Dealing with Sexual Abuse in the Church: Advice for Pastors

Recent events have sparked vigorous debate regarding the proper handling of sexual abuse in the church. This essay is not an attempt to directly address a specific incident, but it will certainly intersect well-known incidents at points. While I was pastoring, I dealt with a multitude of sexual abuse cases that occurred both prior to and concurrent with my ministry. The list of tragedies included several rapes of teenagers, gang rape, incest, one entire family of five children molested by the father, and bestiality. While I am certainly not the most experienced person in this regard (not by a long shot), I think I have enough experience to contribute to the conversation.

I feel compelled to write this essay primarily for the younger generation of future pastors. Unless a clear message of what is biblical, right and courageous is sounded, I fear that many of them will enter ministry confused, fearful and uncertain of the proper manner of dealing with sexual abuse. I am afraid that many will swallow the weak excuses for leadership that are often given when pastors fail to properly deal with this terrible phenomenon in the church. Too often believers defend obvious failures of leadership, offer weak excuses, or attempt to bury offenses and hope everybody eventually forgets about them.

A Word for the Pastors

Before you think I am being overly critical of pastors, let me give a few caveats that I hope will communicate my sympathy for any pastor who has to deal with sexual abuse. First, sexual abuse is everywhere. Estimates of abused women range from 1 in 5 to 1 in 3. For men, abuse ranges from 1 in 7 to 1 in 5. Take the average church of 100 people, evenly split between males and females. In this accounting, 20-33 females and 14-20 males will have been or will eventually be sexually abused.1 This is a staggering number, and it screams for colleges and seminaries to give those preparing for ministry clear and sophisticated training on dealing with sexual abuse. In this essay I will primarily speak in terms of male predator and female victim, but the dynamic happens in every possible combination.

Second, any case of sexual abuse is messy, complex, emotional, and exhausting. Sexual abuse implies predation, and predators are notoriously deceitful, conniving, and evasive. A pastor can often feel like a detective, trying to track down and extract the truth from a situation clouded in lies, emotional devastation, fear, anger and cover-ups. In addition, a pastor cannot depend upon the police department or Department of Children and Families (or whatever it is called in your state) to be of much help in most cases. In the state of Connecticut where I pastored, DCF was rife with corruption, neglect and even abuse of children in their charge. My experience with DCF was with a few well-meaning case workers overwhelmed with caseloads often being managed poorly by bureaucrats. The police often had bigger concerns with which to deal, such as drug lords and gangs.

Finally, until the past 15-20 years, sexual abuse was never spoken of in many fundamental and evangelical circles. Only in the last decade have colleges and seminaries made concerted effort to provide quality training to future leaders. Most pastors who were trained more than 15 years ago literally have no formal training in dealing with sexual abuse. Today there are many good resources to help a pastor effectively deal with abuse, but these are recent developments. (On a personal level, I know of no more qualified experts than Chuck and Sue McLain at Calvary Baptist Seminary in Lansdale and Bruce Meyer at Maranatha. Readers would do well to take their classes.)

Understanding Sexual Abuse

Before we go any further, we need to define sexual abuse. The National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect defines child sexual assault as: “Contacts or interactions between a child and an adult when the child is being used for sexual stimulation of the perpetrator or another person when the perpetrator or another person is in a position of power or control over the victim.”

There are several key components to this definition. First, sexual abuse is any contact or interaction…when the child is being used for the sexual stimulation of the predator. Contact or interaction includes actual physical contact, in addition to forcing a child to watch sexual acts or pornography, etc. I would add that lewd comments, gestures and looks also qualify as abuse.

Second, the legal definition of “child” is anyone under eighteen years old, even though the age of consent may be lower in certain states. Legally, and I think, wisely, children under eighteen are not considered to be responsible for sexual behavior with adults. This may seem like an arbitrary determination by some. As the father of seventeen- and fifteen-year-old daughters, I think this is just about right. This is not to deny the fact that some teenagers occasionally seduce adults, but the occurrences of children seducing adults are rare in comparison to the vast majority of cases where the minor is preyed upon. The reason responsibility is not placed upon the minor is simple: It is not normal behavior for a minor to initiate sexual contact with an adult. I know this point will raise howls of protest from men who have “fallen” to the charms of teenage girls, but it is simply not the case that very many teens are out there looking to initiate sexual relations with forty-year-old men. Besides, as Christians we hold adults to a higher standard. Let me say this very clearly. If a teenager should ever initiate sexual contact with an adult, it is the adult who is first and foremost responsible to resist temptation and refuse the contact.

Why so many people don’t understand this is a mystery to me. In so many instances where Christian men (especially leaders) have preyed upon teenagers, it seems that the automatic assumption is that this “godly man” would never do such a thing willingly. He must have been seduced by a perverse teenage girl. She is to blame for ruining the man’s ministry or position or life. This kind of response needs to be identified as the twisted delusion that it is.

Third, sexual abuse happens when the perpetrator or another person is in a position of power or control over the victim. This neglected point is often misunderstood or ignored in cases of sexual abuse. Having control over a victim is a powerful dynamic that can leave one absolutely in the grip of the perpetrator. Power is gained in many ways, and unfortunately religious or spiritual power is often the best tool of the abuser.

