“I wish I had talked about sexual abuse from the pulpit.”
It was one of the first things my dad said to me when he woke from an induced coma after having a massive hemorrhagic stroke on January 29th. He was exactly one week retired from pastoral ministry and still fighting for his life as I sat at his bedside in the dim, ice-cold ICU pod. While monitors beeped in the background and a thick plastic tube drained pinkish fluid off his brain, we had a heart-to-heart about how the church deals (or doesn’t) with child sexual abuse.
As he lay there thinking back over nearly a half-century of ministry, my dad didn’t lament the size of his congregations or question his preaching style or wonder if he’d held enough “revival” services. Instead, through slurred speech, he struggled to recount a time he had ever mentioned child sexual abuse in a sermon during his 46 years as a preacher. He came up empty-handed. And knowing what he now knows about sexual abuse, he was sorry.
You might think my dad never broached the subject of child sexual abuse from the pulpit because he never encountered instances of it throughout his years as a pastor. But he did. In every single church he ministered, starting when he was a twenty-something youth director, my dad came across both victims and perpetrators. As with most pastors, though, he dealt with those instances in counseling sessions and private conversations, largely “behind the scenes” of his pastoral work. The stories of child molestation and incest that he encountered were heartbreaking, yet the subject of sexual abuse never found its way into a sermon or teaching over the years.
To be clear, my dad never attempted to hide anything about sexual abuse. He didn’t cover up scandals or violate any mandatory reporting laws, like many church leaders sadly do. He just neglected to make any connection between the abuse he dealt with privately and the spiritual subject matter he preached about publicly. Why? Because my dad assumed what the majority of the church assumes about sexual abuse. He believed what I used to believe, even as a victim—that child sexual abuse is an anomaly in congregations; that the majority of Christians don’t ever have to deal with sexual abuse; that a church is the very last place pedophiles and child molesters would choose to spend their time; that a subject as uncomfortable as sexual abuse has no place in a Sunday morning sermon, especially given its rarity; that the pulpit is reserved for topics much more pressing to Christians.
So what has my dad learned in recent years that has obliterated all of those assumptions, and why is it important for your own pastor(s) to regularly speak out against child sexual abuse? The following are five very important answers to that question.
1. Your church is full of people who are suffering silently as victims of sexual abuse.
Though studies vary on the exact number, it is estimated that 25% of people (one in three girls and one in five boys) will experience some form of sexual abuse before they turn 18 years old. That is a surprising number, but even more surprising is that while churches seem like some of the safest spaces for children (because Jesus), the percentage of abuse victims and survivors does not fall dramatically when a person crosses the threshold of a church or Christian organization. In fact, it doesn’t fall at all. That means, on average, one out of every four adults sitting in any given church service has experienced childhood sexual abuse, and is dealing with its aftermath. It means one out of every four teens in every church will experience sexual abuse before his or her days in youth group come to an end. It means that one out of every four little girls and boys in every children’s ministry is struggling with one of the most damaging, life-stealing experiences that exists.
If almost 1/4 of all people experience child sexual abuse, it is clearly not rare. So why does it feel so rare? The most obvious reason is that it just isn’t talked about much. In addition, sexual abuse is a highly underreported crime, which gives the impression that it is happening far less often than it actually is. Victims of sexual abuse are typically silent about their abuse for many years for a variety of psychological reasons. Even when victims do disclose their abuse, less than 10% of them will report it to authorities, and only a small portion of those disclosures result in an arrest or conviction. So when a story of sexual abuse actually makes headlines, you can be assured that it is representative of only a tiny fraction of the instances of child sexual abuse that are actually taking place.
Another reason child sexual abuse feels rare is that our brains are most comfortable categorizing it as such. We simply do not want to believe the reality of sexual abuse. We all see the stories that pop up on our Facebook feeds or make the news on a fairly regular basis: A pastor, children’s minister or church leader of some kind has been arrested for child sexual abuse. Again. We cringe, hopefully more from compassion for the victim than from concern for the “black eye” this story will be to the reputation of The Church. We are appalled at the thought of anyone–but especially a professed Christian–sexually harming a child, and because we have trouble wrapping our brains around it, we begin to wonder if it actually happened. We may reason that the alleged perpetrator could have been falsely accused. Even if we believe the allegations, though, an equally harmful thought often provides us with the comfort our disturbed brains desperately seek: this story is an exception. Sexual abuse within the church is a rarity. No one in my church would ever sexually abuse a child.
