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Confronting Child Sexual Abuse

It all started with an innocent conversation, a few extra minutes of attention, and a childish confidence in a trustworthy adult. His constant messaging and intentionality made her feel comfortable, cared for, and special.

He was a teacher, and she’d been taught to trust, listen, and obey. But something was off this time. Slowly his messages began pleading for their special relationship to be a secret. No one should find out they were talking—the threats of trouble were implicit. After he was sure he’d gained her trust, he started the next secret with these words: “Meet me at this hallway of the school.” She was only 13.

Accounts of sexual abuse are hard and uncomfortable to read. If you’re anything like me, these stories make you pause in horror. Your stomach churns. Your heart accelerates with anger. We make sense of it by being quick to place blame. How was this allowed to happen? Why didn’t she say something before? How come nobody noticed?

Or we may be prone to deflect: It’s horrible how those things happened to her. Her parents mustn’t have been watching her. That will never happen to my child. Not in my family. Not in my church. If something happened, I’d know right away. I’d never miss the signs.

Or we deny: There’s no way that really happened. She’s making it up to get attention. She invited it with her behavior and demeanor.

But our avoidance of the subject doesn’t mean sexual abuse hasn’t happened, or isn’t happening, to individuals in our family, church, or community. First, we need to understand what sexual abuse is and why it’s important to address it. Then, to care well for victims of sexual abuse, we need to have some conversations. Finally, we need to consider what message we are communicating to the world.

What is child sexual abuse?

The Mayo Clinic defines sexual abuse as “any sexual activity with a child.” The National Child Traumatic Stress Network expands it further to “any interaction between a child and an adult (or another child) in which the child is used for the sexual stimulation of the perpetrator or observer.” Sexual abuse isn’t limited to physical contact but includes behaviors such as voyeurism, exhibitionism, or exposing a child to pornography.

It’s important to emphasize that children don’t have the ability to legally consent to any kind of sexual interaction. Although the age of consent varies between states, the national consensus in the United States is that any sexual interaction with a child younger than 16 is statutory rape.

Along with age difference often comes a power differential. The majority of the time, perpetrators of sexual abuse are in positions of authority over the children and are known to the children and their families. In fact, 80 percent of perpetrators of sexual abuse are known to the children.

Child sexual abuse needs to be exposed.

The instruction to meet in a hallway of the school didn’t sit well with her. She wanted to be obedient, but it felt odd, so she shared the information with her closest friend.

Her friend was shocked at the invitation and immediately informed her own mother about the odd situation. Her mother reported it to the school authorities.

Just as this mother did, any member of the body of Christ—individuals, parents, teachers at Christian schools, and church leaders—must report any suspicion of sexual abuse or any behavior that could fall under the category of sexual grooming.

Any member of the body of Christ must report any suspicion of sexual abuse or any behavior that could fall under the category of sexual grooming.

When this happens, Christian schools, churches, and children’s ministries need to have incident response plans they can implement, including appropriate protocols for reporting any suspicion of sexual abuse. This may look like directly notifying the director of children’s ministry, the lead pastor, and the appropriate child welfare agency in your community.

Christian ministries must ensure the child’s safety (and the safety of other children) by removing the suspected adult perpetrator until the allegations have been properly investigated.

This may seem like an overwhelming task, but the Evangelical Council for Abuse Prevention has developed guidelines and standards that can walk your church through it.

Ephesians tells us to “have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them” (Eph. 5:11, NIV). A few verses earlier, Paul explained what these fruitless deeds of darkness are: sexual immorality, any kind of impurity, greed, obscenity, foolish talk, or coarse joking (vv. 3–4). Child sexual abuse can fall into all these categories. The men and women walking in this sin need to be identified and their sin exposed.

We need to have important conversations.

At this point in the story, the response began to break down. Due to their lack of training, neither the school nor its supporting church knew how to respond. They first called in the teacher to explain the situation, and he quickly manipulated the details in his favor. The next person to be called in was the girl’s father, who was informed of his daughter’s inappropriate behavior toward the teacher.

Both of those conversations were mistakes. Parents, pastors, elders, children ministry directors, and other church staff aren’t experts on sexual abuse. Their attempts to gather information about the allegations of sexual abuse on their own, and determine whether these allegations are true or false, are detrimental to the child, to the family, and to the ability of experts to later conduct a criminal investigation.

Think about it this way: If a church member experiences a burglary in his home, the pastors, elders, or church staff aren’t called to investigate whether the burglary took place or who’s responsible. In those cases, the church member is advised to contact the police and follow their recommendations, while other congregants offer support, prayers, meals, and reminders of the faithfulness of God. So it should be with cases of sexual abuse.

Any investigation of an allegation of sexual abuse needs to be entrusted to the authorities (Rom. 13:1–6) and to those who have professional training in dealing with these matters.

There are ways to conduct forensic evaluations in cases of sexual abuse that prevent the child from repeating her experience of abuse so she isn’t retraumatized. Usually, teams made up of social workers, medical providers, police investigators, and forensic interviewers are used to ask children appropriate questions. They gather information about the abuse, identify appropriate services, and ensure the child is physically cared for.

The work of the church doesn’t stop when child sexual abuse is reported to the authorities. In reality, the work begins there. Directly after Jesus tells the disciples to protect and care for children (Matt. 18:1–6), he warns them about the terrible power of unchecked sin (vv. 7–9). Then he gives them a way to confront sin in each other (vv. 15–19).

While the state takes care of the physical realities, the church should be responding to the even more serious spiritual realities. If the perpetrator is a believer, his sin needs to be confronted. And caring physically, emotionally, and spiritually for the victims and their families requires a long-term commitment to love and walk alongside them, trusting in the gospel’s power to redeem, heal, and bring justice.

The world is watching our response to child sexual abuse.

From the moment her teacher’s misconduct and sexual sin was exposed, the young girl’s life began a downward spiral. In a matter of days, she was expelled from the school, their entire church community was made aware of the situation, and she was labeled as a sexualized child. Meanwhile, the teacher’s reputation was protected, his position in ministry upheld, and his family labeled as victims and surrounded with support.

To this day, she bears the scars of this incident. She no longer believes in the goodness or justice of God, and she cannot understand why God would allow his church to conduct itself in this manner. If the body of Christ is this careless in the ways it handles sexual abuse, she doesn’t want anything to do with it.

Brothers and sisters, we’ve long neglected this sin that lies in the shadows. Children within our churches and communities are victims of this hideous and detestable sin, and they need to know that the adults around them are willing to listen and protect them.

The world is watching how we respond to this issue. More than that, Jesus Christ has commanded his church to be light to the world, and he’ll one day ask for an account from every adult, parent, elder, pastor, and church about how we cared for these little ones (Matt. 25:40–45). Let’s heed this encouragement and warning.

Jesus will one day ask for an account from every adult, parent, elder, pastor, and church about how we cared for these little ones.

I pray we’ll be tools in the Lord’s hands to care for the many children who’ve suffered the horrors of sexual abuse, whose voices have been unheard, and whose hurt has been ignored. I pray our hearts will be softened to these issues and that we’ll become a church equipped to respond quickly, well, and in love to any sexual abuse disclosed.

I pray the body of Christ, his church, becomes the safest place for children who have been sexually abused to run to and experience the freeing, redeeming, and renewing power of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

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