Predators use a variety of scare tactics: everything from threats of bodily harm against the victim or her family to threats of public exposure and shame and loss of family support and love. They may appeal to her sympathy and incite fear of church discipline or even damnation. Recently in our area, a “Christian” man was exposed as raping his now nineteen-year-old adopted daughter continuously from the very first night he brought her home at the age of twelve. All those years he threatened that if she told anyone, the family would reject her and have nothing to do with her. And he was right! When he was finally exposed, the negligently ignorant wife blamed all those years of abuse on the daughter and threw her out of the house. The power dynamic in sexual abuse cannot be underestimated.

If this description so far makes you sick to your stomach and afraid to ever have to deal with sexual abuse, it should. It is not for the faint of heart or the ill-prepared. Without the training I received in seminary I would have completely failed the sheep that limped into my office, broken and bleeding from the wolf-attacks they had endured. So how should a pastor deal with sexual abuse in his congregation?

Shepherding the Victim

First, a distinction needs to be made between sexual immorality and sexual abuse. They are not the same. The issue of consent is not a minor issue; it is the issue. When two adults or two minors engage in consensual sexual immorality, they are both morally responsible for their actions. When one person forces another to engage in a sexual act, there is no responsibility on the part of the victim. And by definition, there can be no consensual sexual contact between minors and adults. Why? Because adults have inherent power over minors. Again, I am aware of the rare cases where a sixteen- or seventeen-year-old may appear to be consensually involved with an adult. But even at that age, there is a power dynamic in the relationship that makes it abuse.

What does this mean for pastoral care? In the case of sexual contact between a minor and an adult, the minor ought to be considered the innocent victim unless clear and compelling evidence says otherwise. And even in such rare cases, the responsibility of the act still rests squarely on the shoulders of the adult. I am amazed at the confusion on this issue. In an attempt to somehow explain how a “Christian” man who seemed to be godly, seemed to be a good family man, and seemed to love God could do such a thing, blame is quite often laid at the feet of the minor. It is especially appalling to me when women rush to blame a teenager for sexual contact with an adult. Perhaps many women who respond in this fashion were abused themselves, and have never stopped blaming themselves for the abuse they suffered.

The main role of the pastor with the victim at this point is that of the gentle shepherd, recognizing that he is dealing with a severely wounded lamb who needs care, comfort, counseling, support, courage and more. A pastor needs to demonstrate compassion toward the victim, reassuring her that the abuse was not her fault, and that the church will be there to help her through the trauma that will unfold in her life over the next years as she comes to grips with this most devastating violation of her person.

It is not uncommon for abuse victims to suffer depression, thoughts of suicide, eating disorders, self-mutilation, and a host of other symptoms in the years following an act of abuse. Pastors need to be prepared for the long haul to minister patiently to the victim. The victim will be wracked with guilt, fear, anger and other emotions. She will be tormented with questions such as, “Could I have fought harder? Did I do anything to encourage him? Why am I such a bad person?” In addition, the victim will most likely suffer the humiliation of ignorant people making hurtful comments. All this adds up to a monumental task for a pastor in the post-abuse care of an abuse victim.

The pastor needs to take the lead in finding women who will come alongside her in the process. He needs to help the family find a good counselor and perhaps a good lawyer. He needs to fulfill the commands of 1 Thessalonians 5:14 to “encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all.” Above all, the pastor needs to ensure that the victim is not exposed to shame in any way for the heinous act committed against her. The one place a violated person ought to be able to go to find relief from shame and condemnation is the church. How a pastor prepares his people for this eventuality will make all the difference in the world. This will be discussed later.

(See Part 2 on shepherding the perpetrator and shepherding the church.)

Notes

1 Editor’s note: Perhaps the congregation size would need to be 200 to produce the final numbers indicated here (since the statistics are calculated based on 100 females (1 in 5 = 20/100, 1 in 3 = 33/100) + 100 males (1 in 7 = 14/100, 1 in 5 = 20/100)? Or if the average church is 100 and not 200, the ranges of abused women/men should be adjusted in half (for a congregation of 50 women/50 men). Still a “staggering number.”


Mark Farnham is Assistant Professor of Theology and New Testament at Calvary Baptist Theological Seminary (Lansdale, PA). He and his wife, Adrienne, grew up in Connecticut and were married after graduating from Maranatha Baptist Bible College (Watertown, WI). They have two daughters and a son, all teenagers. Mark served as director of youth ministries at Positive Action for Christ (Rocky Mount, NC) after seminary and pastored for seven years in New London, Connecticut. He holds an MDiv from Calvary and a ThM in New Testament from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (South Hamilton, MA). He has also studied ancient manuscripts at Harvard Divinity School and philosophy at Villanova University. He is presently a doctoral student at Westminster Theological Seminary (Glenside, PA) in the field of Apologetics. These views do not necessarily reflect those of Calvary Baptist Theological Seminary or its faculty and administration.

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There are 73 Comments

allenjs's picture

This *so* needed to be said. Great post.

CPHurst's picture

I totally agree that the adult is the responsible party in the case of a girl trying to seduce him. If the pastor or male gives into the seduction it has only shown what is in his heart already. He gave into it because he wanted what was presented to him. It is so hard to even think that the girl would be blamed for ruining a mans ministry when he willingly gave into the temptation. Thanks for this Mark!

Aaron Blumer's picture

Thanks for your comments, guys.
For those who haven't been following previous threads about the Concord case, we want these discussions to focus on dealing with these problems in general in our churches vs. what happened or didn't happen in any particular case, especially the one still being sorted out in Concord.

