Do not ignore sexual abuse in church

My father is a psychologist. He told me once that any church that has children in it and is not looking for signs of sexual abuse is asking from trouble.

I thought of this after I learned of Bob Jones University firing an investigator it had brought in to investigate sex abuse on its campus.

The story led me to this blog by Boz Tchividjian, a former child abuse prosecutor who writes about sexual abuse in the church and investigates it. Here is the message he delivers at the end of one of his recent blog posts:

Perhaps the most important lesson to be learned from this ruling has nothing to do with who is or who is not an “actual supervisor”. It has everything to do with the urgent need for the Church (Yes, I mean both Catholic and Protestant) to expend itself in placing the value and safety of children above all else, including institutional reputation.

If we fail to embrace this fundamental Gospel lesson, not only will there be more prosecutions (as there should be), but the beautiful lives of those made in the image of God will continue to be devastated and discarded. Jesus demands that we learn this lesson and begin living it out.

The United Methodist Church has formal policies and programs in place that are meant to protect children. Reading Tchividjian’s blog reminds me that these are not merely bureaucratic rules, but the living gospel.

3 thoughts on “Do not ignore sexual abuse in church

  1. A few years ago the son of a woman in our parish died after a battle with cancer – he was in his late 60’s. At his funeral she got up and said “About six months before he died I discovered that he had been sexually abused by a female relative from the time he was 9 until he was 13. I thought of myself as a mother who was on top of things. And I just want to say to everyone here…pay attention to your children.” She did not say this melodramatically or with a lot of emotion – just the plain announcement of it. A year later a few of us in our parish met with Dr. John Rich, a physician in Philadelphia, who has done amazing work in low income communities. He himself grew up in the Bronx. At one point he said to us, “churches are not very good at dealing with guilt and shame.” That stung…but I believe it was true. We have talked about it a lot. I invited the mother who shared the words above at her son’s funeral – to share during worship one Sunday after our visit with Dr. Rich. She did. In that moment she also mentioned that her son, during the time of abuse, had drawn her a picture that had made her uncomfortable. He obviously, she pointed out, didn’t have language for what was happening to him…an evocative picture (general as it was) was what he could do. But because she was uncomfortable, she said, she didn’t talk with him further about the picture. The next day a parent who was there talked with me about it. She told me her daughter (12) had seemed to jump when someone near her had touched her. That had happened before the woman’s testimony in church. She said that as a result, she talked with her daughter more about what had happened – asked her questions…was able to go deeper.

    John I’ve thought about this question a lot across the years – but Dr. Rich’s critique has sharpened that considerably. If we, in the Church, can get better at this – then maybe it can happen better in our communities, neighborhoods, workplaces, etc…

    I’ll share here what I shared with you privately. These are words that I spoke at the funeral of a member of our congregation a couple of years ago (after our visit with Dr. Rich)…The man who had died (in his 60’s) had been abused by a member of the church who was close to his parents.

    Here are the words I spoke – trying to find some way to address it and also to turn away from my discomfort with shame and guilt.

    “I want to speak a little uncomfortable truth about Jerry right now. Jerry was abused from the age of 12 by a family acquaintance. Since we are here because we care so deeply, let’s take our caring to the next level: Let’s act on our love. And in Jerry’s honor, in acknowledgement and tribute to the mountains and valleys he encountered as he walked his way through life–in his honor let us monitor the young people in our lives more closely, more insightfully than we have in the past; let us commit to identifying children who are or may be vulnerable. Let’s be intentional, let’s give conscious thought to the ways we can intervene, can ward off predators who exist, first of all, under the radar in our homes, schools, as our friends, teachers, relatives and so on.

    We need no more children growing up, as many of us in this room have, protecting the horrible, destructive secrets masquerading adults have visited on them. In the midst of the joy and wonder of childhood many of us have been able to close our eyes to the secret, lifelong pain. Let us commit to Jerry, and in his honor, be more mindful.”

  2. One of the great things about our licensing school last summer was one of the heavier things – they brought in the pastor (also a lawyer) responsible for constructing many of the legal policies of the conference, most notably our policies on harassment and abuse. He schooled us directly on when it’s appropriate to call CPS. During a Q&A session, my fellow students threw scenarios at him and his answer, every time was, “Make the call!” He wouldn’t even think about it. ‘Make the call’ was the mantra we were left with in addition to serious sensitivity trainings. I haven’t had to ‘make the call’ yet, but I pray that I’m always aware of what’s happening around the children of our church and that I will be able to make that call without fear when I need to.

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