Who Are We Protecting?

In recent years, it has become common place to point the finger at the Catholic church with regard to sexual abuse by clergy. Well, this week Protestants discovered the “log in their own eye” with the Houston Chronicle report on sexual abuse within the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC).The article featured a mosaic of mug shots representing a portion of the 220 who worked or volunteered with the SBC who were convicted or pleaded guilty to sex crimes. The investigation reported over 700 victims, many of which were minors, which, if it follows the pattern of other investigations, may be the tip of the iceberg.

Similar to other sexual abuse scandals the article traces a pattern of ignoring victim reports, protecting perpetrators, and refusing to make reforms that would protect children from these sexual offenders. Tragically, in the case of some pastors, even after convictions, they were able to secure pastoral roles in other churches, even nearby churches.

Sadly, I don’t think we are going to be eliminate patterns of sexual brokenness that lead to sex crimes. A highly sexualized culture and patterns of dysfunction in families suggest to me that churches and other ministries will continue to need to take measures to protect against predators, and others who violate boundaries of trust. Churches are “target rich” environments for predation, bringing adults and children together, often in relations of trust and privacy.

It seems that in all these scandals, there has been a systemic blindness to the clear teaching of Jesus:

“And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me. “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 18:5-6

I grew up singing “Jesus loves the little children.” It’s that simple. The priority in our churches must be to love and protect our children. To fail to protect our children may well be to cause them to stumble–indeed many who have been abused have turned away from the faith. It seems there are some basic steps we can take.

  1. Break the silence. The worst assumption we can make in churches is “we all know each other and none of us would do something like this.” Candid education of every one, dealing with the signs of abuse, and how the whole church can be involved in preventing abuse, may deter potential abusers. Making clear a commitment to child safety and the practical steps the church takes in its children and youth programs sends a message that “we are committed to the safety of children.” It may even encourage parents of young families to come to your church!
  2. Screen all pastoral candidates, staff, and volunteers who work with children. One of the problems in the SBC was the refusal to track sexual predators. Applications, references and background checks may seem burdensome but they are a small price to pay and they say “we are committed to the safety of children.” I personally felt better about my son’s involvement with Boy Scouts when I learned I needed to undergo a criminal background check to volunteer with our troop.
  3. Train volunteers who work with children with periodic refreshers. Establishing clear protocols of appropriate and inappropriate contact, how to recognize signs of abuse, and how to keep children safe are important, including how children are released to parents or caregivers.
  4. It may seem burdensome, but the rule of an adult never being alone with a child makes sense. It was a rule for which I was grateful when I worked with Scouts, as much a protection for me as for the boys I worked with.
  5. Have a clear policy of how suspected abuse is dealt with, including implementation of your state’s mandatory reporting requirements. Physical or sexual abuse of minors is a crime. All of this makes it clear that abusers will not be shielded and that the priority is the safety of children. In all the sexual abuse scandals, the problem wasn’t merely that abuse happened, but that deliberate steps were taken to protect the abuser, and the reputation of the institution, instead of the abused child or youth.

Certainly there is more to be said about this. But is it so hard to say in our religious institutions that ensuring the safety of our children takes priority over protecting individual or institutional reputations? Jesus doesn’t need us to protect his reputation; he needs us to protect his children. Period.