One observation on topic: it may be helpful to note that with the law, "criminal guilt" is binary. There is a perpetrator and there is a victim. Biblically, we know that things tend to be much messier when it comes to "spiritual guilt." I'm convinced that in the case of a very young minor and an adult, that's a moot point. No meaningful guilt can be asigned to a 9 year old--to pick a random, obvious number. But surely none of us would assert that one minute before midnight on a 17 yr old's birthday, he/she is incapable of sin in the matter but one minute after, he/she is capable of being an equal partner in fornication. So what we're dealing with is the necessity of law to draw lines. Can't be avoided. At some point you have to say this age = not capable of consent, that age = capable of consent. But in the real world maturity is not tied to age so precisely.

So again, what's legally required must be honored fully by the church/pastor. Then what is spiritually needful must be discerned carefully where it isn't obvious. In many of these cases it's obvious. It becomes less obvious as the victim age is higher and the distance between the victim's age/power and the perpetrator's age/power is smaller.

Jay's picture

Great job, Mark. I appreciate your post.

"Our task today is to tell people — who no longer know what sin is...no longer see themselves as sinners, and no longer have room for these categories — that Christ died for sins of which they do not think they’re guilty." - David Wells

Susan R's picture

There are both legal and moral/spiritual issues to consider, and accepting responsibility for one's actions does not mean accepting 'blame'. It is a fact that if one engages in risky behavior, then you increase your chances of being victimized. It is OK to analyze the situation and say "By doing A, B, and C, I placed myself at risk". This does not mean "By doing A, B, and C, I am to blame for someone else's actions" or "I deserved to be forced". At no time does this acknowledgment relieve any predator of the responsibility or blame for their crime.

I agree that most girls in our churches who are victims of abuse or sexual assault are not categorized as "high risk" victims. But a young girl who has 'flirted with danger' without understanding the consequences and ramifications of her actions still has serious spiritual issues to deal with, and unless those issues are addressed, she will continue to have problems with guilt and risky behavior. You can't completely relieve a young person of the responsibility for their actions, even if the reason was that they were ignorant or naive. If a young girl wants to feel desired by someone who seems powerful from her perspective or just enjoys the 'rush' of seeing lust in the eyes of a man twice her age, labeling her a victim and calling it a day does not help her deal with her desires.

We also have to consider that not every situation is an assault by a 50 year old lecherous creep and a 15 year old girl. How many single young men are youth pastors and workers that are only a few years older than the girls in their youth group? Lots of girls have 'crushes' on their youth pastor, and will flirt outrageously without really considering the seriousness of engaging in that kind of behavior, and many young men don't know how to effectively discourage inappropriate behavior with the kids in their charge. I think we can't ignore the youth group/leadership dynamic when talking about this topic.

I hope at some point we discuss educating our young people in how to decrease their risk and protect themselves from predators, and congregations about the realities of sexual assault/molestation. Not to mention the increased sexualization of young people in our culture- thanks so much Miley Cyrus, et al. I don't even follow the whole Hannah Montana phenomenon, but I've seen the pics of her lap-dancing some guy probably old enough to be her grandpa, posing nearly nude for some magazine, and pole dancing in her videos. Do you all really think young girls aren't affected by this stuff, and that this influence doesn't increase their risk? If you think that young girls are all precious little angels who never feel lust or the desire to be lusted after, we are not going to be able to deal with this issue head on. We must honestly deal with the influences of American culture on the hearts and minds of our girls.

RPittman's picture

In addition to the moral and ethical requirements, there are mandatory reporting requirements in most states for pastors, teachers, and other professionals working with children. The laws vary state by state. Those working with children should know if they are mandatory reporters and what the law requires. A good resource for this information specifically for clergy is the following link:
www.childwelfare.gov/systemwide/laws_policies/statutes/clergymandatedall...

Furthermore, every ministry should have written policies and an ongoing program for prevention of child sexual abuse. A good source of information is www.reducingtherisk.com/.

CPHurst's picture

I admit that I focused more on the responsibility of the seduced given the background of the churches and affiliations my wife and I have grown up in. Leadership was always defended and the children solely vilified. I support using the law to help with the "criminal guilt" and realize there is "spiritual guilt" on the part of the seducer (this also provides a window into the family life of the seducer and makes you have to ask the question, "Where did they learn this from?").

Both parties have their faults in the matter whether criminally or spiritually.

RPittman's picture

Susan R wrote:
There are both legal and moral/spiritual issues to consider, and accepting responsibility for one's actions does not mean accepting 'blame'. It is a fact that if one engages in risky behavior, then you increase your chances of being victimized. It is OK to analyze the situation and say "By doing A, B, and C, I placed myself at risk". This does not mean "By doing A, B, and C, I am to blame for someone else's actions" or "I deserved to be forced". At no time does this acknowledgment relieve any predator of the responsibility or blame for their crime.

I agree that most girls in our churches who are victims of abuse or sexual assault are not categorized as "high risk" victims. But a young girl who has 'flirted with danger' without understanding the consequences and ramifications of her actions still has serious spiritual issues to deal with, and unless those issues are addressed, she will continue to have problems with guilt and risky behavior. You can't completely relieve a young person of the responsibility for their actions, even if the reason was that they were ignorant or naive. If a young girl wants to feel desired by someone who seems powerful from her perspective or just enjoys the 'rush' of seeing lust in the eyes of a man twice her age, labeling her a victim and calling it a day does not help her deal with her desires.

We also have to consider that not every situation is an assault by a 50 year old lecherous creep and a 15 year old girl. How many single young men are youth pastors and workers that are only a few years older than the girls in their youth group? Lots of girls have 'crushes' on their youth pastor, and will flirt outrageously without really considering the seriousness of engaging in that kind of behavior, and many young men don't know how to effectively discourage inappropriate behavior with the kids in their charge. I think we can't ignore the youth group/leadership dynamic when talking about this topic.

