Sexual abuse of children in the church

The candid, eye-opening account of a pastor's struggle with a sexual abuser.

Peter Winter is a pseudonym.

Anne sounded concerned, even a little desperate. "Pastor, I want to talk to you," she said. I found it difficult to believe what she told "Martin* has sexually abused my daughter."

Martin was the leader of one of the children's ministries in our congregation. He was in his mid thirties, capable and fun-loving. He and his wife had no children. They were very popular with our young people and had a number of close friends in our small, family-oriented church.

My first reaction was to ask Anne if her daughter was sure of what she was saying. "Sandra wouldn't lie," said Anne. "What's more, there are clear indications that what she says is true. After she and her sister came back from a vacation with Martin and his wife last summer, her attitude to Martin changed drastically. She no longer wanted to go to any youth meetings. When we bought Martin a Christmas present, she didn't want to sign the accompanying card. And she refused to be alone in the same room with her male piano teacher."

"In fact," Anne continued after a pause, "right now she won't even let her father touch her. We thought she was just going through a phase associated with puberty. But now it seems there is much more to it."

I was shocked. But there was more to come. "Sandra isn't the only one Martin has abused,"Anne continued. "Sandra says that Martin has done the same to Lisa."

"Do Lisa's parents know about this?" I asked.

"Not yet," Anne replied. "I'm going to talk with them, and then we've got to do some thing."

The following week after the church service, Lisa's father, also a church member, spoke to me. He was calm, yet angry. He and his wife had talked with Lisa and she had confirmed Sandra's story. Both girls' parents wanted to meet with Martin.

I had serious misgivings about confronting Martin. Could a man, friendly, ever ready to laugh, really be a child abuser? How could I be sure that the girls were not exaggerating one or two harmless incidents? What would I do if Martin denied the girls' statements?

Over the next few days I prayed about the case, and then decided to visit with Martin. I came straight to the point. "Sandra has said that while she and her sister were on vacation with you, you rubbed her genitals," I said. "She also said that you did the same to Lisa. Is that true?"

Martin hesitated. Then, looking down he said "It's true." He seemed to actually be relieved that he could finally talk about it. As his pastor I felt the curious sensation of being repelled by his admission and yet relieved that he was apparently willing to discuss his behavior with me.

"I've already talked with the parents of both girls and we have decided that unless you want them to report you to the police you are going to have to meet certain conditions," I told him. "First, you have to meet with the parents of these girls, listen to what they feel about what you have done, and apologize. Then you have to pay for the therapy the girls need. You must also go to a therapist yourself. Finally, you have to resign immediately as Pathfinder leader, and for as long as it takes for the girls to get over this you must not come to church."

We talked about these conditions for an hour or so. Martin's main objection concerned the matter of therapy. "You just want to force me to see a psychiatrist as if I were some sort of a pervert," he said.

This surprised me. I felt that if his problem had been mine I'd have been eager to go to a therapist. However, Martin began to show signs of not believing that he had done any thing abnormal. My other surprise concerned his attitude about church. He wasn't worried about not coming to church again. "I've been having doubts anyway," he said.

This interview caused me heart ache and some trauma. Not only because Martin seemed happy to stop coming to church but also because I was painfully aware that I had no right to stop him coming. I was beginning to feel the gathering force of a painful dilemma.

My predicament was caused by two other factors of which the parents of both girls were already aware. First, we felt the girls should not have to be confronted with their abuser week after week. Second, the girls didn't want to have the feeling that our whole congregation knew what had happened to them.

Emotional trauma

One of the cruelest emotions in abused children is their sense of shame. Even though they do nothing whatever to provoke their abuser, they still feel ashamed that they have been singled out as objects of perverted desire. They try to hide their shame by keeping their abuse a secret in many cases even from their own parents.

In order to spare the feelings of the two girls, we decided to keep Martin's abuse a secret from the church.  Reading 1 Corinthians 6:9-11, I was convinced that, with some cooperation from Martin, he could be healed. The secrecy was also intended to give Martin an opportunity to get himself sorted out without suffering the enormous repercussions that a police investigation would bring.

Looking back, I can see how naive I was. I should never have tried to stop a member from coming to church without the understanding and support of the church. That was a mistake. I now recognize also how my attempt to keep the matter confidential merely extended and even intensified the suffering of all concerned. A problem that should have been dealt with in a matter of months took over two years to resolve. Our church suffered during this time.

Initially Martin seemed to comply with our conditions. He met with the parents. The meeting was emotionally charged, but it helped clear the air a little. Martin expressed his sorrow at his mistakes, and the parents were willing to forgive.

Emerging problems

As time went by, however, two problems emerged. First, as his initial reactions indicated, Martin was reluctant to enter therapy even though I referred him to a highly recommended therapist. After an initial visit, Martin told me that this therapist could only give him appointments during work hours. He said that for this reason he would be unable to undergo therapy. I believed Martin but nevertheless insisted that he undergo therapy. As a result of this pressure Martin eventually started to go to a psychologist of his choosing. This counselor had little expertise in the area of sexual abuse. I gradually began to realize that Martin was in fact avoiding our agreement and his responsibility.

The second problem was that as church members noticed his absence, they visited him and asked why he no longer came to church. Martin's replies hinted at unfair treatment at the hands of one or two families and the pastor. "Some people just can't forgive," he would sigh with a hurt look in his eyes. His answers raised questions and doubts and soured the atmosphere in the church. Then quite suddenly, in a class conducted at the church, one of the members started to criticize the church leader ship for not being able to forgive. And so as time passed the rumors and criticisms grew.

