Sexual abuse is prevalent in the evangelical church! And what’s worse: we are not making it go away. The Roman Catholic Church has taken some steps to avoiding this cosmic crime against the least of these. But what has the evangelical church done? At this point very little! Some have treated–naively–pre-teen sexual abuse, that is, the abuse of pre-teens by older men (because most are men) like any other sin, such as adultery or murder. They have failed to see that consensual sins are not the same as the manipulation and use of power to coerce/force little ones into sexual activities. The conversation, of course, is a lot more nuanced and goes beyond the quotations of a few verses or generic observations about how redemption applies to repentant abusers. That has never been the issue! No one denies redemption’s power; what we are discussing is how to best apply the command to protect the sheep from these false teachers, wolves in sheep’s clothing.
The Bible places great weight on protecting the little ones in our community (Mat. 18:6). How we go about protecting the little sheep from such wolves is what we are considering. Obviously, there are pragmatic concerns, which deal with the congregation’s response to known pedophiles in their midst, and also, most importantly, the types of trigger reactions that take place when sexually abused victims are aware that the leadership of the Church has allowed abusers–repentant or not–to have access to the activities and regular life of the Church. Sexually abused victims suffer long-term effects that can take years to deal with through biblical counseling, but that can be easily destroyed by certain scenarios that well-intentioned leaders may not be aware.
There is a healthy conversation taking place in the Protestant world that is very helpful. Boz Tchividjian, being a key figure in this awakening from the evangelical slumber, is bringing this conversation to the center where it belongs. Questions concerning how offenders–specifically those who have abused pre-teens–are to be viewed by the Church, and what kind of actions need to take place to ensure the safety of children, and how to keep the repentant offender from re-enacting his devilish desires are being raised. I thank God for that.
There are secular researchers who have asserted that pedophiles fall into a unique category from other types of sexual abusers. Stephanie Smith observes that the question of recidivism, that is, “The tendency to relapse into a previous condition or mode of behavior,” is a hot topic today offering a few different schools of thought. The conversation is more nuanced than many in the Church admit. A few key points to consider when re-offense (recidivism) rates are discussed:
1. Treatment options for those who have committed sexual offenses against children is a young and changing field. Although we know that the sexual abuse of children has been occurring throughout history, the idea of providing treatment to offenders is new and is largely untested with very little accompanying research. Much more remains to be learned about the effectiveness of treatment for child sexual offenders.
2. Recidivism studies require that the offenders have been caught and adjudicated within the time period being studied (five years, fifteen years, etc.). Many reported cases that will result in conviction might not be fully adjudicated within that time frame of the study due to the length of time involved in investigating and prosecuting such cases. Furthermore, the delay in the judicial process is also impacted by the fact that most abuse survivors do not immediately report the abuse.
3. Recidivism studies require accurate data regarding reoffending. The fact that child sexual abuse is one of the most underreported offenses makes it extremely difficult to collect accurate data on the recidivism of offenders. For example, the fact that there has not been a new report of abuse regarding a certain offender does not necessarily mean that the offender has not reoffended. It may simply mean that additional victims have not reported the offense.
4. Any study under discussion needs to be reviewed thoroughly to ascertain how “sex offenders” are defined. Are we looking at a broad or specific category of sex offenses? For example, are we considering only offenses against adults, or just offenses against children, or a combination of offenses against adults and children?
It is crucial to make proper distinctions. Not all offenses are created equal. Though all acts are heinous and deserve proper and immediate punishment first from the Church (excommunication) and secondly, by the state (some form of punishment that would be appropriate for the taking away of someone else’s humanity–which is what sexual abuse means for the abused victim), some offenses carry on a more heinous nature, especially as they deal with the manipulating and overpowering of a child for sexual purposes. Again, Stephanie Smith makes this point:
It is important that we distinguish between the different types of sexual offenders when addressing the issue of recidivism. For example, pedophiles represent a smaller number of offenders convicted for sexually abusing children. However, they tend to have higher numbers of victims and higher recidivism rates than any other type of sex offender. On the other hand, researchers have identified some sex offenders who assault adults that eventually stop perpetrating. Thus, studies that do not distinguish between pedophiles and adult rapists do not accurately reflect the risks to children. (emphasis mine)
Churches, instead of becoming a place of protection, have become easy targets for sexual offenders. “Offenders are drawn to faith institutions initially for the same reason that they are drawn to schools, youth sports and other youth-oriented activities. It’s the easiest way to gain access to children outside their own families.” It is important to stress once again that the issue of recidivism requires a certain ability to distinguish between offenses. We make a tremendous mistake if we believe that we can deal with all sexual offenses the same way and if we deal with sexual offense the same way we deal with adultery or other such sins. Further, we need to develop a more robust response from church leadership in such cases so that leaders in the church are prepared to deal with such issues as soon as it happens.
Ecclesiastical leaders have not helped. Evangelicals are generally clueless. They have not read pertinent research nor have they received any type of training in sexual abuse. The reality is that our simple solutions are actually making the matter worse. May God give us a spirit of wisdom and may this God avenge his little sheep and those growing under this psychological burden and pain, for to such belong the kingdom of heaven.
What Role do Pedophiles have in the Church?
