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Child Abuse: What should the Church do about it?

By Dan Prater

Ethan knew about abuse. During the first 4 years of his life, his mother beat him daily and allowed strangers in the home to commit revolting acts against her son. During these years Ethan’s mother locked him away in a dark, closet-like room. She never allowed him to leave. Not once.

When Child Protection Services received a hotline regarding the family and removed Ethan from the home, it seemed as though his life would finally improve.

Finding a suitable placement for Ethan was difficult. Horrific physical and emotional abuse and a lack of nurturing had created significant developmental delays and disabilities, severe attachment disorders, and anger issues.

Child Protection Services placed Ethan with the Duncan family, who had a good reputation for helping abused and neglected children. The Duncans worked tirelessly to help these children find love, consistency, and structure — things most of them had never experienced.

Like all children in this foster home, Ethan attended a small Assemblies of God congregation in the Midwest. The church had grown accustomed to the Duncans’ foster children and embraced them as their own. These children were often in the nursery, Royal Rangers, Missionettes, or the youth group.

Ethan was not like the other children in his Rainbows class. He did not know anything about sitting still or the Bible. In fact, he had never seen a book until he was 4 years old. His verbal and listening skills were nearly nonexistent. To further complicate matters, Ethan was not potty trained.

Marie, the single 21-year-old college student who taught Rainbows, was dedicated to teaching and loving the boys and girls in her class. Each week she prepared lessons and activities that would help the children learn more about God and His love for them.

Like many churches, there never seemed to be enough volunteers. Occasionally, Marie allowed her boyfriend, Oliver, to assist her in the class. He seemed to have a knack for corralling the children and making them laugh.

Week after week Marie began to see a noticeable difference in Ethan. With caution he began to smile and show emotions other than anger. Improvement was clear, and he seemed to be progressing for the first time in his life.

That is, until one night in March.

The Duncans remember that evening. “It was like someone flipped a switch for Ethan,” they said. “One day he was laughing and at peace; the next day he was withdrawn and angry again — much like he had acted the night he first arrived.”

The Duncans’ experience with abused children helped them to take the next step. They invited a licensed Christian counselor to talk with Ethan. The counselor immediately suspected something traumatic had happened.

The Duncans later discovered that Oliver, Marie’s boyfriend, had physically and sexually abused Ethan at the church. No one — the church staff or Marie — knew Oliver was a registered sex offender. He had a long history of preying on children, especially those who were vulnerable.

Amazingly, this true story has a happy ending. The Duncans adopted Ethan and, in time, Ethan made remarkable progress in his academic, emotional, and spiritual life. The state convicted Oliver, and the judge sentenced him to 7 years in prison.

By taking a few simple steps, churches around the country can avoid similar incidents.

Exploring Abuse

Before pastors and church leaders can properly train staff and volunteers to safeguard children against child abuse, they must understand what it is and how it impacts victims. Child abuse has many forms. Most notable are physical, sexual, emotional, and educational abuse.

Physical abuse includes hitting, biting, kicking, burning, or any action that causes physical harm to a child.

Sexual abuse occurs when an adult interacts with a child for sexual gratification, regardless of whether the child has consented. This can include physical contact, such as rape or fondling. It can also include forcing a child to view pornography or adults engaging in sexual acts.

Emotional abuse is difficult to identify because there are no visible signs. This type of abuse attacks a child’s self-worth through shame, isolation, rejection, and humiliation. Those who emotionally abuse children may tell them they are worthless and have no value.

Children who suffer emotional abuse have low self-esteem and feel they are unworthy of love. Those who suffer emotional abuse often act out in anger and display destructive behavior.

Educational abuse is a form of neglect. Educational neglect includes allowing chronic truancy, failure to provide a child’s special educational needs, and failure to enroll a child of mandatory school age in school.

According to the American Medical Association, family members or trusted friends or persons of authority commit nearly 90 percent of substantiated child abuse cases.1 These statistics contrast the myth that child abusers are strangers in long trench coats lurking in dark alleys.

Child abusers often seek out young children who are shy, withdrawn, or from troubled homes. They may target children with mental and physical handicaps. A child abuser, especially a pedophile who commits sexual abuse, spends a great deal of time developing relationships. They move gradually from friendship to inappropriate conversations, lying, threats, and eventually abuse.