I hope at some point we discuss educating our young people in how to decrease their risk and protect themselves from predators, and congregations about the realities of sexual assault/molestation. Not to mention the increased sexualization of young people in our culture- thanks so much Miley Cyrus, et al. I don't even follow the whole Hannah Montana phenomenon, but I've seen the pics of her lap-dancing some guy probably old enough to be her grandpa, posing nearly nude for some magazine, and pole dancing in her videos. Do you all really think young girls aren't affected by this stuff, and that this influence doesn't increase their risk? If you think that young girls are all precious little angels who never feel lust or the desire to be lusted after, we are not going to be able to deal with this issue head on. We must honestly deal with the influences of American culture on the hearts and minds of our girls.

Yes, Susan, you have raised significant issues and made some excellent points. It is not an all or none situation. The situations are varied and complex. Sexual abuse is a problem even in the church and we must face up to it but the answer is not in the single concept of victim-hood. We cannot assuage our outrage, grief, and hurt by venting our emotions upon a single individual. The circumstances are much more complex and the blame is shared among many individuals, including us, in varying degrees. YES, there are times when the female is the hapless and helpless victim of male lust. At other times, the supposed victim has contributed to arousing that lust. Even more so, the innocent victim is obligated to resist (I am not advocating anything that risks life or physical safety) and most certainly report the incident (Deuteronomy 22:23-27). Although these are emotional and hard issues, we must confront them in each situation to avoiding a gloss and focusing our rage on a single point meanwhile ignoring other equally important issues.

Sexual abuse can only exist in darkness and secrecy. Our obligation is to see that see circumstances are minimized to curtail opportunities for abuse. Also, we must teach our young people and train our workers. Prevention through constant vigilance is the best answer although we will never completely eradicate sin. When sin does come, then we must confront it Biblically in all of its aspects.

RPittman's picture

CPHurst wrote:
I admit that I focused more on the responsibility of the seduced given the background of the churches and affiliations my wife and I have grown up in. Leadership was always defended and the children solely vilified. I support using the law to help with the "criminal guilt" and realize there is "spiritual guilt" on the part of the seducer (this also provides a window into the family life of the seducer and makes you have to ask the question, "Where did they learn this from?").

Both parties have their faults in the matter whether criminally or spiritually.

This, I fear, is overly simplified. It is possible, and sometimes true, that one party is completely the victim (Deuteronomy 22:25-26). We must be careful of generalization and over-simplification. We are not able to stereotype and make rules that fit all cases. One size does not fit all. This is where godly men must exercise judgment, wisdom, and discernment on a case-by-case basis. Thus, we need widespread knowledge among Christian leaders who make the decisions for local action at the point of contact. Sexual abuse is not a venue for armchair counselors and theoreticians.

RPittman's picture

Aaron Blumer wrote:
Thanks for your comments, guys.
For those who haven't been following previous threads about the Concord case, we want these discussions to focus on dealing with these problems in general in our churches vs. what happened or didn't happen in any particular case, especially the one still being sorted out in Concord.

One observation on topic: it may be helpful to note that with the law, "criminal guilt" is binary. There is a perpetrator and there is a victim. Biblically, we know that things tend to be much messier when it comes to "spiritual guilt." I'm convinced that in the case of a very young minor and an adult, that's a moot point. No meaningful guilt can be asigned to a 9 year old--to pick a random, obvious number. But surely none of us would assert that one minute before midnight on a 17 yr old's birthday, he/she is incapable of sin in the matter but one minute after, he/she is capable of being an equal partner in fornication. So what we're dealing with is the necessity of law to draw lines. Can't be avoided. At some point you have to say this age = not capable of consent, that age = capable of consent. But in the real world maturity is not tied to age so precisely.

So again, what's legally required must be honored fully by the church/pastor. Then what is spiritually needful must be discerned carefully where it isn't obvious. In many of these cases it's obvious. It becomes less obvious as the victim age is higher and the distance between the victim's age/power and the perpetrator's age/power is smaller.

Aaron, I don't actually disagree with you on this. Surprised? Your observations are good. However, there are thousands of teenager prostitutes, usually druggies. The 14-, 15-, or 16-year-old prostitute uses all of her seductive powers to snare her John. Although statutory rape is committed, there are two criminals in the act.

As an aside, I remember the hippie days (1960-70's) when young hippie chicks thought it cool to turn on "old guys" and have sex with them. Many times these promiscuous young girls carried STD's, which was sometimes transmitted to married men with families. Who are the victims here? I submitt that when sin is practiced, it has many victims beyond the immediate participants.

RPittman's picture

CPHurst wrote:
I totally agree that the adult is the responsible party in the case of a girl trying to seduce him. If the pastor or male gives into the seduction it has only shown what is in his heart already. He gave into it because he wanted what was presented to him. It is so hard to even think that the girl would be blamed for ruining a mans ministry when he willingly gave into the temptation. Thanks for this Mark!
Although you may not have intended for it to sound this way but your post seems to exonerate the girl from responsibility or blame. If the minor girl seduces an adult man, then she is guilty of sexual immorality and the tempting of a man to sin the same as if she were a woman. Otherwise, we are saying that minors are exempt from the guilt of sexual sins and seductive wrongdoing. If two minors fornicate, it is sin and if a minor enters into consensual sex with an adult, it is sin for both parties as well. Before God, each is responsible for his or her own behavior. Now, we may approach the two differently from a human perspective but neither is guiltless.
BTW, sin is always the expression of the lust lurking within the heart (James 1:13-15). Before we become self-righteously indignant, we must remember that all harbor lust and lust is sin (Matthew 5:28). There's no room for self-righteousness for any of us in this.

