Abby Perry on Moving to Eradicate Sex Abuse in Churches’ Children’s Ministry

Image: ERLC / Karen Race Photography
Around 1,600 Southern Baptists came together last weekend to discuss abuse prevention at the Caring Well conference in Grapevine, Texas.

Abby Perry is a freelance writer in Texas whose recent Prophetic Survivors series at Fathom Mag featured profiles of survivors of #ChurchToo sexual abuse.

When Jules Woodson was a teenager, she told her pastor that her youth minister had assaulted her during a ride home from a church event. The pastor told her it was a consensual act.

Stories like hers—trusted youth ministry relationships twisted to abuse young female victims—appeared again and again among more than 700 cases of sexual abuse in the Southern Baptist Convention uncovered by a Houston Chronicle investigation earlier this year. The SBC’s own report on abuse opened with an account from Susan Codone, who said her youth minister “showered me with flattering attention, telling me that God had chosen me to help his ministry” before advancing to sexual abuse when she was just 14.

Another theme also emerged: Many young victims told church leaders what happened but did not receive the comfort or protection they needed.

Decades later, survivors, pastors, and parents want to know: Will the church be able to prevent the kind of abuse that these women suffered as teens? Will leaders be able to recognize inappropriate behavior and respond immediately to stop it?

Last week, 1,600 Southern Baptists gathered at the Caring Well conference to answer this question.“Southern Baptists will not have a future if we do not confront our tendency to protect the system over survivors,” said Phillip Bethancourt, vice president of the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, which organized the event.

The church’s sexual abuse crisis is not limited to the SBC—as reports show—and a third of all Protestant churchgoers “believe many more Protestant pastors have sexually abused children or teens than has been currently exposed,” according to a LifeWay Research survey.

It’s hard not to feel overwhelmed by such a huge, systemic problem, said D. J. Jenkins, pastor of Anthology Church in Studio City, California, who attended the conference. “But it’s our own fault in some ways,” he noted.

Change starts with shifting policies on a church level: at the very least, background checks, staff and volunteer screening, training to recognize grooming behaviors, rules against adults being with children or teens one-on-one, and mandatory reporting when abuse allegations arise.

But that’s just the beginning. If evangelicalism’s future depends on how leaders address abuse in their churches, it requires an accompanying culture shift.

Culture Shift 1: Develop Safe Relationships with Children

Preventing abuse within ministry contexts starts by establishing the church as a safe space for its youngest members.

Nancy Gooch of Farmersville Baptist Church told CT that protecting children and teens in youth or children’s ministry requires being a “listening, caring adult—not someone who wants to be young again.”

Similarly, children’s minister Faye Scott said that her church’s ministry to traumatized children was transformed when an expert taught them to say, “This is a safe place,” to children whose devastating stories lingered beneath their misbehavior.

“Do we share the same priority as the Holy Spirit does when it comes to the people of God?” trauma counselor Kyle J. Howard asked. “Answering that question will have a tremendous impact on how leaders—including youth ministers—move within certain spaces.”

When her youth pastor was abusing her, survivor Codone says that she didn’t know where to turn. There were no women on staff or volunteering in ministry roles, so she couldn’t find a safe person with whom to share her story. Relationships with adults who would have paid close enough attention to notice changes in behavior, or checked in on her, could have made a difference.

Psychologist Diane Langberg noted at Caring Well that Jesus blessed the children who came to him “one by one.” He did not say a quick hello or give a few scattered head pats. He saw the children, he blessed them, he beheld their dignity—each and every one. The image of God within the children and teens in our churches implores us to do the same.

Culture Shift 2: Choose Words and Teachings Carefully

For a long time, the thought of God as father was confounding to Jennifer Greenberg. Her father took her to church every Sunday. He also sexually, physically, and emotionally abused her.

“As a child I would think, ‘What a strange thing for God to want to be viewed as a father—to be a father is scary!’” she told CT. “Shepherd made a lot more sense to me because I’d never met a shepherd.”

At Caring Well, Langberg asked pastors to consider how language like “God is our Father” might sound to an incest survivor. She encouraged them to include statements in their sermons such as, “God is our Father. And for some of you, that’s a really difficult image.”

Greenberg echoed a sentiment relatable to many survivors—abuse affects the way victims hear church teachings and approach their relationships with others and with God. “As a kid,” Greenberg said, “I just thought…that all men were angry and violent and perverted, and I thought all women were afraid…so many words were redefined.”

If the person molesting a preschooler tells that child that he loves her, the child is likely to believe that love is painful and shameful. If an abusive father tells his children after he beats them that he’s sorry he “got angry,” the children are likely to think that physical abuse is normalEveryone gets angry, the children may think. So every angry dad must hit his kids.

Those who teach to children and teenagers can be part of shaping their vocabulary in ways that turn on the lights for those living in dark places. Pastors can mention that the image of God as Father may not feel good to everyone in the room and invite those who need to talk about it into conversation.

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Source: Christianity Today