Something to Consider…

We recently asked church leaders about the following situation:

A young child confides in a pastor that one of the church’s Sunday School teachers sexually assaulted them or has been sexually abusing them.

How should the pastor respond?

But if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck, and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.

These words of Jesus as recorded in Matthew 18:6 (NIV) are probably very familiar to every church pastor. In fact, they probably are the basis for every church pastor’s worse nightmare—learning that one of the children in the care of their church has been sexually assaulted or abused.

But unlike many issues a pastor will face, responding in a pastoral way in this situation could create more problems than it solves. Here’s a list of what should happen:

Another type of incident where the public perception is vastly different than reality is what’s been labeled as stranger danger.
Now that you have a better idea of what to do and what not to do, let’s delve into some misconceptions regarding the topic of child sexual abuse. First of all children rarely intentionally lie about sexual abuse. The younger the child, the less likely they are to lie. While there are some cases where teen victims have lied, the percentage of those that do are much less than what the public generally perceives. If a child has been coached into giving a false account, most times it is obvious, especially to the trained interviewer.

Another type of incident where the public perception is vastly different than reality is what’s been labeled as stranger danger. This is where a child is kidnapped by a stranger. Because such incidents are very dangerous, they get a lot of media attention. And because of the significant media attention they receive, the public’s perception is that such incidents are a widespread problem. The truth is that they are the exception, not the rule.

To help get past all the misinformation, here is a list of what is known about perpetrators of sexual abuse:

If a church staff member or volunteer is the person being alleged as the perpetrator of the assault or abuse, their contact with anyone under the age of 18 at the church should be suspended immediately and continue at least until all legal proceedings have run their course. Even if the end result is that it’s determined that they’re innocent, restoring them to full fellowship will likely be emotionally difficult for some members of the congregation.

Sexual abuse of children is not limited just to younger children; adolescents can be victims, too. Unfortunately some state laws allow their Age of Consent for sexual activity to be surprisingly low. For example in Missouri it is set at 17 years of age. In Kansas it’s even lower— 16 years of age. Many in the faith community would probably question whether or not a 16 or 17 year old is mentally and emotionally mature enough to give their consent for sexual activity.

Often church leaders are not adequately equipped to deal with a situation of sexual assault or abuse properly.

Some of today’s teens don’t do a very good job of keeping themselves safe from sexual predators. In the Kansas City area the Metropolitan Organization to Counter Sexual Assault (MOCSA) warns that sexting is illegal for anyone under the age of 18. Adults may ask what is sexting? It is the sending of pictures or words of a sexual nature through texting or social media websites such as Facebook, Twitter, etc. In addition, taking sexual pictures of someone that is under the age of 18 is considered child pornography. Doing so can result is serious consequences—even if the person taking the picture is a minor! They could face those same consequences if they forward a sexual picture. Teens should be taught that if someone sends them a sexual picture they should not delete it, but report it immediately to a trusted adult instead.

Sometimes pastors are reluctant to report cases of child sexual assault or abuse that comes to their attention, preferring to rely on the confidentiality of the clergy-penitent relationship. Then there is fear of the negative media attention that may result from reporting what has happened. Instead, the number one priority for pastors and church leaders when child sexual assault or abuse is involved should be the child. When a church tries to handle sexual assault or abuse internally in effect they are saying to the victim that the church is more important that they are.

Second priority for the church should be for other vulnerable people in the congregation who may also need the church’s protection and ministry. Doing these things may require some sacrifice on the part of the church, but wasn’t caring for people a priority that our Lord demonstrated?

Often church leaders are not adequately equipped to deal with a situation of sexual assault or abuse properly. Instead of trying to deal with the issue internally, pastors and church leaders should contact their state’s agency that handles cases of child abuse and neglect and/or law enforcement. In fact, in most states it’s legally required and failing to do so can result in serving jail time. Whether one calls the police or their state’s agency responsible for handling child abuse and neglect, one or both are probably better equipped to provide the child with the help he or she needs and to either prosecute and/or provide the perpetrator the help he or she deserves and needs.

MOCSA shares that the impact of child sexual abuse isn’t just felt by the child who was victimized. Abuse can affect the entire family—including siblings, parents, other family members and caregivers. Getting help and support for the child and family members is vital.

If pastors and church leaders handle cases of child assault or abuse well, they can serve as a positive example to their communities and bring glory and honor to our Lord.

Please Note: This information is provided with the understanding that Church Administrative Professionals is not rendering professional advice or service.

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Deborah Miller, cca

Charles Kneyse

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