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How Can We Prevent Child Abuse in the Church?

Sexual abuse in the church erupted in the 1990s when it was reported on in the Boston Globe and Hollywood brought it to the world’s attention. However, this isn’t merely a recent problem; the history of sexual abuse goes back centuries. It is recorded as early as the 16th century by Erasmus, a Dutch scholar, that believers “often fall into the hands of priests who, under the pretense of confession, commit acts which are not fit to be mentioned.” Children, particularly young females and altar boys, fall victim to impure men of faith believing that they are a gateway to the divine spirit.

Given this sordid history, what can we do to prevent child abuse going forward? Let’s look at why this is occurring, as well as the steps we can take to reduce instances of such abuse:

Why Is This Happening?

It is all too often we hear about men in positions of power misusing their rank to prey on those who trust them. It happens not only in the church but in school, the home, and the workplace. Some believe that outdated sex laws pertaining to clergymen, bishops and priests perpetuate the misconduct of female nuns and trusting alter boys. These sex laws require men of the cloth to deny sexual urges and fulfill stereotypical gender roles, which can result in them acting out in tragic and harmful ways.

Many victims of abuse are hesitant to bring their abusers to justice — especially well-known public figures within their own communities. It is not uncommon for more victims to step forward after initial allegations are made, such as the case that led to the defrocking of former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick.

The laws of sexual assault processing differ from state to state and country to country, and some accusers may be surprised to be met with resistance. However, protecting our children against predators should not fall solely on parents. Children are defenseless and in need of constant protection. It is unfortunate we must keep our guard up, especially in a place of worship. However, by putting some systems into place, we can once again feel our children are safe from potential predators and abuse. The progressive Christian response is to monitor who is interacting with our children and have them earn trust rather than be assumed trustworthy.

What Actions Can We Take?

The place where you go to practice your faith should not be a place you fear to take your children. By implementing some of the following strategies, you and your community can rest assured you have taken the needed precautions to protect children from harm.

Screenings and Background Checks

It is increasingly common for churches to request a full background check on any person employed by the church and sometimes even volunteers. It is very rare to enter a school that does not require background checks of every person who comes into contact with students. Why should churches be any different? If there is nothing to hide, it will aide in giving some peace of mind to the community.

Establish Rules and Boundaries

Even if a background check comes back clean, putting a bit of space between a newcomer and young children and adolescents is wise. Instill a rule of having to attend the church for a minimum of six months before being able to become a youth minister or Sunday school teacher. In addition, always require two adults to be in a room at all times. This is for both the adult and children’s safety; it can be helpful if there is a second set of eyes to help explain any questionable interactions.

Educate Children

Teaching children about “stranger danger” is not particularly helpful in this situation. Pastors, priests, and ministers are often figures children look up to and trust. Having an intentional discussion about what is and what is not appropriate in interactions will help to draw a clearer boundary. It is the hope the child will feel empowered to say no or speak up if they ever are inappropriately approached by a potential predator.

Watch for Changed Behavior

If your child, student or mentee begins to show major changes in their behavior, it may be a sign that something serious has changed in their lives. Victims of abuse often self-medicate with drugs or alcohol or emotionally disconnect in an effort to mask their feelings after trauma occurs. Mood swings and acting out are also common behaviors of victims. Try to get the young person talking by engaging with them about things they are or were once interested in before asking any harder questions. Let them know that you care about them and what they have to say is of value.

Care for the Victims

It is difficult to come forth and accuse any person of such travesties, but if they do, take it seriously. If you are told about any misconduct, alert the authorities immediately. If the victim is close to you or trusts you, encourage them to tell their story to help prevent it from happening to others. Help them to seek out counseling and stand by their side throughout the entire process. Once they speak out, it is just the start to a long road towards justice. Be sure they know they are not walking it alone.

As we have seen with the #MeToo movement, this isn’t just a church problem but a people problem. Empowering yourself and others with the knowledge of what is occurring behind closed doors will help you be alert and aware of your surroundings, even in places where you find solace.

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