Preventing Abuse in the Church
“If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.” (Matthew 18:6)
There are few issues that cause children to “stumble” so completely as being abused. Abuse affects every area of the victim’s life.
Survivors of abuse often have issues with substance use, eating disorders, intimate relationships, obesity, smoking, and mental health problems including suicide attempts (Chartier, Walker, & Naimark, 2009; Felitti et al., 1998). Felitti et al. (1998) found that the more trauma a person suffered in childhood, the more likely he or she was to suffer from the issues above as well as diseases such as “ischemic heart disease, cancer, chronic lung disease, skeletal fractures, and liver disease” (p. 245).
To those in church leadership, the most painful reactions of these abused children can be their loss of religion and even hostility toward the church (Vieth, Tchividjian, Walker, & Knodel, 2012, p. 327). Some victims refer to this loss of spiritual life as “soul murder” (Doyle, 2006, p. 208). When children are abused, the effects are lifelong.
Abuse in the church can take many forms. Children and vulnerable adults (such as the elderly and disabled) can be victims of sexual, physical, psychological, or financial abuse or neglect. Victims can be any age and either sex. Journalists covering Catholic Church scandal at the end of the 20th century mainly focused on male child victims, but Marcel (2013) pointed out that there were numerous cases of female victims as well.
In 2007, 794,000 children in the United States were victims of child abuse and neglect (O’Neill, Gabel, Huckins, & Harder, 2010, p. 383). Looking at lifetime totals, Perry-Burney, Thomas, and McDonald (2014) reported that “one in three girls and one in seven boys will be sexually abused during childhood” (p. 987). Protecting the most vulnerable members of the church is of utmost importance. If people are abused, church leaders must act quickly to respond to their abuse by reporting the crimes to proper civil authorities and making sure the perpetrators are removed from duty while investigations are conducted.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published uniform definitions to “promote consistent terminology and data collection related to child maltreatment” (Leeb, Paulozzi, Melanson, Simon, and Arias, 2008, p. iv). Your local authorities may have slightly different definitions, but the following are good guidelines for this discussion. The CDC’s definitions include acts of commission (abuse) and acts of omission (neglect). All forms of abuse can also be inflicted upon older victims.
Sexual abuse is “any completed or attempted (non-completed) sexual act, sexual contact with, or exploitation (i.e. non-contact sexual interaction) of a child by a caregiver” (Leeb et al., 2008, p. 14; emphasis in original).
Physical abuse is “the intentional use of physical force against a child that results in, or has the potential to result in, physical injury” (Leeb et al., 2008, p. 14).
Psychological abuse is “intentional caregiver behavior (i.e., act of commission) that conveys to a child that he/she is worthless, flawed, unloved, unwanted, endangered, or valued only in meeting another’s needs” (Leeb et al., 2008, p. 16).
Financial abuse is stealing from the victim or committing “fraud, exploitation, pressure in connection with wills, property or inheritance or financial transactions, or the misuse or misappropriation of property, possessions or benefits” (SCIE as cited in Redmond, 2016, p. 87).
Neglect is “failure to provide for a child’s basic physical, emotional, or educational needs or to protect a child from harm or potential harm. Like acts of commission, harm to a child may or may not be the intended consequence” (Leeb et al., p. 11). Neglect includes failure to provide for the child and failure to supervise the child (Leeb et al., 2008, p. 11).
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