As much of the nation was recently celebrating Christmas, a Memphis pastor was arrested for sexually abusing a 16-year-old family member. What makes this heartbreaking story even more repugnant is that church and family members had been informed about the abuse two years earlier, but failed to report the crime to the police. Instead, they decided that the best response was to simply pray for the offender and hope for the best. Tragically, this response to child sexual abuse by those within the church is not uncommon. Equally as tragic is that such responses fuel perpetrators to continue destroying the bodies and souls of untold numbers of children.

Worship - photo courtesy of Michael Mistretta via Flickr

Worship – photo courtesy of Michael Mistretta via Flickr (Image source)

The statistics of child sexual abuse are startling to say the least. In her book, Predators, Pedophiles, Rapists, and other Sex Offenders, clinical psychologist Anna Salter outlines the results of numerous studies that clearly demonstrate the prevalence of this offense and the dangers of those who offend. Here are just a couple she mentions:

Abel Harlow Child Molestation Prevention Study:
This study found that pedophilia molesters average 12 child victims and 71 acts of molestation. An earlier study by Dr. Abel found that out of 561 sexual offenders there were over 291,000 incidents totaling over 195,000 total victims. These are enough victims to fill 2 ½ Superdomes! This same study found that only 3% of these sexual offenders have a chance of getting caught.

Russell Study:
This study revealed that up to 38% of women were molested before turning 18 years old. This same study found that up to 16% of boys are molested before they turn 18 years old. Dr. Russell also discovered that only 5% of child sexual abuse had been reported to law enforcement.

In her book, Dr. Salter revealed that her own interviews of sexual offenders found them admitting to having perpetrated between 10 and 1250 victims. She also writes that every offender she interviewed had been previously reported by children, and the reports were ignored.

It is critical to note that this abuse is no less prevalent within the faith community. In fact, there are studies that demonstrate that the faith community is even more vulnerable to abuse than secular environments. The Abel and Harlow study revealed that 93% of sex offenders describe themselves as "religious" and that this category of offender may be the most dangerous. Other studies have found that sexual abusers within faith communities have more victims and younger victims. This disturbing truth is perhaps best illustrated by the words of a convicted child molester who told Dr. Salter,

I considered church people easy to fool…they have a trust that comes from being Christians. They tend to be better folks all around and seem to want to believe in the good that exists in people.

Besides sending shockwaves down your spine, why is it critical for those within the faith community to be aware of these statistics? Though there are many reasons, here are just three to consider:

  1. If approximately 1 in 4 women and 1 in 6 men have been sexually abuse as children (an even a more conservative statistic than that provided by Dr. Russell), this means that our churches are filled with abuse survivors. For example, a church of 200 members (100 women and 100 men) will have at least 41 child sexual abuse survivors...20.5%! Yet, sexual abuse is still too seldom talked about inside our churches. How would your church respond if:
    • 20.5% of the congregation had cancer; or
    • 20.5% of the congregation had lost a child; or
    • 20.5% of the congregation had been fired from employment?

    Is it safe to predict that addressing this issue would become a primary focus of the church ministry? Is it safe to predict that pastors would preach sermons addressing the spiritual issues associated with trauma? Is it safe to predict that church members would expend themselves in love and service to those experiencing such deep hurt? Is it safe to predict that the church would not respond to this criminal offense in silence? As a faith community, we must learn to approach the horror of child sexual abuse no differently. Perhaps these statistics can help drive our faith communities to become places of refuge and healing for abuse survivors who are silently suffering in our midst.

