During the past 20 years news headlines have regularly featured stories of criminal convictions of priests, pastors, and other religious leaders for sexually abusing children and youth. And yes, that includes Seventh-day Adventist clergy, teachers, and others. Our denomination has made great strides in prevention and education in this area during the past several decades. But in spite of those efforts and the resulting reduction in these incidents, reports of abuse still remain, sometimes coming to light many years after the abuse has happened. The recent torrent of stories of sexual abuse provides powerful confirmation of this fact. What do we do?
It is hard to imagine the impact of sexual abuse upon a child, and the pain and damage endured regardless of the perpetrator. Studies indicate that the effects on the abused individual are potentially long-lasting and profound, including effects on physical and mental health, addiction, and other life-damaging consequences.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) shares a great deal of information1 on the effects of abuse: “In one long-term study, as many as 80 percent of young adults who had been abused met the diagnostic criteria for at least one psychiatric disorder at age 21. These young adults exhibited many problems, including depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and suicide attempts.”2
“Those with a history of child abuse and neglect are 1.5 times more likely to use illicit drugs, especially marijuana, in middle adulthood.”3
The effects do not stop with only the abused person; family and friends of the victims suffer greatly as well. Moreover, if the victim’s family and circle of friends realize the abuse was at the hands of a religious leader, the subsequent handling of the event often hurts the victim and family and creates a negative impression of the church and religion in general. The reputation of the church is often damaged, and the image of abuse by a religious leader that is so often depicted in popular culture and the media is reinforced. The very organization that should, through God’s grace, be a place of hope and healing is then looked upon as complicit with the perpetrator.
The good news is that there has been increased awareness about this issue. Through frank conversations, the work of diligent volunteers, committed church leadership, organizations such as Adventist Risk Management, Inc. (ARM), and such banner campaigns as EnditNow.org,4 improvements have been made. Policies and guidelines have been implemented, including enhanced training and background screening. Where these are followed, the church has created a safer place for children and kept them from contact with predator adults. Despite these good efforts, there is yet room for us to grow in how we process and react when any type of abuse is suspected or discovered. We should be particularly attentive with respect to the prevention of child-on-child abuse.
There is yet room for us to grow in how we process and react when any type of abuse is suspected or discovered.
ARM handles most of the claims brought against church entities involving accusations of abuse. Of the approximately 160 cases of sexual abuse handled by ARM during the past decade, 50 of these cases involved child-on-child abuse. It is important to note that many cases go undetected or unreported to ARM because not all instances of sexual abuse become claims.
It should be noted that most general abuse prevention techniques are ineffective in preventing child-on-child sex abuse. Screening children will not detect a child who has abused in the past. Moreover, children are with other children in nearly every kind of normal church activity: Pathfinders, Sabbath School classes, and on the playground. The rules and strategies we have developed for preventing abuse for adult-child interactions may be ineffective with the potential for child-on-child abuse.
It is important to build the right strategy to prevent abuse and defend your organization against perpetrators. When it comes to abuse of children by adults, the steps the church has taken are largely effective. They include criminal background screening, awareness training, windows in doors, the two-adult rule, and reference checks. These measures help to harden the defenses of your organization against a perpetrator seeking to prey on your young and vulnerable. But they may not do much to guard against the trusted perpetrator already in your midst.
Building an effective defense against child-on-child abuse requires different techniques and methods. The predators in these cases are likely classmates, bullies, fellow Pathfinders, or even friends from within the local church. The victims in these cases are children ranging in age from teenagers to very young children. It is important to remember that the perpetrator of the sexual abuse in this case is also a minor and in many cases, a child who is close in age to the victim. The actions take place with any combination of genders, including boys abusing boys or girls, as well as girls abusing boys or other girls. The range of misconduct includes inappropriate touching, sexual acts, sexual intercourse, and sodomy.
To build and maintain an effective stance against this, we must understand the various scenarios in which abuse can take place:
We can learn some lessons from these abuse scenarios that ARM has dealt with. The ages represented in these situations ranged from 6 to 17.Both genders are represented, both as abused and as perpetrator. We now know that we cannot make assumptions about the “safety” of a person based on age or gender. Too often those assumptions are challenged by our experience and reality.
We can also learn a great deal by examining the scenarios and locations where these incidents can take place. We cannot conclude that we should stop meeting at church members’ homes, or no longer take bus trips or use bathrooms. Rather, we need to understand the supervision gaps that are taking place in these situations. We are clearly failing our children in these gaps; but by understanding how that happens, we can end it.
What happened at the children’s ministries party at the church members’ home that caused a gap in care for these children? Were there some assumptions made about who was responsible for supervision? When we are on-site at our church or school we ensure that all children are accounted for, so shouldn’t we do the same when conducting an activity off-site?