Children who grow up in homes of abuse, drugs and alcohol, incest, violence, and poverty gravitate toward these behaviors in adulthood. For this reason, adults who were victims of child abuse often commit child abuse.

A Church Perspective

“If the church does not address these issues by giving biblical instruction, warning, and direction, we are ignoring aspects of the teaching of the Word of God and a great area of need in our culture,” says Ron Hawkins, Sr., pastor of First Assembly of God Christian Center in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Hawkins views his congregation of 1,800 as a spiritual hospital that must be involved with the issues affecting the lives of people in our world.

But not every pastor shares Hawkins’ perspective.

About 5 years ago I began working for Court Appointed Special Advocates, a nonprofit organization that serves as an advocate for children who are victims of abuse and neglect. Through CASA I provide training and education on issues of child abuse and neglect.

In 2005, an Assemblies of God missionary helped me draft a letter that we sent to nearly every church in our community. We carefully wrote the letter using scriptural examples. We explained that we were not after an offering; we simply wanted to provide education and ministry opportunities to small groups of leaders.

We sent letters to more than 250 churches from various denominations. We received one response — a simple, “No thanks.”

One might argue this response was a sign of indifference. I believe it was a clear, emphatic communication: We want nothing to do with child abuse. As one pastor told me, “Child abuse is offensive, and I don’t want to scare my people.”

Child abuse is one of the difficult issues the church must deal with in our increasingly demoralized culture. “I believe that Jesus would address this societal cancer if He were preaching in our pulpits today,” says Thomas L. Moore, Sr., senior pastor of Carmel Assembly in Bonifay, Florida. “He never seemed to dodge any of the issues that presented themselves in the society that surrounded His teachings.”

Child abuse is a nearly unspeakable subject; few would argue this. As Christians we share many of the world’s feelings about child abuse — disgust, repulsion, anger, fear, and disbelief. Yet, we see a deeper root cause — sin.

Even so, church leaders have varying opinions concerning child abuse. Some believe societal problems, such as child abuse, drugs, and domestic violence, are not part of the church’s true mission of saving the lost.

“The attitude of many churches regarding these issues is one of live and let live. Many feel the church has no business dealing with these issues,” says Larry McGarry, senior pastor of First Assembly in Prineville, Oregon. “I disagree vehemently. I believe that the absence of preaching and teaching on these matters has played, and is playing, a substantial role in the mess we now have in our society.”

Jim Farrell, senior pastor of Newfound Life Assembly in Bristol, New Hampshire, shares a similar view. “As long as societal issues, such as child abuse, pornography, domestic violence, and drug/alcohol addiction, are part of the human condition, we, as the church of Jesus Christ, need to be doing everything we can to reach these people right where they are with the only thing that can save them — the love of Jesus.”

Doing everything we can has many implications for the church. Possible steps for churches include:

  1. 1. Ministering to victims of abuse, perpetrators, and family members of both groups.
  2. 2. Training staff, volunteers, and congregations on difficult topics.
  3. 3. Establishing policies that ensure the church is safe for everyone, especially for children and youth.

Creating Policies and Procedures

A pastor from a rural Assemblies of God church smiled when I asked him if he had any policies or procedures in place regarding child abuse. “We’ve never really needed anything like that,” he said. “We don’t have that problem here; we’re just one big family.”

His reaction was not unusual. Many small community pastors believe child abuse and other societal problems are big city issues.

But national statistics show child abuse crosses socioeconomic and racial barriers. In fact, the rate of abuse is somewhat higher per capita in many rural areas.²

While preparing for this article, I conducted a survey of 95 Assemblies of God churches in 24 states. The churches ranged in size from fewer than 100 to more than 3,000 in both rural and urban areas. The survey had 18 questions pertaining to training, policies, and procedures on child abuse in the church. It also asked pastors to express their opinions on the church’s responsibility regarding this issue.

Of responding churches, 100 percent agreed that training on child abuse is important and necessary. Yet, only 57 percent of the churches surveyed provided any such training for staff or volunteers. Eighty-three percent of congregations of 500 or more have established training and policies regarding child abuse. In contrast, only 20 percent of churches with congregations between 150 and 499 had training and policies on these issues.

“We are probably never trained enough,”saysDominic Kriegbaum, senior pastor of Cornerstone Assembly of God in Watertown, New York. “We tend to extend grace and trust when we need to exercise a great deal more caution and listen to the voice of the Holy Spirit when He warns us.”