Denial and disbelief are fairly normal reactions to the mental distress we experience when we are confronted with information that contradicts our warm and fuzzy beliefs about the world. The problem with these thoughts when it comes to child sexual abuse is that while they help restore our brain’s equilibrium and provide us with mental comfort, they are simply not based in reality. Reality, difficult as it is to swallow, is that the sexual abuse of children—including children within the church—is common.
25% of the church have been victimized. But can you recall the last time you heard a sermon about what the Bible has to say about child sexual abuse? If your experience is anything like mine, you have been attending church regularly since you were an embryo, and you have probably never heard a pastor mention child sexual abuse. Not once.
Imagine any other epidemic affecting such a significant portion of the church that would be ignored so thoroughly. I am positive that if pastors were told at the beginning of their years in ministry that one out of every four people in their congregations would deal with childhood cancer, the topic would make its way into sermons and small group discussions and outreach programs on a very regular basis. Something so prevalent would be of concern to both church leaders and church members. There would be actions taken to help victims heal and to help families cope. Yet, while the sexual abuse of children is occurring at epidemic levels (25% of all human beings), the church remains largely tight-lipped and avoidant on the subject.
2. There are child molesters and pedophiles who feel very comfortable in your church.
The assumption that people who sexually abuse children would never choose to spend their time in a church is a dangerous one, because it is completely false. In one major study of pedophiles, more than 93% of them reported being religious. It makes us more comfortable to think that pedophiles are easily identifiable, like the creepy old man who hangs out on a park bench, luring boys and girls with kittens and bags of candy. Studies have repeatedly shown, however, that the vast majority of victims of child sexual abuse— more than 90% of them— are abused by someone they know and trust. Someone like a family member or a close family friend.
Pedophiles are rarely creepy strangers. They are educated, successful, respected members of society. They are often married and have children of their own. They are masters of the double life who serve as coaches, teachers, youth directors, pastors, deacons, doctors, judges, government officials and a slew of other professions that make them seem trustworthy. They are regular church attenders—the kind of people who will be supported and believed by many, on the outside chance they ever do get caught preying on children. These predators are immersed in the life of the church, reaping the sordid “benefits” of our refusal to openly address sexual abuse.
We always seem to be shocked to learn that a fine, upstanding, religious person has been accused of sexually abusing children. We shouldn’t be, though. In the Bible, Christians are repeatedly warned of imposters coming in among the flock to lead people astray. In 2 Corinthians, Paul warns the church that “Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light. It is not surprising, then, if his servants also masquerade as servants of righteousness…” This is exactly what pedophiles do. They masquerade as righteous people. On the outside, they appear respectable, nice and likable. They can quote scripture and lead Bible studies and pass our Creepy-Man-In-a-Park Pedophile Identifier Test with pretty, flying colors. They wear intricately designed, ultra-convincing sheep costumes, but make no mistake—inwardly, they are ravenous wolves.
The church’s unwillingness to believe that these predators are hiding in plain sight within our congregations, coupled with our failure to openly address sexual abuse, creates the perfect environment for pedophiles to keep preying on children. And, honestly, is it any wonder that churches are their hunting ground of choice? We practically roll out a red carpet to welcome sexual predators. If that sounds crazy, try to think of any other environment where a total stranger will be received with open ams, almost immediately trusted (if not begged) to work closely with children and teens, and will be guaranteed to never, ever hear a sermon or a sentence spoken against the evil of sexual abuse.
It is true that many churches do have safeguards in place to protect kids. For instance, a church may require background checks for adults who want to work in children’s ministry. I don’t tend to find much comfort in those policies myself, as I have been involved in no fewer than seven children’s ministries, and have never been subjected to a background check or any form of child safety training, including at churches where it is supposedly required. Even if every single church was vigilant about background checking, though, it is not a failsafe when you consider how few child molesters actually get caught, much less convicted. Nine out of ten of pedophiles have no criminal record, which means that the vast majority of those who prey on children will not be outed by a simple background check. While background checks are a very good requirement for children’s ministry volunteers, they do not come close to guaranteeing that child predators do not have access to the children in our churches.
3. The Bible tells us so.
The prevalence of child sexual abuse and child predators within our churches should be enough to motivate pastors and church leaders to be outspoken about abuse. We really shouldn’t have to be told to take a stand against evil. We shouldn’t have to be, but we are. God’s word is pretty clear how the works of darkness are to be handled by followers of Christ.
