NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Having been a Child Protective Services (CPS) worker and later an adult probation officer with a specialized sex offender caseload, I can assure you that child abuse in the form of sexual molestation is very real. I conducted hundreds of investigations and interviews with victims, child molesters and numerous mental health counselors over the course of 10 years. And yes, such child abuse actually exists in our churches – which should not come as a surprise because our churches are made up of fallen human beings who live in a fallen world.
As I reflect on my experiences in Texas with CPS and as a probation officer, several thoughts occur to me that should help Southern Baptists address this critical issue.
First, we must recognize that the problem is real – not just “out there,” but even in our churches.
I faced this reality one day at the probation office when, much to my surprise, a man who had just received felony probation for sexual abuse of a minor walked in – and he was from my own church! He had been a schoolteacher and very active in the life of the church. Even with all my years of experience, my initial reaction was to not believe this was really true, but it was. Not only did the terms of his probation state he could no longer teach, but it was made clear to him that he could never again have any role at church or in the community involving work with children.
I wish this were the only case I had encountered involving members of evangelical churches, but it wasn’t.
The trust factor
Children are taught to trust their parents, other family members, their teachers, ministers, those in authority over them. Children are abused most often by people they know, people they trust, not usually by some stranger in a dark trench coat.
There are various terms used to describe individuals who sexually abuse children, such as child molester, predator and perpetrator. Each term represents the image of an individual who attempts to exploit someone else for personal gain using deception to carry out his or her purposes. And these predators use the victims’ trust to gain access to their bodies.
The Bible says children are a gift from God. We are responsible to protect them from being treated as mere possessions to be controlled by the whims of the persons they have been taught to trust.
Studies clearly show that child molesters are from all walks of life – there are no ethnic, economic, religious, educational or gender barriers. Both men and women are abusers, and both girls and boys are victims. Child molestation is an equal opportunity destroyer. Given the opportunity, it will destroy children and families from all walks of life.
From my own interviews with perpetrators, victims and mental health counselors, it is undeniable that many perpetrators have multiple victims and abuse them multiple times. It is clear that when given the opportunity, a significant percentage of those – Christians as well as non-Christians – with a past record of sexual abuse will repeat that offense. A person who has used his or her position of trust to sexually abuse a child simply should not be allowed to remain in that position of trust.
Accordingly, we must hold the actual “perpetrator” responsible for the behavior he or she has chosen. This is not denying the sincerity of a person’s genuine repentance or withholding forgiveness – perpetrators can and should be forgiven. But they should never be allowed to work with children again in any capacity. That is part of the consequences for their actions. Their lives can still be useful and productive but their activities must be steered to other areas of their giftedness, particularly as it applies to work in the church.
Cooperate within the system
Sometimes the various government agencies are scorned and demonized, but I worked alongside many fine and dedicated social workers and probation officers. I personally prayed over my jobs and specific cases throughout those years asking for discernment to make good casework decisions for families, but in particular for the innocent children. I knew plenty of other workers who shared my faith and my commitment to families and children.
Consistently, the Department of Human Services’ goal was to either keep families together or restore families whenever possible. Even with the best expertise, sometimes professionals are not able to protect children. The authorities do not expect church staff or other laypeople to have perfect discernment. However, you should follow your state’s laws in reporting child abuse, and greater still, you should go beyond man’s law and follow God’s law in how we are to treat one another.
The Scripture tells us to be wise as serpents. We dare not fool ourselves into thinking that child molestation would never happen in my home, in my child’s school, in my church or in my community.
Child abuse is a tragic reality – but we can take steps to dramatically reduce the number of incidents and the shattered lives that result, and we have the responsibility to do the best we can to that end.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Janice LaRoy is an office and editorial assistant in the SBC Executive Committee’s office of convention relations. This article first appeared in SBC LIFE, journal of the Executive Committee.)