  2. Those who sexually victimize children likely have victimized dozens of other children during their lifetime. Not only does this open our eyes to the prevalence of this tragic epidemic, but it should also help to equip us to respond to individuals within our faith community who get “caught” for engaging in criminal behavior against a child and beg for “grace”, claiming that this was the only child they have ever victimized. Based upon these statistics, the offender is most likely lying, which means they are continuing to deceive in order to reestablish trust and access of our children. Perhaps these statistics can help drive our faith communities to open their eyes to the dark truths about those who abuse.
  3. Most children never report sexual abuse, and when they do, it is often ignored. A young girl in Memphis can sadly attest to this appalling truth. Perhaps these statistics will prompt our faith communities to actively educate our members about this crime, and to dialogue openly about these issues with our children. Two key components of such education are prevention and response. Churches must seek the advice, counsel and training of child protection experts to assist in developing a ‘culture of protection’.   Responding with excellence to abuse disclosures should always involve reporting the alleged crime to law enforcement ,as well as demonstrating affirmation and support to the child who has come forward.  Such an environment will make it much more likely that a victim will come forward, the abuse will stop, and the perpetrator will face justice. I will address the issues of prevention and response in much greater detail during the coming weeks and months. Perhaps these statistics can encourage our faith communities to spend more time listening and learning.

Understanding the reality of these disturbing statistics is one of the first steps in transforming our faith communities into places where children are safe and abuse survivors are welcomed, valued, and loved. Perhaps a better understanding of these disturbing statistics would have prompted at least one church member in Memphis to step forward to love and protect a 16-year-old child by reporting her abuser to the police. Now that would have been an answer to prayer.

25 Comments

  1. Another issue to consider is that many sexual offenders were abused themselves, as children. And do we really believe that ANY person can come to Christ and be made new?! I personally know a convicted sexual offender (currently in prison), who has dramatically changed. Unfortunately, even in the Church, hardly anyone believes that someone labelled “pedophile” can really become a child of God. It’s like one can turn from every other sin, yet this sin is incurable.

    • This is something, though, that we need to be careful of. Most people who were abused do not go on to abuse others, and many who do abuse were not abused themselves as children. Perpetrators will use the commonly held myth that those who abuse were usually abused themselves in order to garner sympathy and to detract from the viciousness of their crimes. There is no one outside of Christ’s power to save and transform, but a transformed predator will understand and agree with any boundaries and limitations that need to be set on him or her in order to establish and prove trust and keep vulnerable children safe. They will understand that they are not entitled to trust. They will understand that ultimately it is not just their sexual struggles, but rather their decision to carry out those appetites in the form of predation, that is the real issue at hand. If the Body of Christ becomes more knowledgeable about this whole issue, we will be much better prepared to minister to all concerned in a way consistent with the gospel and with the wisdom that only the Holy Spirit can give us.

      • Hi, Karen,
        I assume you are correct about your thought that not all abusers were abused, etc.
        However, I’m not sure I agree when you say that no one is outside of Christ’s power to save and transform. I agree that everyone was provided for in the atonement Christ accomplished, but if you think folks now are all able to be saved and transformed… in this life… I would respectfully disagree.

        I think that the ones for whom salvation and transformation is an option now, at the present time, are only the very small group of folks that God is “calling”. The vast majority of folks are not being dealt with directly, and are simply learning difficult lessons that will benefit them in the future. You see, I believe that there is a future age of grace, and that most of the work of salvation for all that Christ secured with his sacrifice of himself — most of that work will be done during his millennial kingdom when stumbling stones will be gathered out of the way, Satan will be bound, and hereditary weaknesses will be completely eliminated. At that time, these folks who are now abusing children will have an opportunity to be corrected and transformed.
        But rare indeed is such the case at the present time. Some sins, and many hereditary weaknesses that afflict the human race, are so deep that they are beyond the ability of Christians to reach. We can touch them with our love, or quietly rebuke them by choosing a different manner of life… but I think a lot of the difficulty this thread is discussing comes from churches being confused about their mission. Thinking that they are the only safety net — the only opportunity of salvation — for the world of mankind, they must try to welcome into the church any warm body who says a sinners’ prayer. And so the unregenerate fill many pews but don’t really have the fruits of repentance in their lives. Am I understanding your thought correctly? Thanks.

      • AMEN!!! I couldn’t agree more! No matter what sin we commit and then repent of we have to accept the consequences of that sin. Repentance does not take away natural consequences and sexual sin comes with some pretty huge consequences. A repentant person would humbly accept that.

