One of the greatest concerns and priorities in the world today continues to be the health and wellbeing of children. Children are vulnerable beings often dependent on parents or caretakers to ensure their safety and health. Yet, those that are in charge to protect children often become the perpetrators of acts that impact a child’s health and wellbeing into adulthood.
According to INSPIRE, a global report by the World Health Organization (WHO), 1 billion children around the world suffer from inflicted violence. 1 Most violence against children involves at least one of the following six main types of traumatic events that can occur in childhood (defined as 0-18 years of age): 1) child maltreatment (e.g. general term that includes physical, emotional, or sexual abuse); 2) bullying (e.g. online or in person); 3) youth violence (e.g. using weapons or guns); 4) intimate partner violence (e.g. forced child marriage, or dating violence); 5) emotional violence (e.g. denigration, ridicule, threats, intimidation, discrimination, rejection); 6) sexual violence (nonconsensual sexual contact, sexual harassment, sexual trafficking of someone who cannot consent, online exploitation). When targeted to either boys or girls, any of these six types of abuse is also considered gender-based violence.
Such violence against children is prevalent in all countries of the world. It happens regardless of social status, race, ethnicity, gender or religious affiliation. Sadly, in some cases faith communities can have higher rates of child abuse than in the general population, including in the Seventh-day Adventist church.
In one study, researchers examined rates of child abuse among 10,283 Seventh-day Adventist adults in North America ages 39-103. 2 Among these, 67% reported experiencing one or more of 5 types of child abuse before age 18—physical abuse, emotional abuse, sexual abuse, child neglect, and/or witnessed parental abuse.
Surprisingly, this child abuse rate was higher than in the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study of the general population in North America (52%). Not only that. For each type of abuse, the rates were also higher among Adventists compared to the ACE study (38 versus 10.8 % for physical abuse, 38 versus 11.1 % for emotional abuse, 23 versus 22 % for sexual abuse, 28 versus 12.5 % for witnessed parental abuse).
Although we cannot generalize this finding to all Adventists around the world, it is very likely that these results hold true elsewhere. Why is this important?
First, research suggests that child abuse is associated with worse chronic mental and physical health for survivors, such as depression, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and obesity—to name a few. In fact, among participants of the Adventist Health Study-2, those who were exposed to child abuse had worse mental and physical health despite healthy lifestyle choices of participants like exercise and fresh fruit intake. The scars carried by survivors are often unseen, however the emotional, mental, physical, and spiritual health impact is significant and long lasting. Furthermore, the third Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) of the United Nations focuses on reducing premature mortality from non-communicable diseases by 2030. In order to meet that goal raising awareness and reducing child abuse is critical.
But perhaps even more pressing, this is important because we have a biblical moral imperative. The Bible says “Children are a heritage of the Lord,” precious, valuable, and in need of nurture and protection (Ps. 127:3-5). Leaders and members must recognize warning signs, respond, and refer people for help to facilitate healing.
As an elder you have an important role to play in helping your church become involved. You may choose one of the upcoming global health calendar days (April 7 is World Health Day, June 4 is International Day of Innocent Children Victims of Aggression, and the fourth Sabbath in August is Enditnow Sabbath) to include sermons, messages, and outreach efforts that address this issue. This is a sacred trust.
We have the responsibility to help create a safer environment for children at home, in our schools and churches, but also to promote emotional and spiritual healing for survivors. In the end we will hear Jesus’ words, “whatever you did for one of the least of these… you did for me” (Matt. 25:40).
1 World Health Organization (2016). http://www.who.int/violence_injury_prevention/violence/inspire/en/
2 Reinert, K. et al (September, 2016) https://www.ncbi. nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4969318/
Katia Reinert is associate director of the Health Ministries Department for the General Conference.