Failing to address sexual abuse of teens in our churches

Early in ministry, I spent a few years leading children’s church and then Sunday School.

One Sunday, a young lady in the youth group sat by me on the pew during opening worship. As was my habit, I put my arm around her for a hug. She pulled her knees to her chest, leaned into me with her head on my shoulder and began sobbing. I just held her not knowing what was wrong. I was unaware of what caused such an open display of pain. Another young lady in the youth group came and got her hand and led her out of the sanctuary. There the second young lady embraced and comforted her crying peer.

Years later, I learned that one of the twenty-something male youth leaders had a sexual relationship with both these under-18 teenage girls. I was stunned. But even more so, I was angry. Why hadn’t I, one of the children/youth ministry leaders been told?

Of course, one’s initial reaction is to say because of confidentiality. However, this begs the question about the distinction between confidentiality and cover-up.

A meeting could have been held with church leaders, especially the youth leaders, to alert us to the issue and how to minister to the youth group who clearly all knew and were devastated by it. In retrospect, I realized that no safe sanctuary, youth leadership, or child and sexual abuse training was offered to any of the church leaders and volunteers. A background check was done only for the church van driver. Even for the nineties this was quite inadequate and remiss in creating the best ministry environment and, above all, safety for the youth.

Still today there is a naïve belief among many church-goers that child abuse and sexual abuse do not occur in our own faith communities. The statistics on these matters, however, shatter that naiveté. And truthfully, I think church leadership knows much more than it shares about these issues in the church.

Hats off to those churches that have instituted Safe Sanctuary practices and have trained their volunteers. And again, I’m not trying to undermine the need for confidentiality in matters of pastoral care. What I am calling for, however, is transparency and overturning the denial that abuse and sexual abuse are real problems in our congregations.

I doubt many Christians would debate the fact that abuse and sexual abuse violate the personhood and scar the image of God in children. Our understanding of psychology has contributed greatly to our knowledge of the development and emotional needs of children and youth and the damaging effects of violence and abuse. However, there is still a sense that families are entitled to their “privacy” and that children and youth need to be subject to their parents. There remains a subtle anti-intellectualism that neglects the insights of “worldly” psychology into the human psyche and behavior, and an allergic avoidance of talk that seems too “new age” in regard to the mystery of the spirit and the soul.

We as Christians would do well to reclaim the integrated nature of body, mind, soul, and spirit so to give greater attention to the pastoral care and healing of those victimized by abuse.

I believe two things have contributed to the silence and cover-ups about child abuse and sexual abuse in our congregations. For one, Christians, in general, are quite uncomfortable with talks of sex, sexuality, and the body. We have lost the sense of embodiment obviously valued by God as evidenced in the Incarnation—God put on a flesh—and in the resurrection in which Jesus’ body, as well as his spirit and soul, came back from death.

Second, the gravity and pervasiveness of evil in this world frightens us. We don’t want to acknowledge that darkness can exist among the people of God. Yet if we truly understand human nature, if we remember that this world won’t be fully redeemed until Christ’s second coming, and if we really understand the call of the Church, then the existence of evil in the Church should not surprise us.

All of us have the capacity to do great harm to another, and if we are honest with ourselves we cannot say with 100 percent certainty what we would or would not do. As the Native American proverb says, “Do not judge a man until you’ve walked a mile in his moccasins.” The power of our faith is not the absence of evil but in its ability to choose good despite and in the midst of evil. And the greatness of God’s grace is that forgiveness is offered to all who would receive it.

Our role as the Church is to manifest and further the Kingdom of God. And by the “Kingdom of God” I mean God’s presence, image, and character in the world—that is justice, mercy, compassion, humility, peace, and love.

I’m not talking about the hippy version of these things. I’m referring to the Jesus version of these things. In this version, Jesus very strongly and clearly states that to violate a child is unacceptable in the eyes of God. This applies to those in our youth groups as well. Though they are older, teenagers are still spiritually, emotionally, and mentally vulnerable, and wounds inflicted during adolescence still do much damage.

Christian love must love the abuser enough to call them on their sin so that he/she may confess, repent, and be healed of the darkness in their soul causing them to abuse—whether that darkness be a result of their own abuse, a personality disorder(s), or simple self- serving belief in gender/parent/racial superiority.

With violence and sexual abuse clearly not being God’s will how can we continually refuse to openly discuss the problem of child abuse and sexual abuse in our churches? How can we continue to neglect proper training of our leaders and volunteers to address these issues? Why do we allow abuse to go unpunished and continue to expose children and youth to great harm in our churches in the name of the “sanctity of the family?”

Alicia Dixon-Garrard, M.A. ’14, Teen Challenge volunteer, Catholic Schools of Broome County substitute teacher.

This entry is the first in a blog series that focus on experiences, understanding, and responses to violence against women, as part of an online course offered by Northeastern Seminary beginning in the 2015 fall semester. Instructed by Dr. Elizabeth Gerhardt, this course addresses the problem of violence against women from a Christian theological perspective. To learn more about taking this course and other Seminary course options click here.

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