Mistreatment of children to the extent that it is considered abuse is generally regarded as offensive by most people, and is an offence of the law in most jurisdictions. Here we need to distinguish two meanings of “offend.”
One meaning is to violate the sensibilities of another person. This is generally subjective, and could refer to a relatively insignificant annoyance. True, some people are more easily offended than others, with some offended by almost anything.
The other meaning is to violate a law or custom. In the King James Version, part of the passage above reads, “whoso shall offend one of these little ones.” The Greek word translated “offend” here is σκανδαλιση (skandalisé) from σκανδαλιζω (skandalizo), which means “cause to offend” or “cause to sin” (as in the ESV). Essentially this means to make the child a participant of one’s sin. Jesus described this as a capital offence. However, it is realistic to consider the child as being the one genuinely offended, in other words sinned against, which is how the 17th Century translators justifiably took the word skandalisé.
Children and persons with developmental mental disabilities are vulnerable, essentially defenseless against several kinds of abuse. They can be sinned against (offended) in many ways by those who are stronger, trusted, in authority, and in other ways more capable.
There are several kinds of abuse. Some of these are physical, mental (psychological), emotional, moral/ethical, and sexual. Forms of abuse include beating, burning, malnutrition and starving, general negligence, abusive language, various kinds of sexual molestation, bullying, and teaching children to lie or steal. Abuse can result in illness, injury, disruptive and/or anti-social behavior, depression, substance abuse, or death.
State laws require certain persons to report observed or reasonably suspected child abuse, especially physical and sexual. The persons required to report and the parameters of the abuse itself vary from one state to another. Generally, covered abuse is defined as that which causes harm to the child. Church officials, staff and safety/security directors can search for how the laws in their own state apply to them.
The article “It CAN Happen Here” says that several kinds of crime can happen in churches and at church events, including child abuse. The risk increases for churches with day care centers and schools. Offenders can and do include day care workers, Sunday School teachers, VBS volunteers, youth group leaders, other children and youth, Christian school staff, and even principals and pastors. Some of us personally know of incidents of child abuse. We may be connected to churches and or schools where it occurred. We may even know the victims and/or perpetrators. Beyond knowing about it, we want to know how to prevent child abuse, and how to deal with it when it does happen.
It is important that we who are responsible for the safety and security of children and other vulnerable persons in our schools and congregations recognize signs of abuse. We may see burns, bruises, cuts and other indicators of physical abuse. A gaunt child may be undernourished. Behavioral and relational abnormalities may hint at psychological, emotional or sexual abuse. Sometimes several kinds of abuse overlap.
A friend of a child may tell us about abuse. Or we may hear it from a neighbor. Do we take this report seriously enough to check it out? How do we go about doing this? What if something we see leads us to suspect abuse?
Most cases of child abuse involve family members (e.g. parents, aunts and uncles, siblings) and authority persons (e.g. teachers, pastors, day care workers, scout leaders), but offenders may include other children, church members, and strangers. Measures to prevent such abuse are similar to those for preventing abduction, with watchfulness and restriction of access.
There are many online resources from federal and state government agencies, church groups, and non-profit organizations for detecting and dealing with child abuse. A Security Training article on Sheepdog Church Security (SCS)—“Child and Vulnerable Adult Protection”—covers this in detail. This is also covered in SCS training sessions and downloadable training packets.