Susan R's picture

Another aspect to consider is that there are reasons sexual predators victimize children/teens other than lust. Predators may feel some gratification with regards to the sexual component of their crimes, but quite often the fact that their victims are quite a bit younger indicates a desire to manipulate, dominate, and control. They are basically inadequate and have trouble relating to adults their own age, and usually are/have been dominated themselves by their mother or wife. Sometimes victims are not young and attractive, but little ol' ladies who are not high risk victims at all- so it is very important to remember that not all sexual crimes are committed primarily for sexual gratification or because of lust.

There's no way to wrap this topic up with three points and a poem. There is a huge body of literature out there available to us so that we can understand and deal with all aspects of sexual abuse and assault. IMO we should be taking better advantage of it.

Anna Walker's picture

I am sick and tired of the blame the victim mentality that I've been reading on here lately. Have you ever stopped to think how what you say affects the people of whom you are discussing. I was blamed and told that what happened to me was my fault. I was told that I seduced the guy. I was 9 when he first started abusing me. NINE!! I was raised in a typical IFB home ie very sheltered about sex so didn't even know what was happening to me. There is no way I could have seduced a guy. It was NOT consensual. Yet, the same arguments that you use are the same arguments I've heard from many pastors/biblical counselors. It is not the victim's fault. NEVER. Do I believe teen girls are capable of seducing an older man? Yeah, probably. But, that is when it is the man's place to keep his pants zipped. Nobody is forcing him to do it. But, rather than you being willing to defend the victims, you constantly throw other scenarios in there where "maybe" it was consensual.

And RPittman, it isn't always possible to fight off the perp.When you are being physically tortured while being raped (think knives and other such objects), you are in such a state of terror/fear that you can't do anything. Do you have daughters? Would you tell your little girl that it was okay for Mr. X to hurt her since she was too scared to tell you or fight it off. The emotions involved in sexual abuse are so twisted that unless you have had years of study in this area (ie a licensed counselor) or experienced it yourself -- DO NOT JUDGE or make assumptions about how a person should act or how you think they felt.

Susan R's picture

No one here is blaming the victim. It has already been said that a child as young as 9 could not possibly consent to sex. Older girls, however, can consent, whether they realize the ramifications of their actions or not, and that is why there are laws in place to protect them. The problem I see is that we are refusing to help our kids deal with the sin in their own lives if they are acting on their desires and lusts and we simply label them as helpless victims instead of addressing why they have engaged in risky behavior.

It is true that many people, usually men, do not understand what it is like to be victimized. Any woman or child who gets within arm's reach of any man who intends to harm her is probably toast. Few women can overpower a man, no matter how many times you see women beat up men on TV. Even a small man usually has more upper body strength than the average soccer mom and can easily overpower her. How many teens and wives in the average local church are into weight lifting and kick-boxing anyway? It is ludicrous to think that if a woman or child just fought a little harder, they could get away.

Anna Walker's picture

Ah, but see -- what makes you the discerner on whether there was sin involved on the part of the teen. Are you a mind reader? I've found that pastors and others will automatically judge intents/character without listening to the victim first. Engaging in risky behaviour still doesn't make it your right to be raped.

Don Johnson's picture

Anna, your comment illustrates part of the reason why this is such a difficult topic to discuss. I don't think anyone who posted in this thread would disagree with you or your testimony. Note particularly Aaron's comment and the ages he uses as examples. No one writing here would say that a nine year old had any thought of luring or asking for abuse such as you describe. No one here, I don't think, would blame the nine year old.

But that is not to say the same is true, necessarily, of girls beyond puberty. At some point, they are capable of sin in this matter.

Back to Mark's article, I'd like to know where he gets his statistics from. They don't seem right to me. Furthermore, the notion that because of those statistics, it is inevitable that 20% of the women in your church will be inevitably abused is really ludicrous. Or that 20% of the girls in your church youth group will be eventually abused! Really! If churches are such unsafe places, no one should go.

Mark's statistics prove the old adage, "Figures don't lie, but liars can figure."

Maranatha!
Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

Susan R's picture

Anna Walker wrote:
Ah, but see -- what makes you the discerner on whether there was sin involved on the part of the teen. Are you a mind reader? I've found that pastors and others will automatically judge intents/character without listening to the victim first. Engaging in risky behaviour still doesn't make it your right to be raped.

Anna, I already covered this in my first post. No one has said that the victim should be judged before they speak- it would be more helpful if you would address the points that are being made instead of arguing points that no one is advocating.

Anna Walker's picture

Sadly, Mark's statistics are true. I wouldn't say, though, that the rate of abuse is necessarily higher in churches, just that it is under-reported in our churches and historically not handled appropriately.

I brought up the fact that your arguments about some ages being capable of sin and some not, because even though I was MUCH younger than your line in the sand I was still treated as if I had sinned. Back to Susan R's comment about whether it is sin or not. You can't know someone's heart. I was 15 when I publicly shared of the four horrific years of abuse -- not just touching but violent sexual abuse/rape. My pastor who was required by law to report did not because he assumed that it was consensual. He never asked for details. Just judged me for it and told me that I should just forget about it. That I didn't need to keep dwelling on my sin. I'm sharing parts of my story to show you that your thinking (although it sounds "good") has the potential to greatly hurt a victim. The point of this thread is to learn how to handle sexual abuse in the church and what to do differently. There is a lot that I would have changed about how my situation was handled.

