The Church has not responded well to child sexual abuse. The list is long. The Catholic Church, Sovereign Grace Ministries, Bob Jones University, The Bill Gothard Institute and First Denominational Church, Main St. Our town.
I don’t believe every church that responds to child sexual abuse (CSA) intentionally sets out to protect the abuser and harm the victim. I think many churches want to help both. But this is one place where the church can’t be double-minded. By double-minded, I mean that they want to step forward, but with 2 opposing actions: help the abuser and his/her family and also the victim and his/her family. Why is this being double-minded? Because the two options don’t carry equal weight. Where in Scripture would you find any reason not to tend to the needs of the suffering and wounded first?
For too many churches, they have not prepared for the issue of CSA in advance. And when you wait until an incident happens, your first step sets the course for what follows. Many churches may want to help both abuser and victim, but just one of them receives first attention. The one that receives first attention is almost always the abuser, in part, because the leadership of the church sees the reputation of the church in the community being more tied to the abuser, than in its response to the victim.
We want to see the Church learn to be single-minded. To place its first priority on protecting and believing the victim. You can care for the abuser if you care for the victim first. It won’t work the other way around. Just ask a survivor.
The following is a letter from a missionary to pastors and church leaders. The mother is telling the story of how her daughter, who was born and raised on the mission field, was sexually abused by a former team member and close family friend. The two families had worked together overseas, been friends for many years and call the same U.S. church their home church.
The daughter had come to the States for her senior year of high school so that she would have time to assimilate to the U.S. culture before beginning college in the States. She was invited to live with this family who had returned to the U.S. The father in the host family was employed by the church’s private school. This is when the abuse occurred.
Her letter gives us a look into the impact the church’s choices had on them.
A letter to Pastors from a missionary
Dear Brothers in Christ,
Almost 25 years ago, my husband and I were starting out as church-planting missionaries with a denominational mission agency. Looking back now, I think we could be described as naïve and overly trusting. Perhaps we thought our ministry and family were safe from any taint of sexual abuse, assuming that the stories of that kind of heartbreak only happened to ‘other people’. Honestly, I think there was much less understanding back then about the prevalence of sexual abuse, and we just never thought of it as something that would touch us. But it has.
Our first shock came when a parent in the school we founded came and confided that her daughter had been sexually molested for years by one of the teachers we had employed. This sickening, heartbreaking news rocked our world, and introduced us to the reality that even in Christian circles, evil exists, sin is rampant, and wicked men prey upon innocent children. In working through this tragic situation—dismissing and deporting the teacher, counseling the young girl and her family, and working with the school to further investigate, identify, and help other victims—we saw that we were woefully unprepared to both prevent and deal with this kind of situation.
It was at that point I took the Stewards of Children training. It was the first time I had ever really considered my role in creating an environment that protects and nurtures our children. I realized that with more awareness and proactive effort on our part, we probably could have protected this young girl from the abuse she experienced. We grieved over this for a long time.
Sadly, that wasn’t the end of our personal experience with sexual abuse. Almost two years ago, we discovered that our own daughter had been abused during a year in high school that she lived with a former missionary colleague and his family in the States while we were still on the field. We have cried many tears, struggled with anger and bitterness, and continue to work through the pain and hurt that we have felt. We entrusted our daughter to this man, and he betrayed that trust and violated her, leading to a long road of working through the issues she carries as a result. Once again, with more awareness and information, I believe we could have taken steps that would have perhaps prevented this from happening, or at least would have allowed our daughter to be better prepared to recognize abuse and to seek help in the situation.
Just to be clear, please understand that I do believe that these experiences, painful as they are, have been part of God’s calling for us. I believe that what happened to my daughter is part of the story he is weaving of her life. In his mercy, she began seeking counsel several years ago and is experiencing the beauty of God redeeming the pain and suffering for his glory and her good. I fully expect that this process will continue for her whole life, and that he will use her story in various ways in his kingdom building.
But that confidence doesn’t take away my wish that we had known more, had been better prepared, and had been able to create an environment and situation that protected these two girls. I believe that we missionaries have lifestyles and callings that make our children particularly vulnerable and in need of open-eyed, wise, cautious parenting. But as church leaders, we are also responsible for protecting the children entrusted to us in our churches, schools and other institutions. I want to encourage you to really embrace the opportunity you have to think concretely about this responsibility, and how to fulfill it. Please realize that training has the potential to protect both people in your ministry as well as your own family from the long-lasting, deeply rooted pain of childhood sexual abuse. I think it’s just as important as any other training you have received.
I also want to encourage you as church leaders to realize the power you have to play a role in either the healing or the further wounding of victims of sexual abuse within the church. By far the most painful thing about this path for us has been the church’s response. Our daughter’s abuser was on staff at both the church and in the church-run school. When he was confronted, he quit his job, and the church embarked on a path of cover-up and hiding the truth. He remains in the community, sometimes even in leadership positions, and there has never been any attempt on the part of the church to seek out other possible victims and to minister to them. Though we live far away on the mission field, and are therefore perhaps easily forgotten, it has been a continual hurt to me that nobody from the pastoral staff or other leadership who do know about what happened to our family have contacted us or attempted to make sure that we are being helped and counseled. All the energy has evidently been on trying to help the abuser and his wife restore their marriage and move on. To us it comes across as self-protection and does not feel like we are being loved or cared for at all. This also has effectively severed our relationships within the church, as we don’t feel free to be honest about the pain our family has experienced with our church family and friends there, since the church has chosen to cover it up. We have basically withdrawn from those relationships and are ‘licking our wounds’ alone. This has been devastating to us.
In cases of abuse, the church does have a mighty challenge in how to love both the abuser and the victim well. I don’t want to overlook what a complicated balance this is for church leadership. But on behalf of the victims of childhood sexual abuse who may be (and probably are) sitting in your pews, I beg you to extend the compassion of Christ to them—the isolation they (we) feel is real, and they need to be loved back into the community of believers with mercy and gentleness.
Your sister in Christ,
A missionary friend serving overseas