How to Protect the Vulnerable
Many of our readers grew up singing the hymn “Under His Wings.” This draws upon the common verbal picture of a mother bird spreading her wings to cover her young. Here we apply it to the protection of children, youth, and vulnerable adults from those who would take advantage of their vulnerability. Current headlines highlight sexual abuse, but this is not the only kind of abuse endured by victims within our congregations. One role of a Church Safety Ministry is helping the congregation to effectively spread its wings over the least among us.
In the Bible
The Bible speaks of wolves, lions, and bears attacking sheep. As David recounted, the victims were often lambs, because they were weaker than adult sheep and could not defend themselves as a ram could. Likewise, there are sexual predators who prey upon our lambs – children.
“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, … How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” (Matthew 23:37; see also Luke 13:34)
Let me take refuge under the shelter of your wings! (Psalm 61:4b)
He will cover you with his pinions, and under his wings you will find refuge (Psalm 91:4a).
In the News
Child protection is more likely to make the news when it fails than when it works. Therefore, these news stories should make us more determined to do what we can to protect children in our churches from abuse and to learn how to do it.
Baltimore County, Maryland, 2007, 2019 - In August 2019, the former pastor of a Baltimore County church was arrested for sexual abuse of a minor. The abuse was in 2007, and the victim told about it in 2018.
San Antonio, Texas, 1989-1997 - The brother of a San Antonio pastor was arrested in January 2020 for child sexual abuse. The abuse began when the child was 5 and continued for up to 8 years. News sources did not state how the suspect met the child or where the abuse happened, but the suspect worked in Houston at the time.
Houston, Texas, February 2019 - An article in Evangelical Focus compiled reports from news sources (one was the Houston Chronicle) revealing that there were over 700 victims of sexual abuse in a major denomination. Many abusers moved from one congregation to another. A contributing factor to this has been the inability of denominational leadership to enforce (1) reporting of abuse, (2) performing background checks, and (3) disclosing abuse by former staff to other congregations. They also failed "to create a registry of alleged offenders."
Montgomery County, Maryland, October 17, 2012 - Three plaintiffs filed a class action lawsuit against a group of churches for how they handled sexual abuse of children. Essentially, the complaint was that the leadership of the group and member churches tried to cover up abuses by telling parents of abused children to not file police reports or tell other church members about the abuse, and by forcing victims to "forgive" the offenders.
This Month"s Special Resource
This month"s free downloadable special resource from Sheepdog Church Security is "A Code to Live by: A Childcare Giver"s Code of Conduct for Your Church"s Safety Ministry." To get it click *HERE* and you will also be subscribed to our weekly email updates and the monthly newsletter The Church Guardian.
Find more information on Child Protection in the Church Security Guide. We also have a training course, Protecting Children from Abuse.
How Do We Protect the Vulnerable?
In protecting children and youth from abuse, especially sexual abuse, we not only protect them from the immediate experiences, but also from life-long consequences.
It was adults who had experienced sexual abuse as children and youth in churches and church schools who opened up the scandal of abuse by priests and others in the Roman Catholic Church. This brought about changes in several states" statutes of limitation for child sexual abuse, allowing them to file complaints decades after the fact. Why? One of the consequences is suppression of memories of the abuse. Another is the reluctance of victims to report abuse sooner because of the shame it brings. On the other hand, detecting and stopping abuse early and getting immediate help for victims reduces the severity of the consequences.
There are also consequences for churches where children and youth have been abused. For the abusers and for those who failed to report the abuse there can be criminal consequences. The church itself can face lawsuits from the victims and their families.
Let"s briefly consider the effects of abuse, preventing abuse, responding to abuse, and helping the victims.
Effects of Abuse
Various sources agree on a number of long-term effects of sexual abuse as a child. The earlier abuse begins, the deeper and more severe the consequences. A few of the effects experienced by sexually abused children are:
- Post-traumatic stress
- Fear of authority figures
- Dis-functional marital relations
Some less-prevalent effects are:
- Aversion to any sexual attraction or activity
- Suicidal tendencies
The response of caregivers, family members, and authorities to child sexual abuse has as much impact as the abuse itself. Can you imagine the internal reaction of an abuse victim being treated like a liar or a guilty party?! Then others turn around years later and say, "Why didn"t you tell this story when it happened?" In fact, they may have told someone and had not been believed or taken seriously, so why should they tell anyone else if they believe no one will believe them?