Susan R's picture

Of course you can't know someone's heart- and I'm not going to address objections to points I haven't made.

If your pastor was standing in my kitchen right now I'd hit him with a cast iron skillet, and it's tragic when cases are handled so badly by people who should know better than anyone else to protect the innocent. But you also need to understand that I'm not talking off the top of my head. I've been a girl my whole life, and several of those years as a young girl who began experiencing attempted sexual assaults as young as 6 years old. My parents, fortunately, did give me some tools and the confidence to use them, which is why those incidents remain labeled as attempted. I've spent many years educating myself on this topic, and everything I've said has been based on case studies and literature on criminal and victim psychology.

Here are some [URL=http://www.rainn.org/get-information/statistics/sexual-assault-victims ]DoJ statistics[/URL ]-

Quote:
1 out of every 6 American women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime (14.8% completed rape; 2.8% attempted rape).

17.7 million American women have been victims of attempted or completed rape.

9 of every 10 rape victims were female in 2003.

While about 80% of all victims are white, minorities are somewhat more likely to be attacked.

15% of sexual assault and rape victims are under age 12.

* 29% are age 12-17.
* 44% are under age 18.
* 80% are under age 30.
* 12-34 are the highest risk years.
* Girls ages 16-19 are 4 times more likely than the general population to be victims of rape, attempted rape, or sexual assault.

7% of girls in grades 5-8 and 12% of girls in grades 9-12 said they had been sexually abused.

* 3% of boys grades 5-8 and 5% of boys in grades 9-12 said they had been sexually abused.

In 1995, local child protection service agencies identified 126,000 children who were victims of either substantiated or indicated sexual abuse.

* Of these, 75% were girls.
* Nearly 30% of child victims were between the age of 4 and 7.

93% of juvenile sexual assault victims know their attacker.

* 34.2% of attackers were family members.
* 58.7% were acquaintances.
* Only 7% of the perpetrators were strangers to the victim.

Mark Farnham's picture

Aaron, thanks for correcting my math. You are correct that my estimated numbers reflect a church of about 200 people, not 100.

The sources for my statistics are many. In an article entitled "Sexual abuse in a national survey of adult men and women: Prevalence, characteristics, and risk factors" in the journal Child Abuse and Neglect: The International Journal 14:1 (1990), p. 19-28, a reported 27% of females and 16% of men had experienced childhood sexual abuse. The Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN) reports similar results for females (1 in 6), but differs significantly with males (only 1 in 33). Almost every other source I have come across has reported similar, though not identical, figures.

In my experience as a pastor, once we hosted a conference on counseling sexual abuse, more people were willing to speak out and admit they had been abused at some point in their lives. I do not believe this is a case of repressed memories or the power of suggestion, but rather a turning point in the life of an individual who has lived with private shame for many years finding the freedom to embrace the healing power of the gospel. Many times they were able to forgive the offender, and find forgiveness for their own sin of bitterness and hatred. While these statistics may not bear true for every congregation, I believe in every church there are more people who suffer in silence than we are aware.

Also, I was not suggesting that 20% of women in a given congregation are yet to face abuse, but sexual abuse does happen to women beyond childhood, as the case of a 74 year-old woman raped in our region a few years ago confirms. My point was simply that just because a girl makes it to her 18th birthday unmolested does not mean that she will never be a victim of sexual abuse. Unfortunately it happens all the time to women of all ages.

Don Johnson's picture

This is what he said:

Quote:
First, sexual abuse is everywhere. Estimates of abused women range from 1 in 5 to 1 in 3. For men, abuse ranges from 1 in 7 to 1 in 5. Take the average church of 100 people, evenly split between males and females. In this accounting, 20-33 females and 14-20 males will have been or will eventually be sexually abused.

He qualifies that somewhat in a footnote, but he gives no support for his statistics - he doesn't tell us where they come from and leaves the implication that such statistics are equally applicable for a small sample group like a church as they are for society at large. There are certain communities in our area where the likelihood is that EVERY female in the community has been sexually abused. What does that prove? It proves that there are some deep deep problems in that community.

Mark seems to suggest that in the church, because of what seem to be NATIONWIDE statistics, one can thus extrapolate the number of women in an average church will have been or WILL BE abused eventually. This is absolute BALDERDASH. It is "statistical abuse". The reality is that in churches, far less abuse is likely to occur than the national average.

That is not to say that abuse does not happen, or that pastors shouldn't educate themselves on the subject, or that proper policies need to be in place in order to do everything possible to prevent even the suggestion that abuse could possibly take place in the framework of church ministry. These are serious matters and we need to be serious about them.

But Mark's use of statistics seems to be playing into the hand of a fear-mongering lobby. They suggest that the church is AS UNSAFE an environment as any other social group in our society. I think that is just wrong.

UPDATE: I see that Mark replied to some of my complaints while I was writing this. I appreciate it. I would like to see if what he thinks about the rest of my comment.