Simple Steps to Safety

Protecting children must be a high priority for the church. Jesus welcomed little children to His side (Mark 10:14), and had harsh words for anyone who would cause a child to stumble: “But if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea” (Matthew 18:6).

When people enter a church they need to be confident that their children will receive the utmost care, respect, protection, and love. “For many children, the church is one of the few places where they can, and should, find a safe harbor,” wrote pastor McGarry.

Developing policies can help ensure the safety of your congregation’s children and youth, protect your volunteers and staff from false accusations, and protect the reputation of your church.

In forming policies, the church will open up dialogue on these difficult issues, encourage accountability on the part of leaders and workers, discourage secrecy, and create new ministry opportunities.

“Addressing these issues and reaching the lost are pretty much the same thing,” says Wes Shortridge, lead pastor of Liberty Church in Bealeton, Virginia. “These are felt needs in a majority of the people we are reaching, and are struggles within the church. Jesus provides all anyone needs to overcome these issues, and He provides healing for those hurt by abuse and neglect. The church is missing out if we ignore these areas.” Here are eight simple steps that every church needs to consider:

1. Provide child abuse training for staff and volunteers who work with children and youth. Training would include identifying signs, causes, and symptoms of child abuse, how perpetrators work, and the impact of abuse. Most communities have professionals who could assist with training. Health institutions, universities, and insurance companies often provide this training as well. (Fifty-seven percent of churches surveyed provide this training. However, churches with small to medium congregations rarely train their staff and volunteers.)

2. Conduct background checks on staff and volunteers who have direct contact with children or youth. Use local or state law enforcement agencies or a professional service, and include a nationwide criminal background check. Reputable companies that conduct background checks include:

(Eighty-six percent of churches surveyed do professional background checks.)

3. Educate workers and volunteers about state law requirements regarding abuse and the mandated responsibility for reporting incidents. State governments enact these laws, so it is important to refer to your local laws. In many states, state law makes church workers mandated reporters. The state will prosecute church workers if they fail to report child abuse. In addition to explaining these laws, provide clear procedures on how to file a report. (Seventy-one percent of all churches surveyed provide this training.)

4. Use a two-adult rule, requiring a minimum of two workers with children at all times. This protects children and also protects adults against false accusations that a person could bring against a worker who is alone with children. (Sixty-four percent of all churches surveyed do this. Forty percent of medium-sized churches use this rule.)

5. Implement an identification system so the adult(s) who drops off a child is the same person who picks up the child. This safeguard prohibits possible abduction. (Seventy-eight percent of churches surveyed do this.)

6. Have church leaders and supervisors make random, unannounced visits to children/youth services and classes. (Seventy-five percent of churches surveyed do this.)

7. Set a minimum time a person must attend the church before serving as a volunteer with children or youth.(Seventy-eight percent of churches surveyed do this.)

8. Do not allow teens (13 to 17 years old) to supervise children in the absence of an adult. (Sixty-eight percent of all churches surveyed have this policy. In medium-sized churches, 40 percent allow teens to supervise children.)

Jesus was clear about the importance of children. “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these” (Mark 10:14). If we truly embrace this verse, we will do everything possible to protect and bless these little ones.

It is true that a church with a nursery of three children and a children’s church of five faces different challenges than a church with 600 children. Yet, both churches must take steps to protect children and workers. Once these policies and procedures are in place, the church can focus on the real task — ministering to their spiritual needs.

“If we are to reach kids with the love of Jesus, we need to take this seriously,” says Farrell. His church is involved with the local community center, participating in after-school programs, sponsoring sports teams, and summer day camps as ways to build bridges to the children and families of the Newfound Lake region.

“We, as leaders, as shepherds, are commissioned to stand watch over our flocks and that means having our eyes open to all the dangers that can attack them. Better training makes us better pastors and leaders.”

DAN PRATER is communications director at CASA of Southwest Missouri, and is adjunct communications professor at Drury University in Springfield, Missouri. He is a published writer and professional communications consultant. He lives in Ozark, Missouri.

Notes

1. American Medical Association, “Child Abuse,” Medem: Medical Library, http://www.medem.com/search/article_display.cfm?path=\\TANQUERAY\M_ContentItem&mstr=/M_ContentItem/ZZZBRKNPVAC.html&soc=AMA&srch_typ=NAV_SERCH (accessed September 25, 2007).

2. Journal of Community Health 26, no. 4 (August 2001).

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