At the 41st General Assembly, Rev. Mike Sloan, Associate Pastor of Old Peachtree Presbyterian Church in Duluth, Georgia, proposed a personal resolution on the issue of child sexual abuse in the church. At our invitation, Rev. Sloan prepared an article last fall that answers four important questions on this issue. As Overture 6 to the 42nd GA addresses the issue, we are featuring his article again and invite your comments.
Four Key Questions About Child Sexual Abuse In The Church
1. Why should the church prioritize child protection?
Over the last few decades, increased awareness and understanding has shown a light on the prevalent and devastating problem of child sexual abuse in our culture and in the church. Despite these advances, a cloud of shame overshadows this issue and makes open and healthy discussion about child sexual abuse incredibly difficult. Acknowledging that such traumatic sins take place in Christ’s church and among his people is hard. But we must see that the cloud of shame and silence perpetuates an environment where child sexual abuse thrives. Tragically, children pay the price when leaders remain silent.
Christians can no longer deny the prevalence of child sexual abuse. Instead, we must acknowledge that churches often attract predators who would harm children because children are easily accessible and because dynamics exist in the church that often cover this sin. What are those dynamics? Christians tend to think, if I am not personally abusing children then I am not part of the problem. Research, however, has shown that, child sexual abuse thrives in environments where there are abusers and other adults who are unaware and/or unwilling to create an environment of accountability around children. When adults understand children’s vulnerability and actively work for their protection, child sexual abuse cannot take root. Instead, far too often, responsible adults do not know how to create a safe environment for children. Furthermore, many churches and pastors are learning now that they have mishandled past cases of abuse by not reporting the abuse to the civil authorities. Worse yet, many churches still react by protecting the name of the church, the family, and even the abuser first, not the victims.
Courage counteracts the climate of secrecy and shame. Church leaders today face a choice between what is right and what is easy. We must follow Jesus to uncomfortable places. We must confront child sexual abuse in the church and repent of our failures to protect children. We must prioritize child protection. We know Jesus will help us because the Bible exhorts us walk as “children of light” and also commands us not to participate in deeds of darkness but to expose such deeds wrapped in shame (Eph. 4:17-19; 5:8-12). Christ emphasized that the church ought to welcome and disciple children in the faith. He pronounced the most serious woe upon any who would cause a child to stumble (Matthew 19:13-15; 18:5-6). We must follow our Lord. To paraphrase Dr. Diane Langberg, a body with a condition so severe that it is unable to respond to signals from its head is a very sick body. If we in the body of Christ refuse to respond to the words of Christ our Head about protecting and welcoming children, then we are a very sick body.
2. Why is it important for the General Assembly to pass a statement against child sexual abuse?
Child sexual abuse plagues the PCA just as it plagues our society at large. One RUF minister told me that he currently is ministering to seventeen students who were sexually abused by adults when they were young. The size of this problem is staggering and unacceptable in Christ’s body. There is an urgent need to speak out against this sin so that as a denomination, we can wake up and take responsible action to protect children.
The PCA is a grassroots denomination, and the General Assembly has no authority to mandate action by local churches. At the same time, it is the prerogative of the Assembly to give an urgent exhortation in specific circumstances. A biblical example of a timely exhortation is the issue of marriage to unbelievers in the time of Ezra. Where God stood on this issue was clear in the Torah, but there was widespread compromise that called for special intervention. In response, God used Ezra to speak out publicly and lead the people in repentance. Speaking clearly and publicly helps bring deeds of darkness into the light. Many churches would do the right thing with an exhortation, and we all need encouragement to continue to protect children.
A statement from the General Assembly would also help the many victims in our pews. Child sexual abuse is damaging beyond our worst nightmares. When victims describe their experiences, it is clear that the abuse has instilled in them a sense that they are unlovable and worthless. Victims almost always blame themselves in some fashion, and when child sexual abuse occurs in the church or Christian families, it pushes victims away from the Gospel. Many victims have been driven away from the church and many in churches struggle mightily with their relationship with God. Abuse survivors represent one of the largest mission fields in our country and the world. A public statement would refute the lies of abuse, affirm that abuse is never the victim’s fault, and affirm God’s love for victims of abuse. A bold statement from the General Assembly would take a helpful step toward healing the wounds of child sexual abuse.