      • Remember Salem

        What about a person who has sexual *thoughts* about a minor but doesn’t act on them and doesn’t want to? Yet the idea haunts & scares them. The more they try to suppress the thoughts, the more frequent, intrusive & repetitive they become. To remove the anxiety, worry and fear, the person compulsively avoids children, schools, even their own children and those of relatives. Someone in this situation lives in hell on earth.

        This describes a very real form of obsessive-compulsive disorder.

        Then the afflicted person goes to an authority in their church for confidential help with their seeming spiritual problem…and the church authority reports the person to…the police…and the accused’s employer.

        A detective investigates. He questions about 10 of the suspect’s friends, acquaintances, their children. He tells them the accused’s name. The accused isn’t told of the investigation until all are questioned.

        When the investigation ends, the report closes the case as unfounded. Nothing criminal happened.

        Big sigh of relief for all concerned & it’s over, right?

        Except it’s not.

        The church continues to shun the accused. The employer fires the accused. The accused slowly realizes in a shadowy, subtle unfolding that friends no longer return calls, emails, text messages. The accused no longer receives emails from an organization (s)he volunteers for. The accused’s kid’s friends no longer come over. Nearly all of the person’s social support network evaporates.

        And the police and legally immune mandatory reporter at church are under no obligation to make things right for the traumatized *actual* victim or to even go back & tell those questioned that the accused isn’t dangerous at all. So they don’t. They passively stay silent. They assume things will “work themselves out” (something I actually heard a questioned person say.)

        For them, yes; for the accused? Not a chance.

        Exaggeration? No. Saw it with my own eyes in my own church & community. And there are no charities or non-profits or support groups to help the exonerated accused person. They’re on their own and now preparing for a long distance move out of state with spouse & kid.

        Read this article to learn more about this very real problem that can & *does* happen at times: http://apt.rcpsych.org/content/15/5/332.full

        Then come back here & tell us what *should* be done to prevent such damnable tragedy, and if the person with OCD deserves any consideration or help to make things right.

      • I think this is exactly correct. I know of a specific situation where a previous abuser came to Christ. This person showed true fruits of the spirit and when they approached to join the church they understood their background made for a different situation. They accepted very specific limitations as to where on the campus they could and could not go and also a shadowing system to ensure that they were never alone on the campus. While a strong priority has to go to provide a safe environment for children we also cannot ignore the power of the gospel to save. It either can save or it cannot. If you believe it can then you must deal with everybody that is broken by this sin. It’s not easy because all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.

    • Yamen Yousif

      Where do your stats come from where “many sexual offenders were abused themselves, as children”? This is a common misnomer. And is one that is repeated over and over to children who are abused–people think ‘this child is abused. S/he will likely abuse my children. We can’t have him/her around my family.’ which forces the victim to remain even more alone.

    • The only safe “reformed” abuser is one who upon meeting people with children make his past known as states that he wants to be supported in his efforts to continue on the path.

      I’ve still never met him.
      Do I believe Christ can transform people? Absolutely.
      Would I ever allow a “transformed abuser” access of any kind to children?
      Never.

    • Anyone can become a child of God. That does NOT mean that they should be trusted around children, however. Loving our brothers and sisters…including convicted pedophiles, is a mandate in scripture. Putting someone in any position of trust with children is not loving them…unless there is great reason to trust proven over a long period of time. We must also remember that most pedophiles lie chronically to get into those positions of trust…otherwise known as grooming. It is a WISE thing to suspect dishonesty and really test an individual who is known for chronic lying, no matter who they are. Change does happen- with God all things are possible, but choosing to sacrifice the welfare of our children on the altar of trusting someone who has not earned it is one of the church’s greatest sins!
      To learn more about prevention and healing from child sexual abuse, tune into Beyond Abuse Radio: http://www.blogtalkradio.com/beyondabuseradio

    • Remember Salem

      Thank you, L.C. Good point. The one sort of person now denied any hope of earthly redemption (except by God, I hope) is the person labeled “pedophile,” regardless of whether it’s true or not. They are damned & shunned on earth. Even if someone is accused & investigation discovers the claim is unfounded, the investigation itself ruins their reputation to the point of job loss, rejection from church, the community, friends and any previous support systems. They become ignored pariahs in their community, and they must move far away to repair the damage.