Maranatha!
Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

RPittman's picture

Anna Walker wrote:
Ah, but see -- what makes you the discerner on whether there was sin involved on the part of the teen. Are you a mind reader? I've found that pastors and others will automatically judge intents/character without listening to the victim first. Engaging in risky behaviour still doesn't make it your right to be raped.
Anna, I think you are seeing this in a one-dimensional term. This is a multi-dimensional problem. Can you categorically deny that certain young girls have not deliberately and intentionally set out to seduce "older men" whether of lust or a desire (lust) to control and manipulate? Sometimes, these "older men" are youth leaders who are only a few years older. From long ministry experience, I can assure you that many a 14-year-old teeny bopper is infatuated with a 21-year-old male leader. Are these "victims" (victims of statutory rape by legal definition) guiltless? BTW, no one is saying that this is not sexual abuse and the abuse perpetrator is not guilty and ought not to be severely punished. It is sexual abuse and the perpetrator ought to be punished. All that we are advocating is addressing the whole problem and balancing the perspective.

RPittman's picture

Don Johnson wrote:
This is what he said:

Quote:
First, sexual abuse is everywhere. Estimates of abused women range from 1 in 5 to 1 in 3. For men, abuse ranges from 1 in 7 to 1 in 5. Take the average church of 100 people, evenly split between males and females. In this accounting, 20-33 females and 14-20 males will have been or will eventually be sexually abused.

He qualifies that somewhat in a footnote, but he gives no support for his statistics - he doesn't tell us where they come from and leaves the implication that such statistics are equally applicable for a small sample group like a church as they are for society at large. There are certain communities in our area where the likelihood is that EVERY female in the community has been sexually abused. What does that prove? It proves that there are some deep deep problems in that community.

Mark seems to suggest that in the church, because of what seem to be NATIONWIDE statistics, one can thus extrapolate the number of women in an average church will have been or WILL BE abused eventually. This is absolute BALDERDASH. It is "statistical abuse". The reality is that in churches, far less abuse is likely to occur than the national average.

That is not to say that abuse does not happen, or that pastors shouldn't educate themselves on the subject, or that proper policies need to be in place in order to do everything possible to prevent even the suggestion that abuse could possibly take place in the framework of church ministry. These are serious matters and we need to be serious about them.

But Mark's use of statistics seems to be playing into the hand of a fear-mongering lobby. They suggest that the church is AS UNSAFE an environment as any other social group in our society. I think that is just wrong.

UPDATE: I see that Mark replied to some of my complaints while I was writing this. I appreciate it. I would like to see if what he thinks about the rest of my comment.

When Shoeless Joe Jackson was accused years ago of wrongdoing in baseball, the fans had a saying, "Say it ain't so, Joe!" I would like to say, "Say it ain't so, Mark" but reality makes it stick in my throat. I have worked in training, consulting, and doing workshops on prevention of child sexual abuse in Christian ministries for a number of years. It literally makes me sick to think that it happens in good churches among Fundamentalist Christians but it does. Whereas it is true that there are false allegations but there are too many substantiated accusations to deny the problem. No one can accurately give the statistics for abuse, either in society at large or in the church, because of the following factors:

  1. The sin is committed in secrecy and undercover.
  2. It carries an embarrassment factor that tends toward cover up and non-reporting.
  3. There are incidents of false allegations that further muddy the water.
  4. The collection of statistic data is difficult with no comprehensive means of collection and verification.

Much of the evidence is on anecdotal stories that are shrouded in emotional views from both sides. One is hard pressed, not wanting to receive a false allegation against an innocent person and not wanting to conceal a sexual abuser, to sift the facts and know the truth.

However, I will support Mark's statistics from my own study and research to say that he is using what is the generally accepted range in the industry. On the other hand, you are correct, Don, in questioning whether this is applicable to the church. Well, there is basic problem of what we mean by church. Do we include the Roman Catholics? Or, Baptist only? Or, Fundamentalists only? There are no statistical studies of which I am aware with these breakdowns. Yet, we do not need statistics to know that sexual abuse is a big, big problem in the church from pastoral and counseling experiences. From my own ministry, I can tell you that it is. Adults working under me in full-time Christian ministry have come and shared that they were sexually molested in a church setting as a child. There is a flood of church young people--high school and college age--who are seeking counseling with stories of sexual abuse. Don't believe me? Ask Jim Berg at BJU. Ask Rand Hummel at the Wilds. Ask anyone who is involved with counseling or pastoral ministry.

The evidence is irrefutable and I hate it! I wish that I could say, "It ain't so" but I can't. It is high time that we arise and confront the sin. No longer can we bury our heads in the sand and say, "It ain't so." We are not serving God by covering sin. The Bible is clear. We are to rebuke, confront, expose and oppose sin. On the other hand, we are NOT to foolishly make or accept false accusations without investigation, judgment, and discernment. What we desperately need is a Biblical approach that is compassionate, just, orderly, and wise. Instead of just talking, let's start working!

CPHurst's picture

Ok, I think were all going after details here that are distracting us from the big picture of Mark's helpful statements. Every case will be different as the details (people, ages, situation, etc.) will vary.

Mark Farnham's picture

Don raises a good point, so I need to clarify myself. I am NOT suggesting that the church is no safer than any other place. When I talk about sexual abuse in the church, I don't mean that I believe these statistics to be reflective of the experience of genuinely converted families in a Bible believing church. Certainly sexual abuse DOES happen in Bible believing churches and professedly Christian families. What I mean by "sexual abuse in churches" is the presence of people in a church who have been sexually abused at some time in their lives. In my own experience, I found that quite a few women (and some men) who were saved in adulthood and had grown up in unsaved homes had been abused as children or adults. So, this is not an indictment on Christianity. It is rather the reality of many people's lives. It IS an indictment on spiritual leaders who don't know their Bibles well enough to deal with sexual abuse properly.

