Sexual abuse against children is epidemic in the world and in the church. Child sexual abuse cases are flooding our courts, state agencies, media channels, and, because of abuse by ministers and members, church leadership councils. Because the church has largely failed to find effective ways to control this epidemic, the state is beginning to subject the church to its law, its prejudice, and its severe punishment.
Though epidemic in our time, sexual abuse is not new. Child sexual abuse, along with homosexuality, was common in ancient Sodom (see Gen. 19:5-8). Child sacrifice and sexual abuse through incestuous relations, common among the pagan religions of ancient Palestine, were strictly forbidden by God (Lev. 18:6-16; 20:1-5). Leviticus 19:29 instructs a father: "Do not degrade your daughter by making her a prostitute."* The gravity of sexual abuse against children is also implied in Christ's sober warning: "If anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea" (Matt. 18:6).
What is child sexual abuse?
Child sexual abuse is the use of a child as a sexual object by an adult or older minor child. David Finkelhor's seminal research1 on this problem shows the difficulty of shaping agreed standards that define and evaluate child abuse—an in creasing problem in social science analysis that reflects our post-Christian culture adrift from biblical anchors. We have synthesized biblical revelation, current law, and Finkelhor's clinical re search to offer a simple cross-cultural standard of child sexual abuse behavior. This standard outlines a four-level gradation of abuse based on abuse behavior by the perpetrator, the age of the victim, the relationship of the victim to the abuser, and the severity of the abuse and consequent criminal penalties.
Class A: the worst abuse. This is the most harm-causing abuse by adults against children. It involves oral, vaginal, or anal penetration of the child by any body part (especially the penis) or instrument used by the abuser. This behavior includes physical assault, ritualistic abuse, and the use of terror and threats/acts of murder against children.
Class B: very serious abuse. This abuse typically involves direct genital fondling, kissing/fondling bare breasts, or simulated intercourse by an adult against a child. It can also be Class A behavior by a minor teen against a younger teen or preteens or by an adult with an older consenting teenage victim. (Legally a minor cannot consent to illicit sex, though it may mitigate criminal consequences.)
Class C: serious abuse. This involves kissing or fondling a child's buttocks, thighs, or other body parts, or fondling breasts or genitals through clothing. As above, it can also involve more serious Class B behavior with less serious relationships (other than adult to young child).
Class D: less serious abuse. This is non contact (no physical contact), exhibitionistic abuse—exposure of genitals by an adult to a child, or Class C con tact in a less serious relationship.
Sexual abuse is pervasive and harmful
Controversy abounds regarding the prevalence of child sexual abuse: Is abuse and the number of victims in creasing? Or is child abuse being reported more? The short answer to both questions is yes: there is a persistent increase in abuse victims and in abuse reporting in the United States.2 Recent studies of sexual abuse in Canada and England have also shown high and increasing rates of sexual abuse.3
In 1985 the Los Angeles Times randomly surveyed more than 2,600 men and women from all 50 states.4 This poll indicated that 27 percent of American women and 16 percent of men were sexual abuse victims—a staggering 38 million people nationwide. The Canadian study revealed that 28 percent of Canadian women and 10 percent of men experienced some form of sexual abuse as children. Sexual abuse was prevalent across all societal boundaries —rich, poor, and middle class; white and minority; educated or uneducated; and religious or nonreligious.
Studies of special populations show the terrible linkage of child sexual abuse to numerous human and social problems.5 A study of prostitutes showed that 60 percent were sexually abused as children, with two-thirds by their fathers or father figures. A Canadian study of juvenile runaways revealed that 73 per cent of females and 38 percent of males had been sexually abused or exposed to pornographic materials.
Numerous studies have catalogued and evaluated the impact of sexual abuse on children.6 The physical harm shows vaginal infections, difficulty walking or sitting, unusual and offensive body odors, and loss of sphincter control with anal abuse. Harmful behavioral effects include refusal to be left with offenders, fear or repulsion when touched by adults, regression to infantile behavior (bed-wetting, thumb -sucking, etc.), suicidal thoughts and actions, obsessive-compulsive behaviors, self-mutilation, problems in school, running away, abrupt personality changes, nightmares and sleep disturbances, and delinquency.
