The problem with the current outrage culture in our society is that people get frothing at the mouth angry and furious at so many things that it is difficult to separate that which is truly horrific and rage inducing from those things which are not. With some situations, however, the distinction is easy, and the recent report about child sexual abuse in Southern Baptist churches falls under the category of things to be genuinely outraged about.*** Child abuse in all of its forms, especially sexual abuse and physical abuse, is a heart-rending tragedy. That it has been allowed (and in some cases, facilitated) by church leaders in Baptist churches is a howling outrage. Church leaders who have perpetrated sexual abuse should be removed – permanently! – from any place of Christian leadership. Church leaders who have genuinely helped cover up such abuse, or have advocated more for the rights and privileges of the abuser rather than the abused, should also be removed from leadership. Such blindness and foolishness in leadership is inexcusable, and is fatal to the continuance in any sort of leadership position going forward.***
Some people were even bringing infants to Him so He might touch them, but when the disciples saw it, they rebuked them. Jesus, however, invited them: “Let the little children come to Me, and don’t stop them, because the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. I assure you: Whoever does not welcome the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.”Luke 18:15-17
The sad truth is that sexual assault, and especially sexual assault against children and the powerless, is both epidemic and endemic in our society. Statistically, women and girls are the most vulnerable, and should also be the most protected. I myself am a victim of several acts of sexual abuse at the hands of an older guy when I was less than twelve years old. (He was not in a position of religious authority) My situation was not nearly as severe as most, but as a young person, I had no way to know how to deal with it properly. Even though I had a great and very open relationship with my parents, and also had lots of trusted friends and teachers in my life, I was absolutely silent about what happened to me until I was in my 40s. I suspect there are many, many people in that same boat, and many others who are tragically being put into that boat every day. We must act, and do more than we have been doing!
Here are some sobering statistics:
* At least 1 in 5 girls and 1 in 20 boys is a victim of child sexual abuse;
* Self-report studies show that 20% of adult females and 5-10% of adult males recall a childhood sexual assault or sexual abuse incident;
* During a one-year period in the U.S., 16% of youth ages 14 to 17 had been sexually victimized;
* Over the course of their lifetime, 28% of U.S. youth ages 14 to 17 had been sexually victimized;
*Children are most vulnerable to CSA between the ages of 7 and 13.Source: http://victimsofcrime.org/media/reporting-on-child-sexual-abuse/child-sexual-abuse-statistics
If the above statistics are correct (and I actually believe they are underestimating, rather than overestimating the prevalence of child sexual abuse), then almost 1/3rd of all young people will be the victim of some type of sexual assault. That is an alarming, sobering and soul-rending statistic. The church – the family of Jesus – should be the absolute safest place in the world for people, especially the most vulnerable. That it is not should cause us to rend our hearts and garments, to weep, to repent, and to tirelessly work until the church is the haven of hope that it is supposed to be.
Before I discuss what Southern Baptist churches should do, I think it is fair to discuss what the church I’m pastoring does to prevent child sexual abuse. Here are a few of our strategies:
1. Our policy at Valley Baptist Church (in Salinas, California) is that every children’s worker must pass an extensive background check.
2. During children’s church time, we have a hall monitor and adult teachers (and open doors!) to ensure that there is accountability and safety.
3. Our children’s ministry leaders have great experience with children. (One is a school principal, and several are school teachers)
4. We have at least one leader each Sunday and Wednesday that is assigned to ‘security.’ They walk around and make sure everybody is safe.
5. Our leadership has had several discussions over the past year about how we can do better at keeping the kids safe and preventing any sort of abuse. It is on our radar, and we are openly talking about it.
Is that enough? I’m not sure that it is, but it does represent a decent beginning, I think. One area that probably needs improvement is in terms of communicating dangers to children. (Important advice offered by Boz
Tchividjian in this article) When I was a kid, I had no idea about sexual assault, and when it happened to me, I had no real way of communicating about it, or dealing with it. I would like to see our church do a better job of equipping parents to have those conversations with their kids. I do believe it is the role of the parents to take lead in those conversations (and not the church or another institution), but I think the church should work hard to equip parents as to how to have those conversations and urge them to do so, even if they aren’t easy or comfortable.
What about churches at large – specifically Southern Baptist churches? Much needs to change in our culture. We, like many institutions, have allowed for conditions to persist which are favorable to sexual predation and actually squelch the reporting and prevention of child sexual abuse. Shame on us.
After an online discussion with some SBC leaders, I believe there are two primary difficulties that have eroded our ability as a denomination to respond to sexual abuse:
1. The overall autonomy of Southern Baptists, which makes implementing rules/legislation/policies across the board extremely difficult. Southern Baptists are a fairly loose conglomeration of churches. While we have a missions board, and we cooperate a great deal on multiple education, missions, and discipleship endeavors, Southern Baptists do not recognize a central authority. No governing body has the authority to tell all SBC churches what to do. While there are a great many benefits to this policy, one drawback is seen in issues like this one, where every individual church is free to determine its own policies, and many of those churches have done a horrible job in this area.
2. Legal liability. When the Executive Board of the Southern Baptist Church does try to step in and implement direction on this (and other issues) they expose themselves to lawsuits and legal action, which places them in a difficult place. Because of the autonomy mentioned above, the Executive Board of the Southern Baptist Church cannot mandate for churches what policies to have. That fact has not, however, insulated them from lawsuits, and the more direction they offer the local church, the more lawsuits they seemingly expose themselves too.
