as death and taxes, but close,” Sidebotham says. “Leaders must be ready to face them despite their sense of shock and distaste. They must resist any impulse to denial but also keep an open mind and not jump to conclusions.”
Ultimately, the workshop’s purpose is to educate leaders on the realities of child sexual abuse in the church and give them specific and tangible steps to help prevent it.
The seminar at General Assembly on Tuesday, June 17, at 3:30 p.m.