In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul admonishes the church to “Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them.” The church is pretty good at the first half of Ephesians 5:11. We prefer to have nothing to do with the works of darkness, to the point that we don’t want to talk about them or even think about them. The problem is that we are replacing the comma in Paul’s sentence with a period. His instruction to the church is not that they should merely stay away from evil, but that instead of participating in evil works of darkness, they should expose them. Shine light on them. Bring these works of darkness out of the shadows and make them visible. This is where the church is failing in regard to sexual abuse. Abuse thrives in secret. It feeds off of darkness and is empowered by silence. When we ignore sexual abuse, it does not “go away.” It flourishes, unchecked.
Some Christians do take seriously Paul’s instruction to expose evil. The problem is they tend to pick and choose what to interpret as a “work of darkness.” It is heartbreaking that churches are far more likely to condemn alcohol, tobacco or dancing in their bylaws or covenants of Christian conduct than they are to condemn the rampant sexual abuse of human beings created in the image of God. It is tragic that a young girl is much more likely to hear a passionate sermon on the evils of wearing yoga pants in public than she is to hear that the heart of God is grieved and enraged over the wicked things that have been done to her in secret. It is infuriating that a father in the church will be respected and applauded for his refusal to allow his children to listen to secular music or wear bathing suits in public, but he will never once hear a sermon that condemns his regular rape of those same children.
Growing up in church, I believed that God cared more about my sexual purity than anything else about me. Imagine my internal struggle, given the fact that I had been introduced to sexuality as a six year old little girl. I didn’t wonder if God was displeased with me–I knew He was. As much of a “good girl” as I strived to be in the years following my abuse, the shame and alienation I felt never completely subsided. I was sixteen years old before I finally heard–on an episode of the Oprah Winfrey Show– that the sexual abuse I experienced as a child wasn’t my fault. How sad that I had been surrounded by good, Jesus-loving people my entire life, and Oprah had to tell me that.
Too many sexual abuse survivors have similar experiences within the church. They have suffered unthinkably at the hands of people who claim to serve God. They are broken and in desperate need of love, support and healing, but as a church we are too busy straining out gnats to be bothered to notice the herd of camels we’ve let slip in.
It is not enough to make blanket statements regarding “sexual immorality” and expect that wounded people will make the connection on their own. Even Jesus made a clear distinction between those who sin sexually and those who would prey on children. To the woman caught in adultery, Jesus said, “neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.” To a person who would harm a little one, he warned that “it would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea…”
4. Nothing robs a person of abundant life like sexual abuse.
It should be obvious that the church has a responsibility to address sexual abuse and care for those whose lives have been effected by it, yet many people who have never experienced sexual abuse fail to understand why. It is important to start by recognizing that sexual abuse is not just a “bad experience” that a child goes through and bounces back from with minimal intervention. It is a traumatic event that affects its victims in life-altering ways, mentally, emotionally, spiritually and physically.
The extent to which abuse affects individuals is based on many factors, not the least of which is the amount of love and support they receive in its aftermath. This is why it is so important for the church to be proactive in fighting sexual abuse. How can we help ensure that victims are able to heal if we have trouble even admitting out loud that sexual abuse is a problem? Children are highly resilient, yes. But do not mistake resilient for indestructible. Resiliency only ensures that victims of childhood sexual trauma can find a way to physically survive it; it does not ensure that they will return, unscathed, to a baseline of health and wholeness.
Children who have been sexually abused are at much greater risk of experiencing a slew of psychological problems, both as adolescents and in adulthood. Survivors are far more likely to suffer from clinical depression and anxiety disorders like PTSD, OCD and panic disorder. Sexual abuse survivors are far more likely than their non-abused counterparts to abuse alcohol, tobacco, cocaine, heroin, prescription drugs and other addictive substances. They are more likely to develop bulimia, anorexia, binge eating disorder, borderline personality disorder, sexual addiction, low self-esteem, self-hatred, self-mutilation, relationship difficulties and struggles with sexual identity. Abuse survivors are more likely to end up in abusive relationships as adults. They are also at far greater risk of suicide.
The psychological effects of sexual abuse are devastating, but they are only the beginning. Sexual abuse survivors are also far more likely to suffer from physical illnesses in adulthood. They are at much greater risk for suffering from heart disease, lung disease, cancer, autoimmune disorders, gastrointestinal disorders, insomnia, headaches, migraines, obesity, sexual dysfunction, heart attacks and strokes. Science is only beginning to uncover the extent to which sexual trauma affects victims, both in the present and, in most cases, for the remainder of their lives. The stress response that sexual abuse triggers in the bodies of children can actually change the structure of the brain and alter the way that it develops and functions. There is evidence now that the trauma of sexual abuse can change the bodies of victims all the way down to their DNA. The result is that victims of sexual abuse can not only struggle to thrive in day-to-day life, but they actually have a shorter life expectancy than non-abused individuals. Sexual abuse quite literally robs its victims of life.