What happened on the bus? Where were the adults? Was the driver the only supervisor? Were the adults sleeping, or just not engaged? As we plan these activities, let us not compromise on effective supervision.
Many of the scenarios involved bathrooms, and several involved camping activities as well. Ideally, bathrooms are private places. Using a bathroom necessarily requires privacy, and these scenarios are thereby more challenging to supervise. When children are sent to the bathroom, it is good to have regular supervision in the hallways that ensures children know they are monitored as to how long they have been in there and who is in there at that time. Children need to be aware that an adult is actively engaged and will intervene if something is not as it should be.
Scenario 5 involved a boy who acted out in response to a girl who was bullying him. His reaction was inappropriate and considered abuse, but neither behavior was good. Bullying can range in severity from the insignificant to full-fledged abuse. Allowing even light bullying to take place creates a culture that is friendly to perpetrators, as in this case, where the bullying behavior escalated into an abusive incident.
What can we learn? Overwhelmingly the challenges we faced with these incidents were gaps in supervision. Effective supervision involves adults who are informed and prepared, are vigilant, but are also educated to know what to watch for, and are empowered to act on communicated expectations. We must set high standards for our adult volunteers, as well as for young people, then be willing to follow up on those expectations.
Guidelines on how to conduct effective supervision can be found in the Seventh-day Adventist Church Manual and the General Conference Working Policy. Often your conference or local church will have developed a child protection plan that provides the needed guidance. ARM also has information on child protection,5 including resources on “safe touch” and “supervision.”
When an allegation of abuse arises in a church or school setting, the response must be timely, positive, and as confidential as possible. Like other acts of abuse, the incident should be reported to the police or designated government organizations. Do not dismiss the incident because the alleged perpetrator is another child or minor. Appropriate civil agencies must be notified and allowed to investigate the matter with the cooperation of the church or school.
Once an act of sexual abuse involving a child is discovered, it is essential to notify the child’s parents promptly and carefully. Parents should be advised of what happened and assured the matter has been reported to authorities. Next, while giving the child support and comfort, avoid questioning beyond the basic information needed to file a report with authorities, especially without the parent present. You are not an investigator. Questioning a child in such a situation should be done only by those trained to do so. As for the authorities, it is best to work as cooperatively with them as possible and not get ahead of their investigation by making statements that reveal the identities of the victim or the perpetrator. Share information on a need-to-know basis only.
For example, in a school setting it may be mandatory that the victim’s and perpetrator’s teacher be informed if a child is still attending classes. The teacher can then appropriately relate to the child under these circumstances. However, announcements of names and details at a staff meeting, or more public forums, may raise other liability issues for the organization and be detrimental to the children involved. Use legal counsel in these sensitive situations.
We need to remember that God’s Word and our church’s principles condemn abusive conduct. The church should follow through with fair, decisive discipline. Priority should be given to protection of the vulnerable rather than the perpetrator.
We are often surprised when a respected and loved member of our congregation is found to have engaged in this type of conduct. But hesitation to hold perpetrators accountable may be perceived as a lack of support for victims. It sends a message that the perpetrator is more important to the church than those who are abused. It also may communicate that abusive behavior is condoned. This cannot be our position. The cruelty and immorality of sexual abuse violates both God’s commandment against adultery and His law against murder (Exodus 20:13, 14; Matthew 5:2128), sexual abuse,any act of sexual intimacy outside of a marriage relationship, and/or nonconsensual acts of sexual conduct within a marriage, whether those acts are legal or illegal, disrupt the marriage institution6 and the Christian home, and violate biblical standards of moral conduct. Such acts include but are not limited to child sexual abuse, including abuse of the vulnerable.
The church has a common theme of forgiveness and restoration. There is a process for restoration available to perpetrators. But priority must be given to protecting the vulnerable and to recognizing the consequences that follow this type of behavior. Under no circumstances should we transfer a perpetrator elsewhere, as though they are a member in good standing. When we do this, we expose an unsuspecting congregation to risk. Ultimately the whole church suffers when we try to pass the problem along. That is not a solution.
We have such a great opportunity and responsibility with the children of our church and our guests. They are the most vulnerable, but they also hold the most potential for the future. Jesus spoke clearly: “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to stumble, it would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were thrown into the sea” (Mark 9:42, NKJV).7 There is no room for doubt here that God takes the protection of the vulnerable very seriously, and expects us to do the same.
God asks us to always treat our children in a responsible and loving manner. Let us take this as a calling to treat them in a godly manner, and ensure they experience the fruit of the Spirit in our families, our communities, and our churches and schools. “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law” (Gal. 5:22, 23, NASB).8
David Fournier is chief client officer for Adventist Risk Management.