Difficult Questions about Child Protection in Your Church

April 8, 2020
How to lead a virtual bible study
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Post Quarantine Church

By Sam Rainer

Is child abuse really a problem in our culture? Absolutely, the problem is real. About 686,000 children were abused in the United States in 2012, and over 1,600 children died from abuse the same year. Approximately 1 in 4 women and 1 in 6 men have been sexually abused as a child. From a biblical perspective, we live in a hyper-sexual culture in which children are exposed to a repeated and perverse narrative. Pastors and church leaders who ignore this issue are disregarding one of the most dangerous problems affecting children.

Does child abuse actually occur in the church? Yes. Victims of abuse are in your church. Since approximately 25% of women and 17% of men have suffered abuse at some point in their childhood, abuse victims are coming to your church every week. Though specific statistics concerning the number of cases involving sex abuse in the church are hard to obtain, insurance companies handle hundreds of claims a year in which a pastor, staff person, or volunteer is accused of sexual abuse. The problem is real in the church just as it is in the greater culture. 

Where is the greatest danger in most churches? Most churches have specific processes for child safety on-campus and during regular church hours. The greatest danger involves church sanctioned events and programs that are off site. In-home Bible studies and groups, in particular, are susceptible to lax controls. In fact, many of the worst cases of child abuse have occurred in home groups. Too often, I hear of home groups in which children are placed in a room with limited or no supervision. If a church threw a bunch of children in a room without supervision during Sunday morning classes, most parents would be shocked. You should not allow the same to happen with in-home groups. In fact, I suggest having even tighter controls for in-home groups. Predators often gravitate to the most trusting environments with the most lenient supervision. Unfortunately, church home groups can typify this type of environment. 

What should we do about suspected abusers? One of the most difficult aspects of this issue involves people whom you suspect have the potential to harm children, but may not have acted out yet. Obviously, you should not wrongly accuse someone. Spreading suspicions without facts is not helpful and can cause much damage. However, neglecting certain signs that raise suspicions is equally as dangerous. As with any sin issue, pastors and church leaders should talk to the individual if suspicions exist. Better to have an awkward conversation and keep children safe than dismiss suspicions and experience a tragedy. 

Are we allocating the proper resources for child protection? Proper policies and procedures are necessities for protecting children. However, you must also allocate enough resources to implement these policies and procedures. If your church must choose between adult curriculum and background checks, then the children are the priority. If your church is deciding between safer areas for children and a new choir room, then the children are the priority. Child protection is too important an issue. It should be among the top ministry priorities for churches. 

What if something happens at my church? Most churches will experience some form of an attack against children. Be prepared with specific policies and procedures. Also, make sure all staff and every volunteer understands the processes for reporting abuse. Report every reasonable suspicion of abuse or neglect to the proper authorities. The scandal occurs in how you handle the situation. Cover-ups cause just as much harm as the offense. 

Any organization with lots of children is a target for predators. Satan especially wants to attack churches. John 10:10 warns that spiritual thieves steal, kill, and destroy. Predators steal the innocence of children. Predators kill the mission of the church. Predators destroy lives of families. The issue of child protection is difficult. The problem is real. Pastors and church leaders must protect children.

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8 Comments

  • Rileytok says on

    Hello to all
    In this difficult continuously, I disposition you all
    Esteem your one’s nearest and friends

  • Two things: abuse of a child is not about sexual culture. It is violence that drives it not perversion. It is pure and simple a violent act and a violent crime. Always.

    Second, there is only one response to any suspicious activity. Immediately call the police. Confronting the accused is a formula for immediate cover up by the accused. Lose a member, be screamed at or even be sued for making an inaccurate assumption. Fine. But the ONLY response in every situation is to call the police. Period.

  • As a former MH practitioner dealing primarily with abused boys, I agree with what Mark posted earlier.

    I also agree with what Thom originally wrote, that it takes Godly guidance (whether human or supernatural is up to Him) to navigate such treacherous waters.

    Many of the statistics about abuse are exceptionally difficult to deal with, especially when one considers that the majority of abuse incidents are not reported, ever.

    The devastation wrought by abuse and false accusations makes this nearly a lose-lose scenario. We often look back at the Salem Witch Trials of the late 17th Century and think, well, let’s just say uncharitable thoughts about how they could fall for such things; yet child abuse is very similar in that the alleged predator only needs to be accused publically and is then tried and executed in the court of public opinion. Legal decisions don’t make any difference. Once accused, you’re forever guilty.

    I spent 12 years dealing with the ravages of sexual and physical abuse in boys. I’ve also seen the accused similarly destroyed. “Save the Children” (obviously) does not also mean at all costs, lest we be guilty of destroying another life, albeit an adult one, by false accusation.

    TLDR–protecting the children while not bearing false witness is challenging to say the least.

    Good stuff yet again, Thom. I especially like the point about double standards–we all too often tolerate in our homes what would never be tolerated in the church building.

    I’ll be forwarding this around my circles!

  • Robin G. Jordan says on

    I was involved in child welfare work for 27 years, including child protection investigations. When child abuse, neglect, and/or exploitation are suspected, referral to the local child protection agency is the most appropriate course of action. Child protection workers are trained to investigate allegations of child abuse, neglect, and/or exploitation while church leaders and staff are not. An in-house investigation can tip off the perpetrator and have undesirable consequences. A mishandled in-house investigation can lead to further mistreatment of the victim as well as additional trauma for the victim.

  • I don’t know if this is a resource or a policy comment, but my former church installed windows in 9 doors throughout the building.

    • William Alan Secrest says on

      Every door in our church has a window of some kind in it. Our insurance company made it clear that you cannot have a door shut to an office or Sunday school room without the ability to see in that room. When I became the pastor of my current church the first thing I had to ask for was a window in my office door. I had leaders who just could not understand why this is necessary. It is necessary because it protects me from false allegations. When people can walk up to my office door and see through my window that I am speaking with someone, then the window has done its job.

  • “As with any sin issue, pastors and church leaders should talk to the individual if suspicions exist.”
    I really appreciate your discussing this serious matter.
    However, I respectfully think that the sentence quoted above seems nonchalant. First, even the suspicion of someone who may be (thinking about) (re-)committing child abuse is very serious. This is way higher than just a “sin issue.” I am not sure that ordinary pastors and leaders are skilled enough to talk to someone under suspicion, as they can be even more cunning than the serpent in the Garden of Eden, and correctly make a determination if children should be interviewed and the matter referred to law enforcement. If you get this wrong, it looks like a cover-up and may subject you to liability later, both on earth and in the Heavenly court. First, most pastors and church leaders are not lawyers as suspects do have rights and what you do obtain may be tainted evidence and inadmissible at trial. Second, none of you are “disinterested third parties” in that you might be investigating your friends, which is impossible to do without bias. Third, unless you have a child advocate conduct the interview, none of you likely know how to interview children in a potentially criminal matter. My suggestion is to consult legal counsel (your internal counsel may in this case advise you use totally external counsel as (s)he is automatically conflicted; you must heed this advice) and notify your insurer and heed their advice on what can(not) be said and regarding the involvement of a third party to lead any conversation with someone suspected. Err on the side of bringing in third parties and doing this correctly.