Alma’s story this month introduced a horrific topic that isn’t discussed much in church circles. That it should be, however, is proven by the statistics. No doubt, abuse victims are among church members, some anonymously hiding and afraid to speak of it, some quietly seeking answers, and all haunted by the memory of it. Whether they are consciously aware, or not, they are longing to touch the hem of Jesus’ garment and the church needs to be prepared to lovingly lead them there.
“ One in four girls and one in six boys will be sexually abused before they turn 18 years old ”
At https://www.nsvrc.org/statistics, the National Sexual Violence Resource Center tells the alarming statistics in this country. I’m not going to list them all, but for starters:
- One in five women and one in 71 men will be raped at some point in their lives
- In the U.S., one in three women and one in six men experienced some form of contact sexual violence in their lifetime
- In eight of ten cases of rape, the victim knew the perpetrator
- Eight percent of rapes occur while the victim is at work
We might not think so much about these things happening to children or that they occur to children in higher numbers, yet here are child sexual abuse statistics:
- One in four girls and one in six boys will be sexually abused before they turn 18 years old
- 96 percent of people who sexually abuse children are male, and 76.8 percent of people who sexually abuse children are adults
- 34 percent of people who sexually abuse a child are family members of the child
- Only 12 percent of child sexual abuse is ever reported to the authorities
Many of these children behave as Alma did, afraid to discuss any of it with parents; and if they do, they are often rejected by the parent. Instead of their story being accepted, the child feels judged as though they did something wrong, though never exactly sure just what their bad behavior was. These feelings turn into guilt and shame, according to Christian therapist Dan Allender who has written much on this subject, and often the victim goes into adulthood vulnerable to more exploitation. Because this abuse is highly traumatic, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder no doubt leaves its own scar.
“ Religious sex offenders may be the most dangerous group of child molesters. ”
Then there is the issue of the abuse perpetrators. Just as victims are surely part of congregations, perpetrators may be as well. According to a study published by Abel & Harlow in 2001, “Sex offenders are often religious and many of them attend church.”
Victor Veith points out in his article, “What Would Walther Do? Applying Law and Gospel to Victims and Perpetrators of Child Sexual Abuse” that “child molesters manipulate both children and the church.” He further states that “religious sex offenders may be the most dangerous group of child molesters” (Journal of Psychology & Theology, Rosemont School of Psychology, Biola University, 2012).
“ Often children in Christian homes learn from their parents to be trusting of family and church family. ”
“Child molesters are skilled at deception because, in part, they have considerable practice at lying to their families, their victims, their friends, and to themselves,” writes Veith. He cites the statement of a convicted child molester as recorded by Anna Salter, a sex offender treatment provider: “I consider church people easy to fool…they have a trust that comes from being Christians…They tend to be better folks all around. And they seem to want to believe in the good that exists in all people…I think they want to believe in people. And because of that, you can easily convince, with or without convincing words.”
Another offender told Salter: “There was a great amount of pride. Well, I pulled this one off again. …There were times when little old ladies would pat me on the back and say, ‘You’re one of the best young men that I have ever known.’ I would think back and think ‘If you really knew me, you wouldn’t think that.’”
Often children in Christian homes learn from their parents to be trusting of family and church family. Carrying that mentality into adulthood, they may become vulnerable to sex abusers in those same circles, allowing the evil cycle to continue. “According to a recent study sponsored by LifeWay Christian Resources, ten percent of Protestant churchgoers under 35 have previously left a church because they felt sexual misconduct was not taken seriously” (Kate Shellnut, “1 in 10 Young Protestants Have Left a Church Over Abuse”, Christianity Today, 5.21.19). Of that number, “nine percent said they have stopped attending a former congregation because they personally did not feel safe from misconduct.”
“ This is a mission field ripe for the taking if we can speak to these. ”
This issue should be a wake-up call to the church. It should not remain hidden in darkness among those who call themselves followers of Christ. He called us to be the light on the hill, to expose what happens in dark places and to practice honesty. In order to accomplish that we must rid the church of any evil impurities and extend amazing grace to the sick, hurt, and wounded who enter our doors, gently guiding them to the healing touch of Jesus Christ.
Rachel Denhollander was the first among dozens of women to accuse USA gymnastics physician, Larry Nassar, of sexual abuse. As a young teenaged gymnast, Rachel had been treated by Nassar in her home state of Michigan. As other young patients later confirmed, Nassar had abused them even sometimes with their unsuspecting parents present during his questionable “treatment” in the examining room. The girls’ reactions mirror those of Alma in our April 1st story. Unsure of what was happening, afraid to disclose their fears to anyone, they lived silently with the abuse, carrying it with them into adulthood and wondering what they should do about it. Rachel was herself brought up in a Christian home and says she “trusted Christ as her Savior at a young age” (Jamie Dean, World Magazine, 3.17.18).
Rachel’s courage to finally speak out and begin the investigation into Nassar’s abuse over a decade after it happened, soon led other women to tell their stories. The ordeal ended with Rachel giving 36 minutes of testimony on the day of Nassar’s sentencing. Toward the end she turned and faced Nassar with these words: “I pray you experience the soul-crushing weight of guilt so you may someday experience true repentance and true forgiveness from God, which you need far more than forgiveness from me—though I extend that to you as well.” Nassar was sentenced to 175 years in a Michigan State prison.