In John chapter 10, when describing Himself as the Good Shepherd, Jesus tells us that “the thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” Jesus’ purpose for us—full, satisfying life—juxtaposed with the enemy’s purpose for us—destruction and death—is illustrated heartbreakingly in the epidemic of sexual abuse within the church. Abuse is too often the difference between merely existing and fully living; between just surviving and truly thriving in the abundant life Jesus purposed to give us.
Perhaps the most profoundly tragic effect of abuse is its ability to distort God’s character in the minds and hearts of its victims, rendering intimacy with their Creator difficult or nearly impossible. This is especially true of children who are abused by someone who claims to be a follower of Christ.
I believe that abuse is Satan’s most efficient weapon of choice in carrying out his mission to steal, kill and destroy. There is no quicker way to rob a soul of the ability to experience and enjoy abundant life. Sexual abuse that is perpetrated in mere seconds can reap a lifelong harvest of emotional, physical and spiritual destruction. For the enemy of our souls, it is the proverbial gift that keeps on giving. Is it any wonder that Jesus issued such a formidable warning to anyone who would harm a child?
5. When we know that silence creates a safety net for perpetrators and leaves the innocent and broken to fend for themselves, that silence becomes complicity.
Recently I was talking about the prevalence of sexual abuse in the church with a pastor I respect very much, and as the heaviness of the subject sank in, he sighed and said, “I’m just not going to live in the ‘what ifs’.”
I totally understood where he was coming from. He meant that he’s not going to sit around in paralyzing fear of the fact that child molesters and pedophiles might be lurking about, seeking to harm the kids in his church. In some respects, that is a very solid plan. It’s even spiritual. After all, God’s word repeatedly tells us not to fear. As Christians, we are supposed to walk by faith and trust God with our future and the futures of those we love. But too many Christians are using “trust in God” as an excuse not to confront or deal with the damage that is being done to millions of children every day, including 25% of the children in our churches.
In what other aspect of our lives is it acceptable to choose not live in the ‘what ifs’? Every time we get in a car, we tell our kids to put on their seat belts. Because what if we get in an accident? We use locks and alarms to protect our houses. Because what if someone breaks in? We brush our teeth because what if cavities? We try not to eat French fries for every meal because what if My 600-Pound Life? Churches buy insurance and lock up offering money and place volunteer security guards in parking lots. But when it comes to sexual abuse, we bury our heads in the sand and pretend it isn’t happening because we just trust God way too much to be concerned with “what ifs.”
The truth is, sexual abuse is not a “what if.” For tens of millions of victims and survivors, including at least 1/4 of the people we worship with each Sunday, sexual abuse is a “what is.” It is the dark reality that they live every day. When we know that this evil not only exists but is rampant within our churches, and when we know that silence allows this evil to flourish, our refusal to openly address sexual abuse is a choice to put children at a greater risk of being victimized, and to leave victims to deal with their deep wounds in isolation.
What if the church would face sexual abuse head on, rather than hide from it?
No one expects a pastor to be gleeful at the thought of standing before a congregation and wading into the murky sludge of sexual abuse. The subject matter won’t make for an inspirational, feel-good sermon. It probably won’t garner many shouts of “amen” or pats on the back. The reality of sexual abuse and its prevalence within the church is heavy. It’s a reality we’d all prefer not to live in and a burden none of us want to carry. The problem is, when we turn away from sexual abuse because the weight of it makes us uncomfortable, we do much more than just relieve our own shoulders of this burden—we transfer it to the shoulders of the most innocent among us, leaving them to carry it on their own. And under the heavy weight of sexual abuse, the innocent are not merely made “uncomfortable.” They are crushed.
In the months since his stroke, over countless cups of jello and passive range of motion exercises, my dad and I have had many more conversations about sexual abuse and the profound, lifelong impact it has on its victims. My dad obviously can’t go back now and change how he handled the subject of sexual abuse as a pastor. What he can do, though, is share his story of regret to encourage other pastors to speak out against this evil that is thriving in the church.
Of course, there is much more to be done than merely talking. It’s not enough to just announce that we are against child sexual abuse so that we can get on with the “real” work of the church. Wounded, suffering people are the real work of the church. There are countless vulnerable children who need to be protected. There are survivors in desperate need of love and support and healing. But for pastors of churches that have long had their heads buried in the sand where sexual abuse is concerned, the first step to righting this wrong is breaking the silence.