The Church and the battle against sexual abuse

This weekend, an expose ran in the Houston Chronicle, talking about sexual abuse within the Southern Baptist Convention. The Chronicle found over 380 Baptist leaders who had been accused of sexual misconduct. Almost 220 of them had been convicted or accepted a plea deal for their crimes.

I believe that the church is too reactionary to these abuses. The church needs to be at the forefront of protecting people from sexual abuse.

It’s important for churches to have the humility to recognize that it can happen to them. I think one of the mistakes of my generation is that kids were told to look out for the bogeyman. Offenders are often very skilled at building trust.

A churches weaknesses can be exploited

A church can be an easy hunting ground. Churches invite people in and youth ministries often need volunteers. Churches tend to be very trusting environments. That’s something that can be exploited by people who have ill-intent. Deepak Reju is a pastor in Washington D.C. who has a doctorate in Biblical counseling. He’s written extensively on church abuse. In his book On Guard, Reju says: “For a variety of reasons, we naively tend to automatically lower our guard when we are amongst professing Christians. This same naïveté is why offenders flock to the faith community; no other environment provides them such quick and easy access to children without fear of raising concerns”

It can be easy for a church to have the mentality of “this wouldn’t happen here. We’re a family.” But sometimes families have black sheep.

Spotting at-risk behaviors

It’s important to be attentive to behavior that is unusual, and to not ignore it or explain it away when you see it. The National Center for Victims of Crime has an article on grooming tendencies commonly exhibited by predators. It is important for leaders and for those who work with students to be trained in these warning signs.

Safety plans 

Churches need to implement safety measures. In order for a volunteer to work with children, it is important to educate volunteers on these policies. Some things that are important for safety can include:

  • All youth volunteers must pass a background check.
  • A youth cannot be alone in a room with a volunteer.
  • Younger students who may need to be escorted to the bathroom can only be escorted by women.
  • For a nursery, children must be checked in and checked out of the nursery.

These are just scratching the surface. Capitol Hill Baptist Church (where Deepak Reju serves) posted their policies online, and I found these extremely helpful.

Background checks 

Background checks are not a fail-safe, because not all predators will have previously been accused or convicted of a crime. That said, it’s also a pretty obvious starting place.

If a church hasn’t implemented background checks before, some long-time volunteers might be offended. It needs to be explained that safety is a priority and that a church can’t pick and choose who’s background gets checked.

Wolves in the church 

It is essential to understand that just because someone is in the church, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re a Christian. Just because someone says they’re a Christian doesn’t even mean they’re a Christian. The Bible itself affirms this. Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount:  “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves” (Matthew 7:15).

The Apostle Paul warned of people who will have the appearance of Godliness, but who will be inauthentic believers (2 Timothy 3:1-9).

These examples are not necessarily speaking about sexual predators. But it is important to recognize that there are people who infiltrate the church and who are totally opposed to God and who do great harm within a congregation. It is the job of a pastor and elders to protect the flock. It is a non-negotiable imperative within the church that the leaders must work to protect the flock. And that includes protecting the flock from predators.

Cheap grace 

I’ve read testimonies of people who have been abused within the church. Some churches have had the sickening response of either failing to believe (or take seriously) credible accusations. Other churches have failed to act, and emphasized the abused forgiving the offender, while failing to address the issue.

Yes, forgiveness is important. But that does not eliminate consequences and penalties for crimes. Sexually abusing someone is, aside from taking their life, the worst thing a person can do to someone else. Being soft on offenders does a grave disservice to the abused, and it also puts others at risk. If a person really has reformed and changed, only time will show authentic work of God, otherwise, talk is cheap.

A final word

I think it’s also important for churches to have the humility to recognize that no policy can fully ensure protection from predators. With smart phones and social media, it’s difficult to know what leaders are doing the vast majority of the time. Proactive policies and safety plans can help to mitigate risk. That’s what makes a lot of these stories so heartbreaking. Poor communication, lack of oversight, and lack of oversight led to abuses and assaults that could have been avoided.

There is no excuse.

Thanks for reading! I’d love to hear what you think, and don’t forget to subscribe! 

Josh Benner  has a Master of Divinity from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He has served churches in Minnesota and Illinois. He enjoys writing about faith and culture. He lives with his wife Kari in St. Louis.

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