      Same usually goes for persons found not guilty at trial.

      Is this justice? Is this “innocent until proven guilty”? No. It is guilt until proven innocent.

      What would Jesus do?

      I disagree with the author that churches stick their heads in the sand about this issue. Many have put forth huge efforts to educate persons in authority as well as members & children. These churches & church organizations now work hard to vet and turn in suspicious persons. This is especially true of the Catholic Church, though it has a *long* way to go to eliminate its clericalist caste system that makes ordained men “more equal than others” — the attitude that got, and continues to get the Catholic Church in so much trouble.

    • I understand the point you are trying to make but I am not willing to have my children nor my grandchildren around a “cured” sex offender and think that the desire to molest will never come back! If I were in a church and was told there was a so called cured molester in our church I would have to.leave.

  2. This is a very heavy, even repugnant subject. Thank you for holding a steady light on it, Boz. I doubt you’ll get many comments. But thank you for speaking out so courageously.

  3. We have personally experienced dealing with a child being molested by a trusted church leader. The happy, intelligent boy that he was has struggled for years to live a normal and productive life. He no longer trusts the church though he continues to struggle back to walking closely with his Savior. The betrayal and pain is too stunning for words. That we cannot fins many fellow believers who really care is even more painful.

  4. Comment marked as low quality by the editors. Show comment

    Fortuna Veritas

    Aside from the fact that they’re lying when they claim to be first-time abusers, “merely” having sexually abused one child does not merit people covering up their crime. You should address this and yet you do not, allowing wiggle room for those you’re addressing to say that, no, surely I’m not being lied to this time. Also, the idea of throwing themselves upon “grace” itself needs to be rebutted since it seems to be such a pernicious self-delusion of members of faith.

    Your failure to address that would seem to indicate that you haven’t yourself fully escaped the flawed mentality of people of faith when it comes to these criminals, where they mistake a blight to be eradicated for something to keep quiet about in hopes it’ll get better on its own. Like expecting skin cancer to get better if they just keep it covered up and never let anyone see it.

    To say that I’m deeply disappointed would be understatement.

  5. Susanne Johnson

    I lament that the title of this article—as profoundly important as the topic is—has an undertone of arrogance, while it also reflects ignorance about the church (at least mainline, ecumenically oriented churches). The author suggests that the church should BEGIN TO be aware of and to address the issue of child sexual abuse. Actually, many parts of the church in the U.S. have been doing this–and for a number of decades. Notice that the author is in the field of law, and teaches at Liberty University, which is the largest evangelical university in the world, founded by Jerry Falwell, who happened to essentially hate the mainline church, and was misogynist and homophobic. It’s typical of conservative evangelical male scholars to ignore the contributions of female scholars—no matter the particular topic, field of study, or disciplinary area– and to put forth an idea that female scholars ALREADY have worked on, and then act as though they themselves invented sliced bread. If the author, Boz Tchividjian, had done very much investigation into what the church ALREADY has been doing—rather than posturing himself as having dreamed up an original idea– he would have discovered –and would have publicly recognized and honored—the long, stellar contributions of the Reverend Dr. Marie Fortune, along with other female scholars who’ve been addressing this issue for quite some time.

    In 1977 Dr. Fortune founded the Center for the Prevention of Sexual and Domestic Violence, now known as FaithTrust Institute, a multi-faith organization that provides the church with training and resources to deal with child sexual abuse and domestic violence. She’s the author of a number of books which have been widely used in seminaries and local churches. Her Institute produced two widely used DVDs on the role of churches in ending child abuse: “Hear Their Cries” and “Bless our Children.”