A commonly claimed effect is abused becoming abusers. Some sexual predators were themselves sexually assaulted during childhood and/or youth. Many people believe the kind of abuse that abusers perpetrate is the kind they experienced. However, although many abusers had been abused, this does not mean that all abused children become abusers. Abused children often grow up to become anti-abuse activists.
We cannot prevent child abuse of any kind outside the congregation or within families, but we can go a long ways to preventing it in the church, at church functions, and by church staff and volunteers:
- First, recognize the risk. Don"t take the stance, "It can"t happen here."
- Then, set policies and procedures which state that child abuse is not acceptable and build barriers to opportunities for abuse.
- Follow the polies and procedures and enforce the rules.
- Have every candidate for the pastoral team, the staff, and volunteers who have contact with children fill out an application. This includes filling out and signing consent forms for background and reference checks. Also have them sign the Code of Conduct.
- Conduct background checks on all applicants for volunteer work in the church, especially when it involves contact with children. We know that this may be difficult to do, especially in a church with limited resources. Protect My Ministry helps churches with background checks. Here is their statement:
Church background checks through Protect My Ministry are designed to help ministries implement and maintain a thorough background screening program for employees, staff and volunteers. Preventing sexual predators and violent offenders from working with children and youth is our primary concern.
Your church can sign up to a Sheepdog Church Security account.
- Monitor all activities involving children and youth. This includes openness to children, youth, parents, staff, and volunteers confiding in us. They must be able to trust us and share their concerns.
- Take observations, suspicions, and reports seriously. Take needed action if there is credible evidence of abuse.
Responding to Abuse
The long view is that abuse can happen in the church or within the church community. At the very least, we can almost certainly count on abused children coming to church. So what do we do when we recognize signs of abuse in children and youth at our church? The child may have been abused by a family member, by a member of the church, or at school, in community activities, etc.
There are state and federal reporting requirements. Most persons whose work puts them in contact with children are required to report observed or reasonably suspected abuse. The details differ slightly by jurisdiction, but generally they include teachers and school officials, childcare workers and administrators, counselors, and doctors. One of the gray areas of abuse reporting has been religious clergy, especially pastors, but the trend is moving toward full reporting requirements for them.
One response to child abuse by volunteers, staff, and members of the pastoral team of the church is how we answer inquiries from other churches about persons who used to be in our church applying for positions there.
We"re not pointing out any one denomination or family of churches because, frankly, there are several of them involved. Many church leaders are hesitant to "tattle" on someone who left their congregation after being implicated in some kind of sexual abuse, whether with children, youth, or adults. This non-disclosure has led to predators moving from church to church until they are finally kept out of society indefinitely. Some who have been arrested and listed as sex offenders still manage to work with young people in a church, as happened in Indiana.
If a child-sex offender is truly repentant, he or she should welcome the opportunity to worship, study, fellowship, and serve in a safe environment away from children. If they seriously pray, "Do not lead me into temptation," we can help answer that prayer with adult-only worship, study, and prayer groups.
Helping the Victims
Suppose one or more children in our church have been abused, sexually and/or otherwise. How can we help them?
- First, take them seriously. No second guessing, such as, "If you had done this" or "If you hadn"t done that."
- Investigate the incident. Keep in touch with the victim"s family.
- If the abuse involved staff, volunteers, or the pastoral team, do the right thing. While the incident is still being investigated, re-assign the person to non-child-contact duties or have them take a leave (if a pastoral team member, this requires the governing board to act). If the allegations are true, terminate the offender and report him or her to the district, denomination, or church group. By this time, local authorities should have already been informed.
Provide counselling for the victim and the family. Be ready for this to be long-term.
The least among us, our children and youth, are vulnerable to abuse. Let us do what we can to spread our wings of protection over them.