Anna Walker's picture

The first thing to do when someone comes to you with suspected abuse is to involve the authorities. It is not your place as a pastor or other Christian leader to decide if the claims are true. I am in the middle of an open investigation with my childhood rapist. My detective was very alarmed when I gave my affidavit at the number of mandatory reporters who did not report. Two of them in particular are or will be in serious legal hot water because of their failure to report.

David Morgan's picture

Mark Farnham wrote:
What I mean by "sexual abuse in churches" is the presence of people in a church who have been sexually abused at some time in their lives. In my own experience, I found that quite a few women (and some men) who were saved in adulthood and had grown up in unsaved homes had been abused as children or adults. So, this is not an indictment on Christianity. It is rather the reality of many people's lives.

And so we can conclude that if a church has no one in its membership who has been sexually abused, that church probably hasn't been doing the work of the gospel. If we're bringing wounded sheep to the Good Shepherd, membership won't be uniform, and these cases will exist.

-David Morgan

RPittman's picture

Anna Walker wrote:
And RPittman, it isn't always possible to fight off the perp.When you are being physically tortured while being raped (think knives and other such objects), you are in such a state of terror/fear that you can't do anything. Do you have daughters? Would you tell your little girl that it was okay for Mr. X to hurt her since she was too scared to tell you or fight it off. The emotions involved in sexual abuse are so twisted that unless you have had years of study in this area (ie a licensed counselor) or experienced it yourself -- DO NOT JUDGE or make assumptions about how a person should act or how you think they felt.
Well, Anna, you didn't read my comment very carefully. Furthermore, I'm not sure how being the victim of abuse makes one an expert anymore than the victim of a mugging makes one an expert on the prevention of holdups and the apprehension of robbers. I understand your emotional outburst because you experienced a horrible thing in your own life but it ought not color and obscure what another person says.

There are many ways that a female can resist. Part of prevention is teaching our young girls to recognize what may be leading up to an abusive situation and how to resist. For example, the victim should express verbal displeasure. One might say, "Now, Mr. Jones, please don't touch me like that," or "Mr. Jones, please don't try to kiss me because I don't think your wife would like for you to kiss me." This is not a surefire turn-off but it may discourage a lustful man who has not yet gone too far and considers his reputation.

Anna, in fact, I have done graduate work in psychology as well as studied Biblical counseling. And I do realize that this is a very, very emotional thing but emotions are not to be trusted. The death of a loved one, or the loss of limb, or having cancer is emotional too but we must deal with emotion rather than being incapacitated and ruled by it. BTW,it is emotion (i.e. hatred) that leads to murder. I do NOT concur with the school of thought that advocates the venting of anger and emotions toward the perpetrator as a means of therapy and recovery. It simply doesn't work because it becomes a lifelong process of recovery and therapy. Even after confrontation, there is no closure. It is vindictive and breeds more vindictiveness. Neurologically, this dwelling in emotion and anger reinforces neural pathways, much like habits, that aggravate the emotional distress of the individual. It becomes hard to shed these offended feelings reinforced by venting. It is rather like the repetition, as with learning, creates permanent attitudes and feelings that become increasingly difficult to eradicate. Thus, the secular concepts of victimization and recovery become lifelong therapeutic processes that never achieve closure. The answer is true Biblical forgiveness, not psychotherapy. Once true forgiveness is given, one has satisfied God's requirement (Matthew 6:14; Matthew 18:35; Mark 11:25) and one experiences closure through peace with God and the peace of God within. Needlessly to say, granting forgiveness is not easy as Christ's disciples recognized and realized that it was an act requiring faith (Luke 17:1-10). Oftentimes, forgiveness is difficult because it violates our sense of righteous anger and hatred toward one who has caused us pain and violated our sense of self. This, however, is a wrongheaded spirit of vindictiveness encouraged by many in the victim and recovery movement.

Don Johnson's picture

Mark Farnham wrote:
Don raises a good point, so I need to clarify myself. I am NOT suggesting that the church is no safer than any other place. When I talk about sexual abuse in the church, I don't mean that I believe these statistics to be reflective of the experience of genuinely converted families in a Bible believing church. Certainly sexual abuse DOES happen in Bible believing churches and professedly Christian families. What I mean by "sexual abuse in churches" is the presence of people in a church who have been sexually abused at some time in their lives. In my own experience, I found that quite a few women (and some men) who were saved in adulthood and had grown up in unsaved homes had been abused as children or adults. So, this is not an indictment on Christianity. It is rather the reality of many people's lives. It IS an indictment on spiritual leaders who don't know their Bibles well enough to deal with sexual abuse properly.

Thanks Mark. I appreciate your reply.

I don't deny that people in churches have been sexually abused. We have had more than our share of them. One poor lady is dying in the hospital right now after a lifetime of constant abuse at the hands of all sorts of wicked men, none in the church though. Thank the Lord we have never had to deal with an ongoing immediate issue involving anyone in our ministry, as some of my friends have had. I hope and pray we never have to deal with that.

I do think the clarification is important.

Maranatha!
Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

Anna Walker's picture

I grew up attended the same churches that you men pastor. My pastor was a well-respected BJ grad. If I named names -- many of you would know him. My story is also not unusual. The point is that the way sexual abuse has been dealt in our Independent Baptist chuches is not right and things need to change. Hopefully, it can start now. Treat every victim with respect. Get these molestors off the streets. AND, get that victim counseling -- real counseling with someone who is trained in trauma and abuse. Not nouthetic counseling, but a professional licensed counselor who knows enough about PTSD, abuse etc to actually help.

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