    Further, mainline churches today conduct background checks on all volunteers who work with children in any kind of setting, and they also have formalized training programs on reducing the risk of child sexual abuse. See, for example, the program in the United Methodist Church called “Safe Sanctuaries: Reducing the Risk of Abuse in the Church for Children and Youth.” The list could go on and on as to what churches already are doing to address child sexual abuse in homes and congregations. There are numerous programs and resources; most of these were produced by female leaders and scholars, and one can only wonder if Mr. Tchividjian has some sort of blind spot that causes him to filter out the prodigious work of women in the church and wider society. If so, he’s certainly not the first male to have such, and won’t be the last.

    • Susanne, as a member of a united methodist church that practices the safe sanctuary procedures, I can appreciate your frustration at the oversight of the hard work of some mainline denominations for the past thirty years. There appears to be a drastic disparity in the rate of abuse among different groups or denominations. The United Methodist denomination has done an excellent job implementing the necessary safeguards and has seen the results in the low rate of abuse. There are large segments of the american church, however, that have not put these or any other safeguards in place, and the result is the continued tragedy we are witnessing come to light. I believe these groups are to whom Boz is referring.

      I grew up in the fundamental movement, so I’m very familiar with Jerry Falwell. He was both on the inside and outside of that movement, if I recall correctly. He may have been misguided over the years, but I don’t believe the man hated anyone.

      Lastly, Boz certainly doesn’t need me to speak for him, but if you look at his own family, you can see strong, godly, independent women who are in the ministry. I can’t imagine he intentionally ignored the contributions of Dr. Fortune just because she’s a woman.

  6. Mojtaba (arjomandi)

    I want to tell you about the men who abuse to child boys & girls in
    Iran & no body can speak about it in society .
    Many boys have been suffering this dangerous diseases. This bad action
    destroy brain & other organs of body. it’s so strange that no body
    speak about it on TV. i SAW DROPOUT OF Some boys due to this dangerous
    action. they are no guilty but the leaders of the country & teachers &
    parents are guilty. Why does no manager sentence the men who committed
    this dangerous crime? What difference is there between it & killing a
    boy or a girl?
    I ‘d like to cooperate with you,
    I kiss your hands,
    Mojtaba.
    Iranma4@gmail.com

  7. Richard Williams

    I would not argue that abuse does not occur in faith communities, but there are many people in the U.S. who claim religious affiliation so I really don’t get how we get from point A to point B and jump to conclusions that the issue is running rampant in churches. I read about statistics that say only 10% of abuse is done by total strangers. I wonder what people think of what this wikipedia article is stating about a study done in 2009: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Child_sexual_abuse. Especially this line: ” Most sexual abuse offenders are acquainted with their victims; approximately 30% are relatives of the child, most often brothers, fathers, uncles or cousins; around 60% are other acquaintances, such as “friends” of the family, babysitters, or neighbors; strangers are the offenders in approximately 10% of child sexual abuse cases.” I am not sure where actual abuse in churches fits in there, but I would be slow to say that sexual abuse occurs in churches more prominently than secular settings.

    I think there should definitely be safeguards in whatever situations we put children in, but we should be careful about how we treat one particular situation over another. Abuse is a human problem of sin. It isn’t a problem of biblical faith.

  8. This article is VERY Misleading.. I have the book mentioned & the stats being given are NOT regarding Catholic Priests or Clergy in general.. Much of these cases are SECULAR.. School teachers, little league, etc.

    The way it is written is very bias, misleading, & not in good faith, as it distorts the numbers of secular abuse while discussing clergy.

  1. […] It is critical to note that this abuse is no less prevalent in the faith community. In fact, there are studies that demonstrate that the faith community is even more vulnerable to abuse than secular environments. The Abel and Harlow study revealed that 93% of sex offenders describe themselves as “religious” and that this category of offender may be the most dangerous. Other studies have found that sexual abusers within faith communities have more victims and younger victims. This disturbing truth is perhaps best illustrated by the words of a convicted child molester who told Dr. Salter, “I considered church people easy to fool…they have a trust that comes from being Christians. They tend to be better folks all around and seem to want to believe in the good that exists in people.”[1] […]

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