Jimmy Hinton’s article “What Place do Pedophiles Have in the Church?” has made the rounds more than once. Jimmy makes this a rather personal story as he recounts his own father’s history:
To make it more personal, my dad is the former minister at the same exact church where I now preach. To make it even more personal, I was the one approached by one of his victims three years ago. Three days later I reported my own father to the police, which eventually led to his confessions and subsequent 30-60 year prison sentence. My dad and I still communicate fairly often and have frank conversations about how he was able to abuse over 20 children and keep it hidden from us his whole life. He once wrote from prison, “You have no idea how many pedophiles there are in the church.” But there’s where he is wrong.
His position is made explicit at the outset:
I believe that, while pedophiles can and should repent, the church is not in a position to welcome them into the assembly where children are present. In fact, we have written into our policy that any known sex offenders will be removed from regular worship and will be offered an alternative worship with a group of adults only. This can be at the church building or in a home. But for them to participate in worship with children present is an act of sheer insensitivity and irresponsibility.
I speak in agreement with Jimmy’s position.
My counseling training and the many books and people I have spoken to on this subject attest to the fact that pedophiles struggle greatly to flee from temptation while being exposed to children. We are dealing with a profoundly sick disease; a disease for which the Gospel has the answer, but the answer is not to re-incorporate those who have sexually abused the least of these into a community of faith where children play a large part. There are other opportunities for worship where this individual can worship. The Church has historically made exceptions for different circumstances. And this would qualify as a unique circumstance. If the individual is truly repentant, then he ought to gladly accept the leadership’s decision. The Church at large can be invited.
I pastor a church that is strongly committed to covenantal theology and that entails a robust view of the role of children as participants in worship and in the life of the Church. They are not viewed as second-class citizens. This generally means that we treasure little ones and we treasure them in numbers. Our churches, though small, are filled with covenant children. To place a known pedophile–or even to hide it from the Church–would be an act of betrayal by the leadership of the congregation. Pastors are encouraged to minister to these men in prison and pray for a genuine repentance, and to offer any assistance that is necessary to a repentant member of the flock while he serves his term.
Another element of this discussion is that some tend to minimize the pain of the abused victims, simply because they perceive that these victims live normal lives after their abuse. They fail to see the consequences that endure both physically and emotionally years after the abuse. They also fail to see situations that could easily trigger episodes in victims. We are not simply dealing with a case where two consenting adults engage in sexual behavior, but rather in a case where an adult used, manipulated, controlled, threatened, took advantage of, molested, and traumatized his victims. Whether the child was able to defend himself/herself is not the issue, but rather that an individual acted satanically and deceived and scarred the image of God in a profoundly physical and psychological way.
The Church is a place for safety. Under no circumstance would mothers feel safe knowing that a pedophile (repentant or not) was present in their midst. Under no circumstance would other sexually abused victims feel safe.
So, what’s the alternative? The alternative is to follow Jimmy’s advice. Since we practice a form of covenant renewal worship, we can provide that to any man outside the local assembly. We provide similar services in nursing home situations. As an example to consider, perhaps once a week, then, the pastor(s), other leaders of the Church, could provide a short service for this individual with the Eucharist and a call for this man to be renewed daily by the Word of the Gospel. Other adults may join to offer encouragement and accountability.
Our penal system is unfortunately too cowardly to deal with these men. Instead of dealing with them with quick justice they attempt to find some way to reconcile them to society where they may have already victimized several children. If the penal system will not act, then the Church must. And first and foremost the Church’s duty is to protect the victims and those who may become victims if such liberty for sex offenders is offered in the congregation.
I offer a short story as an example of how not to act as a church.
Many years ago (over a decade) I did a series of sermons in what is called a week of Revival meetings in a small Baptist Church. The pastor, a strong-willed man, led the congregation for many years. He was a pleasant fellow. He had an allergy to formal theological training. He urged me to avoid graduate school. Gladly, I did not heed his pathetic advice. A year or so later I had Thanksgiving meal at his home. His forceful personality was striking and in many ways manipulative. During Sunday worship, he would tell the congregation to stop singing so they could listen to his solo performance of one of the verses. He was a gifted singer and also had a gift of revealing his arrogance in more ways than imagined. Several months passed by and I was informed that this pastor was let go because he had been molesting two little girls in the congregation. I was stunned, and at the same time disgusted by his actions. I wanted swift justice. I discovered that his sentence was…12 months. In 12 months that bastard who had possibly ruined the lives of two sweet girls was out. And here is the most despicable part of it all. After he left, he was embraced very quickly by a local church who accepted he and his musical gifts with open arms. I never heard of him again. But that small congregation preferred to place their flock–little sheep–in danger, then to act as they should. All redemption comes from God, but wisdom dictates that we apply redemption in the lives of certain people in vastly different ways. May God have mercy on us and may He show His mercy to those victimized by these ecclesiastical terrorists.
- the analogy here is appropriate since sexual abusers are generally known to be close relatives or close friends (back)
- see http://boz.religionnews.com/2014/07/25/sex-offenders-recidivism-church/ (back)
- I cannot rule out every imaginable scenario. This cannot be an exhaustive look at every ecclesiastical situation. I recently met a counselor in a mega-church of 4K+ who told me they have members of the Church who are police officers who are trained to sit and follow these repentant pedophiles during the Church service. (back)
- It is important to specify that we are not dealing with sexual offenses between minors, but the direct manipulation and molestation of little ones by young adults and older men/women; the Bible places a harsher judgment upon those who lead little ones astray: “But whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.” (back)
- the death penalty as I affirm (back)