3. What are the dynamics that allow abuse to continue in the church?
Abuse flourishes when adults do not take responsibility for protecting children. Many church leaders would rather avoid this difficult topic, and so they do not understand how abusers operate. Abusers are almost always people in positions of trust who know the child. In fact, they go out of their way to appear trustworthy. Abusers take advantage of well meaning but naïve adults and use the trust they earned to gain access to a child. They are master manipulators. They disarm with a façade of generosity and kindness. They often set adults and children up to feel as if they are in the abuser’s debt. With our doctrine of sin, we in the church should be least likely to fall prey to this, but sadly we do.
Abusers not only manipulate adults, but the children they abuse. Children are extremely vulnerable in every way – physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually, and sexually. Abusers exploit a child’s vulnerability for their own ends. Some abusers find out what interests a child and use that knowledge to lure that child into an isolated place. Some abusers use twisted theology to convince kids they have done something sinful, and they cannot tell anyone or else God and their parents will not love them anymore. Some abusers threaten to harm the child or a family member if they tell. Kids almost always assume the adults are right, especially in the church, and abusers use this reality to silence their victims and escape detection.
For decades, adults have put the burden on children to come forward if they are being abused. This status quo has failed. Because abusers spin a web of manipulation and lies around a child, children cannot protect themselves and rarely tell about abuse without another adult’s help. While teaching our kids about their bodies and sexual boundaries are vital, these actions alone cannot keep kids safe. Adults must take that burden off children. The antidote to child sexual abuse is faithful adults working together to create a safe environment for children.
4. How can churches take action to protect children?
Church leadership must own up to the problem and accept responsibility for protecting children in their care. Owning up begins with the humility to learn about the issue. Thankfully, there are good resources now available. Responsible action begins with creating a well-researched child protection policy and code of conduct for all staff and volunteers that work with youth and children. These documents should insist on screening and child protection training for all staff and volunteers. The code of conduct should insist on appropriate boundaries for adult-child touch, forbid one-adult-one-child situations, and require all workers to report any reasonable suspicion of abuse to the authorities. Responsible policies are essential, but they are only tools. Church leaders must also ensure that all policies are followed. These actions will create a culture of protection around children where any abuser would feel unwelcomed.
Churches must report child sexual abuse to the civil authorities. Child sexual abuse is a crime, and in many states, an adult’s failure to report a reasonable suspicion of abuse is also a crime. Reasonable suspicion occurs when a child verbally discloses abuse, an adult witnesses an act of abuse or an adult recognizes the signs of abuse in a child. In these situations, churches are often tempted to handle abuse privately. However, this methodology allows for abuse to be further perpetuated, either in the same church or in another church. God has given us civil authorities to punish the evildoer (1 Peter 2:13-14). Serious crimes should not be addressed with church discipline alone, and there are few crimes worse than child rape and molestation.
Some might worry that these measures are too drastic, especially in smaller churches where everyone is known. Many also wonder if child protection policies would create an environment of constant suspicion and fear. I would encourage anyone with these concerns to think of child protection this way: no church thinks it is wise to allow one person to count the offering, or handle all the church finances, no matter how trusted and known that person is. Rather, churches build in accountability and transparency to protect the money and to protect the reputations of those who handle the money. When church leadership insists on accountability, and all workers comply with policies, these measures create trust and reduce suspicion. Accountability in the body of Christ honors God by protecting children and adults. And how much more precious are our children than money?
Wise policies, when implemented well, can dramatically reduce the risk of abuse in our churches. Consistent implementation of child protection policies takes resolve. The biggest key to successful child protection is leadership with a passionate concern for children that reflects the love of the Lord Jesus for them. Strong support from church leadership will make education and policy change effective. When parents, volunteers and staff insist the policy is followed or report abuse, they must know with certainty that the church leadership will support them. My prayer for the PCA is that our leaders will resolve to take the necessary steps to uproot child sexual abuse in our churches.