Church and child sex abuse
Pastors, teachers, staff, and volunteers have a daunting task
Youth-group teens necking in a dark church basement? Quit that, please. Let’s go back to the youth room.
Four-year-olds playfully licking each other’s tongues in vacation Bible school? Stop that, please. Not healthy.
A college volunteer caught in an impromptu wrestling match with a Sunday school boy? Stop, stop. Let’s go talk to the pastor.
A seven-year-old girl performing oral sex on a five-year-old girl in the school bathroom?
Stop, stop, stop. Intervention time. Let’s talk to the family, to child-protection workers, maybe to the police. Why would a seven-year-old know about that?
Pastors, teachers, staff, and volunteers at churches and Lutheran schools encounter a baffling range of sexual behaviors among young people for whom they are responsible. In some cases, professionals are required under law to report such behaviors — yet the behaviors may or may not be sexual. Sometimes it is hard to tell.
Exploiters know where to look for victims — on the street, at the mall, on the Internet. In the United States, at least 70 percent of sex-trafficked kids are runaways or have been kicked out by families.
Sexual? Maybe. If so, many such behaviors are entirely normal parts of growing up. Kids at an early age may begin to express interest in what’s going on with their bodies, and before long they may begin to act in a sexual way.
Are they mimicking what they’ve seen on TV? Did they walk in on adults making love? Are they acting on their own? Or is it something else?
The challenge for families, pastors, church staff, volunteers, teachers, school officials, and others is to sort out when such behaviors may reflect sex abuse at home or in another setting — and, if so, how to intervene.
At church, that means intervening as Christians: Do the right thing for the victim. And do the right thing for the perpetrator.
Victor Vieth says churches tend to get it wrong.
Law and gospel
Vieth, a Lutheran and former prosecutor, is executive director of the National Child Protection Center at Winona State University. He argues that Christians apply too much law to victims and too much Gospel to perpetrators of sexual abuse. Victims get blamed. Abusers get forgiven.
This “misguided, sometimes cruel application of theological principles often drives victims away from the church and emboldens offenders to remain in their sin, if not to offend again,” he wrote last year in The Journal of Psychology and Theology.
Exploiters know where to look for victims — on the street, at the mall, on the Internet. In the United States, at least 70 percent of sex-trafficked kids are runaways or have been kicked out by families, says Vieth. Most have been sexually abused already. “Traffickers are looking for kids who flee their homes,” he says. “They’re looking for kids with a hole in their heart. They fill that hole by offering money or gifts or a trip somewhere.”
Yet exploiters also find victims in the last place you would expect — at church. Here’s an eye-opener: Vieth says a 2006 study found that 93 percent of sex abusers described themselves as religious or very religious.
That makes churches inviting targets, and abusers may find little to discourage them. Vieth urges congregations to establish a firm, explicit policy on child protection. He thinks exploiters tend to avoid such congregations. “Many churches don’t have very good child protection policies,” he adds. “All congregations should take it up a notch.”
It’s not rocket science. For example: Require that kids in your care always be with, or in sight of, at least two adults. And your call committee might routinely ask pastor candidates about their experience with establishing child protection measures.
Minnesota’s legislature is considering funding more safe-house beds for runaways and more training for police about child protection. Proposed legislation would extend the 2011 Safe Harbors law that reclassified youth under the age of 16 involved in prostitution as victims, not criminals, and would stiffen penalties for promoters, patrons and pimps.
What can congregations do? Amy Hartman suggests praying for young members, teaching all members about sex exploitation, working with other groups to prevent it, and establishing an explicit safe-kids policy.
Hartman is national director of Cherish Our Children, a ministry based in Minneapolis and connected with the ELCA. “Out of your prayer, education, and relationship building,” she says, “you will figure out an action appropriate for your congregation.”
For more information …
The National Child Protection Training Center at Winona State University offers resources for congregations, including suggestions for developing a policy on child protection.
Cherish Our Children has training and resources to help congregations work on preventing child sexual exploitation.
The Lutheran Coalition for Public Policy in Minnesota is an ELCA group that sends action alerts and updates on pending “Safe Harbor/No Wrong Door” legislation to protect exploited children and youth.
Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota provides a range of services for vulnerable young people.
Tags: abusers, Amy Hartman, Cherish Our Children, ELCA, exploited children, LCPPM, LSS, Lutheran Coalition for Public Policy in Minnesota, Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota, National Child Protection Center, Safe Harbors law, sex abuse, sexual behaviors, sexual exploitation, traffickers, victims, Victor Vieth, Winona State University