There Is More
Two other articles in the series on Child Protection are "We Resolve" (to Serve the Least) and "Wolves among the Lambs" (Alert for Abuse). The last article for January focuses on an active shooter incident.
- Kris P. Moloney, "Protecting Children from Abuse v4," Sheepdog Church Security: Training Bundle (Classroom) [https://sheepdog-church-security.thinkific.com/courses/protecting-children-from-sexual-abuse-in-the-church-training-bundle]; Individual Training (Online) [https://sheepdog-church-security.thinkific.com/courses/protecting-children-from-sexual-abuse-in-the-church].
- William O. Cushing, "Under His Wings" (based on Psalm 17:6 and 91:4), 1896, music by Ira D. Sankey, in numerous hymnals.
- Karen Davis, "The Hen is a Symbol of Motherhood for Reasons We May Have Forgotten, So Let Us Recall," United Poultry Concerns, May 12, 2018 [https://www.upc-online.org/alerts/180512_the_hen_is_symbol_of_motherhood.html].
- Jonathan M. Pitts, "Former pastor of Baltimore-area church charged with child sex abuse; police say there may be other victims," The Baltimore Sun, August 8, 2019 [https://www.baltimoresun.com/news/crime/bs-md-co-cr-baptist-pastor-arrested-20190807-rp6tknjverdktiuv2idf7hikla-story.html].
- Sanford Nowlin, "Report: Cornerstone Church Pastor John Hagee's Brother Arrested for Child Sexual Abuse," San Antonio Current, January 30, 2020 [https://www.sacurrent.com/the-daily/archives/2020/01/30/report-cornerstone-church-pastor-john-hagees-brother-arrested-for-child-sexual-abuse].
- Staff, "Journalistic investigation reveals more than 700 sexual abuse cases in SBC churches," Evangelical Focus, February 2019 [https://evangelicalfocus.com/world/4208/journalistic-investigation-reveals-more-than-700-sexual-abuse-cases-in-southern-baptist-convention-churches].
- Eric Tucker, "Lawsuit Claims Evangelical Church Hid Abuse Claims," NBC4 Washington, October 17, 2012 https://www.nbcwashington.com/news/local/lawsuit-claims-evangelical-church-hid-abuse-claims/1933489/].
- Jeff Schapiro, "Sovereign Grace Ministries Accused of Covering Up Child Sexual Assaults," The Christian Post, October 19, 2012 [https://www.christianpost.com/news/sovereign-grace-ministries-accused-of-covering-up-child-sexual-assaults.html].
- Kris P. Moloney, "A Code to Live By: A Childcare Giver"s Code of Conduct for Your Church"s Safety Ministry," Sheepdog Church Security [https://sheepdog-church-security.ck.page/f512da9e07].
- Kris Moloney, "Protection of Children and Vulnerable Adults in the Church," Sheepdog Church Security [https://sheepdogchurchsecurity.net/child-and-vulnerable-adults/].
- Committee Opinion (Number 498) of the Committee on Health Care for Underserved Women, "Adult Manifestations of Childhood Sexual Abuse," The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, Reaffirmed 2017 [https://www.acog.org/clinical/clinical-guidance/committee-opinion/articles/2011/08/adult-manifestations-of-childhood-sexual-abuse].
- Staff, "Effects of Child Sexual Abuse," Washington Coalition of Sexual Assault Programs, no date [https://www.wcsap.org/help/about-sexual-assault/effects-child-sexual-abuse].
- Sheepdog Church Security account, Protect My Ministry [https://protectmyministry.com/sheepdog-signup/].
- Ryan Martin, "Indianapolis youth pastor sexually abused girl in church office, authorities say," IndyStar (The Indianapolis Star), February 15, 2018 [https://www.indystar.com/story/news/crime/2018/02/15/indianapolis-youth-pastor-sexually-abused-girl-church-office-authorities-say/341076002/].
- Jimmy Hinton, "What Place Do Pedophiles Have in the Church?" Wineskins, April 8, 2014 [https://wineskins.org/2014/04/08/what-place-do-pedophiles-have-in-the-church/].