Those are both difficult hurdles to overcome, and thus far, our SBC leaders don’t seem to have found ways effectively get over them. To reiterate, the SBC does NOT have the power to tell individual churches what to do. They have NO WAY to acquire that power, so solutions to this issue that assume the SBC denomination is run with a central authority structure like Roman Catholic, Anglican or Episcopal churches fall flat, because they do not recognize the reality of the structure of the SBC. That reality, however, is NOT AN EXCUSE for inaction, but it IS a reality that must be faced and acknowledged. That said, and lacking a central denominational policy, I would suggest that SBC churches (Indeed every church) adopt a few iron-clad policies on this issue.
1. Church leaders must read about and be very familiar with sexual abuse and sexual assault. A great place to start is this book, The Child Safeguarding Policy Guide for Churches and Ministries, by Boz Tchividjian. Education does NOT solve every problem, but it does help.
2. Background checks and due diligence are a MUST for screening ALL people who would come into church-related contact with children. Churches, even when they are desperate for volunteers, MUST say no to children’s workers that could endanger children.
3. Churches should equip parents to have frank and honest conversations with their kids about child sexual abuse. I do not believe that churches should do that as institutions, but parents MUST. Churches should encourage the parents to do so, and equip and teach the parents how to do so.
4. Wolves must be shot. I realize that is a stark statement, and I do not 100 percent mean it literally. However, when a predator (wolf/child abuser) is found, the church must remove that predator from every leadership role and that situation must be reported to law enforcement, parents, and anybody who needs to know. The predator/wolf must NOT simply be allowed to slink away to another church to prey on other little lambs there. He/She MUST be stopped.
5. Leadership who have allowed wolves to ravage the flock in this way (who have tolerated/defended/covered up the actions of child sexual abusers) must be removed from leadership and deemed untrustworthy. Pastors and leaders who have more concern for their cronies who have abused children than the victims of such abuse have disqualified themselves from leadership, as they are no longer ‘above reproach.’ (1 Timothy 3:2, “An overseer, therefore, must be above reproach, “)
6. Accountability is crucial. Hall monitors, double teachers, etc – ideally, there should NEVER be an incident where a non-parent adult is alone with a group of children not their own in a church situation.
That’s what I have, but I realize it is an incomplete and imperfect list. The above doesn’t adequately address what should be done about this situation from a denominational level, and it has holes in how the local church should approach child sexual abuse prevention. Please leave comments on what I’ve missed, where I’ve missed, and what you think should be added or modified!
Some important words from Southern Baptist Church president J.D. Greear – copied from his recent Twitter post of February 10, 2019. I fully support Greear’s position on this issue, and appreciate that he is meeting it head on and not sweeping it under the rug!
I am broken over what was revealed today. The abuses described in this @HoustonChron article are pure evil. I join with countless others who are currently “weeping with those who weep.” (Article source: Houston Chronicle) The voices in this article should be heard as a warning sent from God, calling the church to repent. As Christians, we are called to expose everything sinful to the light. The survivors in this article have done that—at a personal cost few of us can fathom.
We must admit that our failures, as churches, put these survivors in a position where they were forced to stand alone and speak, when we should have been fighting for them. Their courage is exemplary and prophetic. But I grieve that their courage was necessary. We—leaders in the SBC—should have listened to the warnings of those who tried to call attention to this. I am committed to doing everything possible to ensure we never make these mistakes again. It’s time for pervasive change. God demands it. Survivors deserve it. We must change how we prepare before abuse (prevention), respond during disclosure (full cooperation with legal authorities), and act after instances of abuse (holistic care).Source: https://twitter.com/jdgreear/status/1094675144931454976
I will pursue every possible avenue to bring the vast spiritual, financial, and organizational resources of the Southern Baptist Convention to bear on stopping predators in our midst. There can simply be no ambiguity about the church’s responsibility to protect the abused and be a safe place for the vulnerable. The safety of the victims matters more than the reputation of Southern Baptists. The Baptist doctrine of church autonomy should never be a religious cover for passivity towards abuse. Church autonomy is about freeing the church to do the right thing—to obey Christ—in every situation. It is a heinous error to apply autonomy in a way that enables abuse. As a denomination, now is a time to mourn and repent. Changes are coming. They must. We cannot just promise to “do better” and expect that to be enough. But today, change begins with feeling the full weight of the problem.
To the abused, we say: We, the church, have failed you, but we do not want you to forgo counsel or care. To that end, here are some options to consider: https://buff.ly/2SrSHp3 NOTE: This link is a great place to begin looking for help if you have been abused.
*** With the caveat that the outrage should be directed in the proper direction. Condemning the innocent – and guilt by association – is also a great miscarriage of justice that far too many people are perpetuating right now. Outrage and condemnation directed at people who are innocent of the charges at hand just muddies the water and confuses people. Crying ‘racism!’ when no such racism exists actually helps perpetuate more racism and racial animus, rather than the reverse. Accusing every member of a particular group of sexual assault (e.g. Catholic priest, Baptists, Democrats, Republicans, Men, Iowans, etc.) actually lets the guilty off of the hook. When everybody is guilty of something – nobody is guilty. To understand this more, read up on the fallacy of association.