The emotional harm involves guilt, anger, depression, anxiety and phobias, panic disorders, preoccupation with death and dying, and grief/loss experiences. Sexual harm involves increased sex with adults and/or other children, increased peer homosexual play, precocious or provocative sexual behavior, and excessive masturbation. Harm to inter personal relations show isolation and withdrawal, difficulty relating to and trusting others, and tragically—in a perpetuating cycle of evil—sexual abuse and violence against younger children.
The dynamics of child sexual abuse
Most child sexual abuse is incestuous—perpetrated primarily by fathers, stepfathers, grandfathers, uncles, and father figures against their daughters and sons, nephews and nieces, and grandchildren. Incest is the least reported and least discussed form of abuse. Its pervasive secrecy, wrapped within the sacred boundary of family—a boundary too often defended by the church to the harm of victims—helps maintain the abuse. In fact, many churches in which higher abuse rates exist also reveal the dynamics of incestuous families. Experienced counselors and ministers will recognize here the patterns that foster other kinds of abuse: legalism, spousal abuse, emotional and verbal abuse, and the abuse and manipulation of power seen in toxic faith communities.
The sexually incestuous family is a closed, pathological, legalistic, and secret system. Tremendous energy is invested in hiding evil while maintaining a righteous and religious appearance. The outside world—the world beyond the rigid and narrow bounds of the immediate family—is portrayed as threatening, hostile, anti- Christian, and completely untrustworthy. Attempts by family or church members to leave the system and establish their own life are challenged with predictions of chaotic consequences and punished by hostile rejection.
The unholy triad. The three unholy rules of dysfunctional families—don't think, don't feel, don't talk—govern the incestuous abuse. Proper role and moral boundaries in the sexually incestuous family are confused, even nonexistent. Parents may talk more openly about sex, may walk around in their underwear, walk into children's bedrooms without knocking, and show little respect for the privacy of others. In the worst cases, parents and children alike may roam the house nude, walk in on anyone in the bathroom, in any state of undress, and inquire about, even coach, the sexual behavior of their children.
Denial and lying are normative in the abusive family. Abuse is usually justified as a form of discipline, or sex education, or family love. Abusers reward their victims for having sex with them and lying to keep it secret by giving them money, attention, affection, and avoiding physical abuse. Child victims sometimes have no sense of the harm done to them; they simply know nothing but a life of abuse and will report they were "learning about life" or "helping Dad relax."
Similarly, under the guise of godly authority, abusive clergy will presume to control the marital, sexual, financial, vocational, and other decisions of church members. Churches may deny or justify abuse by clergy as right discipline or just consequences. Church, male, and parental authority and child (and usually adult female) submissiveness are defended at all cost. Anyone who challenges these abusive dynamics is considered deceived, reprobate, or under Satan's spell, and is rebuked and shunned.
Even in a healthier church atmosphere children can be at some risk in relation ships of trust with teachers and helpers who are in unique positions to molest children. Christian children, especially, are taught to "obey your parents" [and any Christian adult in authority], " 'that it may go well with you'" (Eph. 6:1-3). This correct teaching, when corrupted by a sex offender, can make a child an easy target for sexual abuse.7
Sexual abuse for profit. Child sex-for-profit is a worldwide multi-billion -dollar human slave trade that routinely brutalizes children through prostitution, beatings, torture, drug abuse, and murder. Children enter this deadly system by abduction, following abandonment by families, by sale from parents, and through international child slavery rings posing as adoption and relief agencies.
