“Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world.” You remember the tune you learned as a child. Today’s blight of clergy child molestation might force us to reword the tune: “Jesus used to love the children; Now He doesn’t anymore!”
Imagine the horror when a church leader violates a child; the terrible incongruity of spiritual leaders who represent Jesus but who take advantage of their powerful positions to molest those least able to defend themselves. Ministers who abuse those who should be able to depend on the church and its leadership for protection shatter a youngster’s view of God even as they destroy the youngster’s emotional future.
While all sin is abhorrent in God’s sight, some sins are, indeed, more heinous than others. Even Jesus, who extended mercy to adulterers, advocated immediate capital punishment for those who violate children. “It were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and he be cast into the sea, than that he should offend one of these little ones” (Luke 17:2).
Note, Jesus taught zero tolerance—execution by drowning. The God of “second chances” refused to give abusers future access to their victims. The same Savior who challenged those without sin to cast the first stone advocated millstones around the necks of child abusers. Some advocate mercy for those who violate children, and, of course, forgiveness is available to any sinner. Scripture, however, advocates mercy for their victims and protection for those who would become their victims if they were loosed to prey again upon the innocent.
Beyond decrying these horrid misdeeds, as church leaders we must proactively protect our children and youth from predators. Some simple guidelines:
Value your church’s children. Recruit the best possible leaders for children’s ministries, budget for quality resources, and monitor behavior to ensure the safety of all who participate in church functions.
Establish performance standards. No program should be sponsored which permits children to be supervised by a lone adult, whether clergy or laity. Children should be transported to and from church events only by their own parents or by a two-adult-minimum team. Clearly announce time schedules for activities and demand close adherence.
Monitor compliance. Elect leaders for Children’s Ministries and request frequent reports to the Board. Both policies and personnel should be reviewed to assure the best possible standards and protection.
Avoid even the appearance of evil. Consider simple measures like installing windows in all church offices, declining to meet alone with parishioners, insisting that private conversations occur in public settings, rejecting any person suspected of abuse as a children’s leader, and establishing a pastor/elder presence at every church-sponsored event.
Do not hide the truth. When abuse occurs, do not disguise the reality in the misguided belief that you are protecting the church. Even clergy confidentiality is not sufficient reason to avoid appropriate disclosure and discipline. It is nonsense to feel that because a parishioner has confided their misbehavior to a minister, they should be protected. Their helpless victims must be protected and the perpetrators (“perps”) must be dealt with by legal authorities. When accusations of sexual misconduct against children are made, do not assume or defend the innocence of the alleged perp. Permit the legal system to investigate all issues.
Notify civil authorities immediately when abuse is suspected. Learn the legal requirements about reporting abuse and never fail to follow the law. In most jurisdictions, clergy members who become aware of abuse are required to report it to the appropriate authorities.
Screen all volunteers. Never feel compelled to place people in position of authority or give them access to children just because they volunteer. Avoid placing newcomers into positions of responsibility until you have had opportunity to observe them over a sustained period of time. Especially beware 0f those who rush to children’s ministry. Thank them for their interest, share how your organization values children, and explain your mission of leading youngsters to a personal relationship with Jesus. Observe how they relate to authority and their own families, check references carefully, and provide all children’s workers with written rules of conduct and expectations. Then, only after months of observation, invite them to participate by completing a volunteer screening form and orient all volunteers to a team approach for service. Those unwilling to follow this approach should not be entrusted with your children.
Bobbie Drake, a specialist in abuse prevention and intervention to support victims, recommends specific actions when allegations are made:
Believe the child or teen. Fewer than five percent of allegations are false, even when custody issues are at stake. Be supportive of the victim and his or her family.
Report allegations promptly. For cases of incest, contact Child Protection Services; Report other abuse to the police. Resist the temptation to contact or negotiate with the alleged offender. Most molesters can manipulate even clergy or therapists. Civil authorities will follow legal procedures.
Provide appropriate support to the alleged offender. Say, “I will pray for you while you go through the judicial court system, but the church cannot interfere with that process or serve as your defense reference.”
Notify judicatory administrators. Congregations should always engage leadership in decisions that impact the denominational entities or public media. I always advise pastors, “If in doubt, call your conference president!”
Notify insurance providers. Immediately notify your insurance provider of any complaint and follow their guidance in issues that affect liability and treatment. Secure competent therapists for victims. Seek the best sex-abuse therapist in the area. Avoid those with no specialized training in this discipline.
Remove accused perpetrators from leadership. Require accused individuals to step aside until all issues are resolved. If a false accusation has been made, specialists can determine by pertinent testing whether allegations are true. Children tell their stories differently than adults and, if questioned by an expert, the basic truth will be revealed.
Level with your congregation. Do not hide reality or attempt to “sweep bad news under the rug.” You can announce, “I am sorry to tell you that there has been a sexual abuse allegation against Brother Perp. The church is taking appropriate steps by contacting the public and church authorities, and we will report the conclusions only after this matter is settled. We ask that you pray for both Brother Perp and the victim’s family. Both of these families are precious to us and to Christ.”
Avoid ongoing analysis or do not make additional statements. Announce that you will not provide updates until the authorities conclude their investigation, and then stick to your vow of silence. This approach will reduce speculation, gossip, polarization, and innuendo. Ask judicatory administrators to appoint a spokesperson and refer all media requests to that individual.
Educate yourself, your children, and your leaders. Excellent resources are available, including a children-focused training book by Bobbie Drake, Friends: Good, Bad, and Secret, and a special eight-page resource, Making Churches Safe (online at <www.ministerialassociation.com>), which was originally published in Australia by the South Pacific Record.
Exalt Jesus’ example. Our Lord’s own interest in children should show the priority of reaching, protecting, and developing the potential of our youngest believers.
James A. Cress, General Conference Ministerial Association Secretary