There are some days when I am thrilled to report positive developments within the Protestant world about the slow but steady shift taking place on issues relating to child sexual abuse. Just a few years ago, there was very little private or public discourse within most Protestant circles about abuse within the Church. Besides the ignored cries of survivors and a few advocates, public acknowledgment and dialogue on this subject was off limits. As a result, children continued to be at risk in our churches and survivors continued to be silenced through blame and false pity.
In the past year, I have encountered more and more folks who are beginning to realize that the Church has been largely silent — and this silence has had excruciatingly dark and grave consequences for countless individuals and for the very soul of the Church. Through some amazing (and many very painful) set of circumstances, I believe a growing number within the Protestant community are finally beginning to realize that there is an epidemic of child sexual abuse within the Church and that silence and inaction are unacceptable.
Three years ago, I was invited by a major Protestant denomination to lead a seminar that focused on issues facing the church related to child sexual abuse. Five people attended. Though I was a bit disappointed, I was encouraged to be able to connect with some abuse survivors who had been deeply hurt by their church. So when I was asked this year to lead a similar seminar, I was expecting a low turnout. To my amazement, the room was full. What an encouragement to witness the thawing hearts of professing Christians who acknowledge that we have much to learn about protecting children, serving survivors and demonstrating repentance to those we have hurt or ignored.
This acknowledgment was demonstrated this past week when the entire General Assembly (annual meeting of pastors) of the theologically conservative Presbyterian Church of America (PCA) unanimously and publicly adopted Overture 6 – perhaps the most robust statement on child protection adopted by any Christian denomination. Though I was honored to serve alongside some amazing folks in drafting this historic resolution, I was quite skeptical that such a strongly worded statement would be embraced by the broader constituency of this denomination. Once again, I was left amazed at what happens when God moves on behalf of little ones and the vulnerable.
This statement doesn’t pull any punches. Not only does it acknowledge that child sexual abuse is an epidemic in our culture, it concludes that the silence of the church renders it complicit before God. It urges all church leaders to use their influence to protect children, including preaching and teaching against child sexual abuse and exposing those who abuse. It is also significant that this resolution implores the church to compassionately support survivors.
Perhaps the most important and unique aspect of this adopted resolution is its call for action. It directs the various departments of the denomination to review their policies and practices related to the protection of children and the response to abuse disclosures. They are also directed to develop future plans on how to help educate the denomination on issues related to child sexual abuse. In order to prevent these denomination transforming tasks from disappearing into oblivion, this resolution requires a full report at next year’s meeting.
Don’t get me wrong, we still have a very long way to go in the Christian world when it comes to protecting the vulnerable and embracing the hurting. I was reminded of this when I read the results of a newly released survey that found 74% of faith leaders underestimate the level of sexual and domestic violence experienced within their congregations. I was also reminded of this when I read about the founder of a large Christian organization who has allegedly victimized dozens of young women and recently told a news reporter, “I just have a desire to work with and encourage the young people that I have served in the past and I want to continue that on a personal basis.” This same Christian organization hired a friend of the leader to conduct a “thorough review process” of the abuse allegations and concluded that God still desires to use this individual “for His work in the Kingdom of God.”
A very long way to go indeed.
Despite the fact that there is a difficult road ahead, I’m taking a few minutes to rejoice that this week a Protestant denomination took a positive step forward.
OVERTURE 6 – “Child Protection in the PCA”
Whereas our Lord Jesus demonstrated his righteous anger at his own disciples, rebuking those who would do anything to prevent children from coming unto him, saying “to such belongs the Kingdom of God,” (Mark 10:14) and condemning those who would harm children, saying “it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea” (Matthew 18:6); and
Whereas an epidemic of child sexual abuse exists in our culture, with the vast majority of such children being harmed by someone they know and trust, wounding children physically,
emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually with lifelong ripple effects; and
Whereas the silence of the church – when we fail to appropriately address “rape, incest,
sodomy and all unnatural lusts” (WLC 139) by not reporting disclosures of child sexual abuse, or not caring for those who disclose child sexual abuse, or not proactively taking steps to prevent child sexual abuse – is a fundamental failure of servant leadership, rendering the church complicit and culpable before the Lord, driving people away from the safety, healing and hope of Jesus Christ; and
Whereas Scripture warns leaders against the “careless exposing, or leaving [those in their care] to wrong, temptation, and danger” (WLC 130), and every jurisdiction acknowledges that child sexual abuse is a serious felony and has its own mandated reporting laws;
Therefore, be it resolved that we exhort all church leaders to become informed and to take an active stance toward preventing child sexual abuse in the church by screening staff and
volunteers, training them in child protection, and actively maintaining child protection policies pertaining to our obligations to love our children and protect their rightful interests as God’s image-bearers from the devastating actions of abusers (Matthew 18:5-6; WLC 129-130); and
Be it further resolved that we remind all churches that the heinous crime of child sexual abuse must be reported to duly appointed proper representatives of the God-ordained civil
authorities, in accordance with local laws, and that we must cooperate with those authorities as they “bear the sword” to punish those who do evil “in such an effectual manner as that no person be suffered . . . to offer any indignity, violence, abuse, or injury to any other person whatsoever” (Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14; WCF 23.3); and
Be it further resolved that we urge all church leaders to use their influence for the protection of children, by any and all godly means, including preaching and teaching against the heinous sin of child sexual abuse, warning anyone with knowledge of these sins to “take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them” (Ephesians 5:11), and by supporting victims who often suffer in silence and shame without the vocal and compassionate support of the church; and
Be it further resolved that we direct the Permanent Committees and Agencies of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America to review their policies, procedures and practices in the area of child protection, including their response to child sexual abuse disclosures, their faithfulness in reporting child sexual abuse to duly appointed proper representatives of the God-ordained civil authorities, in accordance with local laws, their care for survivors of child sexual abuse, and their future plans to help educate the PCA on child sexual abuse, and all other areas of response consistent with Scripture and the Constitution of the PCA, and report to the 43rd General Assembly through the Administrative Committee, after it has referred the matter to and received a report from the Cooperative Ministries Committee; and
Be it finally resolved that the 42nd General Assembly urge all members of the PCA to renew our allegiance to our Lord Jesus by loving our children as he loves our children, “for to such belongs the Kingdom of God” (Mark 10:14)