“ Jesus came to bind the wounds of the broken hearted and the gospel may be the only tonic the abused child [or adult] has never experienced. ”
Rachel’s husband, Jacob, commented to World Magazine that as he sat in the courtroom the day Rachel gave her testimony, he “longed to see churches reaching out to women craving justice and helping them to cope with the sorrows they’ve endured.”
“This is a mission field ripe for the taking if we can speak to these,” he said. Jacob said that he “longs to see an army of women healed by the gospel.”
This understanding provides a good call to action for the church. Victor Vieth sums up nicely the action needed not only for the victims of sexual abuse but for the perpetrators as well, in a quote by theologian C.F.W. Walther. Walther (1811-1887) was a leader in the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, serving as its first president. He wrote to pastors: “You are not rightly distinguishing Law and Gospel in the Word of God if you preach the Law to those who are already in terror on account of their sins or the Gospel to those who are living securely in their sins.”
Vieth suggests ways to reach out with the Gospel to the abused. “Recognize the brokenness before [you]—a brokenness that may have displayed itself for years. Jesus came to bind the wounds of the broken hearted and the gospel may be the only tonic the abused child [or adult] has never experienced….Assure the victim of Christ’s empathy….Apply the Gospel compassionately….Assist the victim in accessing appropriate medical and mental health care….Refrain from platitudes….Don’t make forgiveness into a law, but a change of heart rooted in the Gospel.”
Diane Langberg, a Christian psychologist, who specializes in counseling the abused writes: “It has been my experience in my work with survivors that rather than simply telling them they need to forgive—a statement that often overwhelms them with despair—it is much more helpful to teach them as they are ready about the work of God in Christ on the cross…Over time, clients see evidence of that work in their own lives…The recognition of that wonderful redemption almost always results in a hunger to be like the one who has loved them so faithfully” (Langberg, Counseling Survivors of Sexual Abuse, 2003).
“ Vieth recommends asking tough questions to perpetrators that lead to accountability and responsibility for admitting their guilt to authorities. ”
Vieth also lists ways for pastors and church leaders to work with perpetrators, emphasizing God’s Law. “Seek the lost,” he writes. He defers again to Walther who writes that a Christian church does not “tolerate obvious servants of sin. Do not proclaim forgiveness of sins to impenitent and secure sinners. That would be a horrible mingling of Law and Gospel.” Vieth points out that “many sex offenders have found the value of ‘cheap grace’ in faith communities. Simply put, these sex offenders have come to realize that if they cry readily and mouth the words of repentance they won’t have to take any action to remedy the damage they have inflicted.…Many offenders beg for God’s forgiveness and some clergy members are quick to absolve sinners while simultaneously ignoring the needs of victims. When this happens, many offenders return home, realize how easy it is to be forgiven and will [abuse] again.”
Vieth recommends asking tough questions to perpetrators that lead to accountability and responsibility for admitting their guilt to authorities. The Law of God, Vieth believes, should be used as a genuine act of love. The goal of God’s love for the sinner is to admit and repent of sin. Vieth points to the two thieves who were crucified with Jesus (Luke 23:39-43). Both recognized their crimes but only one repented, asked for mercy, and accepted the consequences for his sin. The other mocked Christ and demanded that Jesus remove him from his cross.
My goal in presenting blogs on this topic is simply to remind us of things, people, and situations that might be more comfortable for us to ignore and overlook. But are we not called to build up the Kingdom of God and to glorify the name of Jesus in all we do? Remember how Paul closes his letter to the church at Thessalonica: “And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all….Seek to do good to one another and to everyone….Abstain from every form of evil” (1 Thessalonians 4:17).
Let me come back to a point made earlier about how we as Christians tend to teach our children to trust others, especially adults like those in our churches that we believe are safe. I grew up in such an atmosphere and I may have even given that same impression to my children more than I should have. I don’t believe it is a biblical view. Loving and caring for others does not mean implicit trust in them.
“ We need to immerse our children in the Word of God, and set the example of putting all of our trust only in Him. ”
Instead, we need to immerse our children in the Word of God, and set the example of putting all of our trust only in Him. We need to live open book and honest lives, being accountable to our children and showing them our accountability to others. This teaches them, in turn, to be accountable and responsible to others and to their community. We need to discern and be wise, ingraining those characteristics into our children.
The Bible doesn’t ever mince words about the slippery slopes of evil and evil disguised as good. Those warnings are written so we may know the difference. We need to look for sound doctrine, biblical teaching, and how accountability is addressed in a church before we commit to its membership. Our children need to watch us throw ourselves entirely on the mercy of God, experience His love daily and return our love to Him. They need to know beyond the shadow of a doubt, He always has been, is, and will forever be faithful. They need to know as the Psalms so often describe, that his steadfast love endures forever. Whether or not we have children to teach, this should still be the conduct of our lives—for healed victims and forgiven perpetrators.
Our identities need never remain stuck in the mire of our pasts. Through Jesus Christ, our Lord, we are so much more, to borrow a phrase from Alma.