Divorce and family instability are key contributors to sexual abuse vulnerability. In one study, stepfathers were six times more likely to abuse step daughters than biological fathers were their daughters.8 A pedophile who had abused some 130 boys revealed, "For me, the magic words are 'My folks are divorced.' [Most] of the boys I've had sex with came from single-parent families. The others had family troubles."9
The church and child abuse
The question is legitimately raised: Should the minister or counselor who sexually violates children ever continue in professional ministry? Legal trends—the growing liability for abuse, canceled insurance when pedophile restoration is attempted, and the crushing costs of legal defense and damages for some churches50—make it nearly impossible to restore abusers to ministry.
The wages of sexual sin and abuse against children in Christian counseling, in the church, and in society is terrible— it is corrupting millions of lives and costing hundreds of millions of dollars in legal damages and treatment costs.
The church should not only invest in remedial recovery but move beyond to emphasize prevention in every way possible. This includes training and education for sexual understanding and control, early assessment and intervention with at-risk counselors and ministers, development and maintenance of professional support systems, and genuine accountability. This work should become an integral core to ministry training in colleges, Bible schools, and seminaries and must be carried on at various organizational levels and in local churches. We must also, as the body of Christ, be prepared to deal with the moral and legal ramifications and the lengthy time it may take to quell this epidemic.
*All Scripture passages in this article are
from the New International Version.
Adapted from Peter Mosgofian, M.A., and
George Ohlschlager, M.S.W., J.D., Sexual
Misconduct in Counseling and Ministry. Copyright
1995 by Word, Inc., Dallas, Texas. All rights re
served. Used by permission.
1 See David Finkelhor, Sexually Victimized
Children (New York: Free Press, 1979); Child
Sexual Abuse: New Theory and Research (New
York: Free Press, 1984).
2 See Finkelhor; Douglas Besharov, "Doing
Something About Child Abuse," Harvard Journal
of Law and Public Policy 8 (1985): 539-589;
Diana Russell, "The Incidence and Prevalence
of Intra-familial and Extra-familial Sexual Abuse
of Female Children," International Journal of
Child Abuse and Neglect 7 (1983): 133-139.
3 Canadian National Population Survey,
Sexual Offenses Against Children: Report of the
Committee on Sexual Offenses Against Children
and Youth (Ottawa: Canadian Government Pub
lishing Centre, 1984); Anthony Baker and Sylvia
Duncan, "Child Sexual Abuse: A Study of Prev
alence in Great Britain," International Journal
of Child Abuse and Neglect 9 (1985): 457-467.
4 See Los Angeles Times, Aug. 25, 1985.
5 M. Silbert and A. Pines, "Sexual Abuse as
an Antecedent to Prostitution," International
Journal of Child Abuse and Neglect 5 (1981):
407-411; A. MacCormack, M. Janus, and A. Burgess,
"Runaway Youths and Sexual Victimization:
Gender Differences in an Adolescent
Runaway Population," International Journal of
Child Abuse and Neglect 10 (1986): 387-395; B.
Bess and Y. Janssen, "Incest: A Pilot Study," Hill
side Journal of Clinical Psychiatry 4 (1982):
39-52; J. Goodwin, T. McCarthy, and P. DiVasto,
"Prior Incest in Mothers of Abused Children,"
International Journal of Child Abuse and Neglect
5 (1981): 87-96.
6 Jeffrey J. Haugaard and N. Dickon Reppucci,
The Sexual Abuse of Children (San Francisco:
Jossey-Bass, 1988); Grant L. Martin, Critical
Problems in Children and Youth (Dallas: Word,
1992); and William Friedrich, "Sexual
Victimization and Sexual Behavior in Children: A
Review of Recent Literature," International
Journal of Child Abuse and Neglect 17 (1993):
7 See Roland C. Summit, "The Child Sexual
Abuse Accommodation Syndrome," International
Journal of Child Abuse and Neglect 1 (1983):
8 See Haugaard and Reppucci.
9 See Sonenschein.
10 The Catholic Archdiocese of New Mexico
is currently facing $50 million in legal costs
and damage awards, a sum widely considered
capable of bankrupting the archdiocese. Report
in National Catholic Reporter 30, No. 14 (Feb
ruary 1994): 5.