SOMERSET, Pa. – Jimmy and Clara Hinton don’t want others to miss what they didn’t see for years: their father and husband, a respected pastor for years in his rural community, was keeping his flock in the dark while he molested young children.
Today, the elders at Somerset Church of Christ have moved intentionally to protect children. Empty classrooms are locked. Adults working with children operate in teams of two or more. On Sundays, monitors conduct random building sweeps and each Sunday School room has a walkie-talkie in case of an emergency.
Protecting Children Top Priority
Church policy also protects children from potentially unwanted physical touch like a hug. “None of us can walk up to a kid, pull a kid in and initiate that physical contact,” says Pastor Jimmy, who has served as the pastor at Church of Christ since his father left in 2009.
He thinks that’s important because abusers often groom children to become used to them initiating.
If a registered sex offender wants to come to church, the elders will alert the congregation and provide a separate service to avoid contact with children.
Elder Bob Martin acknowledges that while controversial, the policy puts the safety of children first. “When someone is aware of that in their congregation and fails to notify them,” he said, “I think they have to answer to God for that and I don’t want to stand before Him and explain why I did not protect one of his children.”
Helping Survivors Navigate the Aftermath of Abuse
Jimmy and Clara are also speaking out nationally via blogs and their “The Speaking Out on Sex Abuse Podcast.” In more than 40 episodes they help survivors and their families learn how to navigate the aftermath of abuse, especially within church culture.
When the #MeToo movement started in 2017 it prompted a national conversation on sex abuse as victims began to publicly share their stories, many for the first time. Those stories inspired the #ChurchToo movement which shone the light on specific cases within churches, prompting the realization that not only are evangelical churches often uninformed on the issue – they can actually unknowingly provide a safe haven for abusers.
Nancy Beach would know. The ministry and corporate coach is also a former pastor at Willow Creek Community Church, a mega-church outside of Chicago. Her accusations of sexual misconduct against senior pastor Bill Hybels, along with the accusations of other former women on staff, led to his resignation – but only after years and numerous calls for an impartial investigation.
Warning: Don’t Put Pastors on a Pedestal
Today Beach says many churches pave the way for abuse with the way they treat their leaders. “We have a tendency to sort of put our pastors and sometimes worship leaders and others who are upfront on kind of a pedestal, treating them like celebrities and there’s a danger in that that I think we’re all learning,” she explained.
Women in churches are easily caught off-guard, says Beach, because they’re not expecting a pastor to engage in flirtatious behavior or worse. And if it happens, she says, women tend to feel ashamed and reason that covering it up is the best course. “There’s a sense of ‘this is so embarrassing and I wouldn’t want anyone to know,'” she explained, “plus, you’re protecting the church and you’re protecting that pastor and his or her family.”
Boz Tchividjian, a former child abuse prosecutor, is the founder of GRACE (Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment), a consulting ministry to faith-based groups. He says when a leader is an abuser the dynamic of power must be considered.
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