Covering up reality

Martin's abuse had never resulted in sexual intercourse with his victims. Typically he started by being harmlessly playful with a girl setting her on his lap, tickling her tummy, or massaging her playfully on her back. Then his hand would drop below the waistline and he would touch the genitals. When this happened to Sandra, she was on the verge of puberty. Martin's fingers penetrated her vagina. Sandra realized that Martin had crossed a critical line. She suddenly stiffened and became frightened. She stopped laughing, felt nauseated, and lay limp, not knowing how to react. Martin stopped his sexual advances and tried to make light of them, as if nothing abnormal had occurred an attitude that confused his young victim.

Later Martin adopted the same attitude when talking to his friends in the church about the incidents. "We were just being playful," he said, "and my hand accidentally dropped below the waistline, that's all. Lisa and Sandra's parents are just making a big fuss about a minor incident." Thus again the rumors spread in the congregation that Martin was being victimized by members too hard-hearted to forgive.

At the time I wasn't aware that Martin had spread these rumors. I was simply aware of a rapid deterioration in the atmosphere of our church. As I saw mistrust and recriminations grow, I realized I had to get advice. I talked to my denominational leadership who immediately assured me of financial support to get whatever professional help I needed. I attended a one-day seminar on child abuse organized by a neighboring church. From this seminar I obtained the address of a Christian psychologist who specialized in therapy for both child abusers and their victims.

"I'm struggling to understand forgiveness," I told Thomas, the therapist. I told him I knew that it was true that Martin had abused or tried to abuse both girls on more than one occasion and that he had seemed reluctant to enter therapy but Martin also seemed to be genuinely sorry for his actions. "Shouldn't we be more willing to forgive?" I asked.

Dealing with an abuser

Looking back, I can see that Thomas must have despaired at my innocence. First, he explained the psychological profile of a typical child abuser. "They are experts in manipulation," he said. "Martin is manipulating you by making you feel sorry for him. Abusers are also very good at avoiding the consequences of their actions. What you have described shows that Martin has been doing just that." Further, Thomas told me that the chances were great that Martin had abused more than just the two victims I knew of. He advised me to encourage the families to prosecute Martin. He believed that only prosecution would bring any further victims to light. "Further more," he added, "if Martin has shown reluctance to enter therapy, then the chances that he will abuse others in the future possibly in your church are also significant."

It was this information that led me to take the matter further. In my next conversation with Martin, as I pressed him about why he felt he couldn't go to a therapist who specialized in sexual abuse cases, I realized all the more how significantly Martin had been manipulating my genuine desire to see him healed. He acted injured and grieved at my insistence, letting me know that he was hurt by the fact that I was being so hard on him.

By now more than a year had passed since Anne's initial visit. I realized that our attempts to contain the issue had failed. I talked with both sets of parents about revealing the situation to the church. They had by this time become sickened by the rumors in our church and agreed as a first step to talk openly to the local leaders of our church. I also informed Martin of my step.

Although our congregational leaders reached some reasonable decisions the major one of which was to organize a special, ad hoc meeting to discuss the matter a number of the leaders later resigned their posts because the emotional burden was too much to bear.

We decided to inform the church in two steps. A first meeting would be purely informative. A second meeting a month or so later was set to decide whether or not to disfellowship Martin. We also decided to invite Thomas, the therapist I had consulted, to these meetings.

As we met, it quickly became apparent that the rumors that Martin had spread had done their work. While no one condoned his actions, a number of church members defended him. "Martin is sorry for what he has done," they said. "You've got to for give a repentant sinner." Others saw his sin as a mistake rather than a deliberate act. One or two thought that the victims were exaggerating the incidents. "After all," they said "Martin never actually had inter course with the girls."

The professional counsel that Thomas gave, however, provided everyone with food for thought. "Most child abusers set their victims up," he explained. "In a process known as 'grooming,' they engineer situations in which they can be alone with the child and in which the child is dependent on them. In these situations they become sexually intimate with the child. Even if this intimacy does not come to intercourse, it can still traumatize the child." This was not what a number of church members wanted to hear, but Thomas went on. "Martin has not shown the fruits of genuine repentance. His apologies have not been attended by his willingness to undergo the kind of treatment that would help him."

Effects on the Church

The emotions engendered in those meetings came close to dividing our church. The parents of the abused girls in particular were devastated. They had been sure that once the church knew the facts they would receive significant support from their fellow members. Unfortunately the opposite proved to be true in many cases. Some of their friends were too embarrassed to talk about the subject and tended to avoid them. Others were hostile because they were convinced that the problem would be solved if only the parents would forgive Martin and encourage him to come back to church. In the eyes of some, the victims had virtually become the culprits. But finally, as a church we formally decided to tell Martin to accept the prescribed therapy or be disfellowshipped.

Although it was not our desire to publicize the abuse case, word spread. As a result a third victim came forward and confirmed that she too had been abused by Martin a number of years before. It was this, together with Martin's continued reluctance to enter therapy, that finally caused the victims' parents to go to the police. A few days later the police visited Martin's home with a search warrant. What they discovered will be used as evidence in his forthcoming trial.

As a result of his prosecution, Martin wrote a letter stating his decision to leave not only our local congregation but our denomination. While accepting his decision, our church nevertheless decided to disfellowship him formally. We reached this decision not merely because of his actions but also because of his lack of repentance.

Unfortunately this decision did not end the matter. Realizing that the feelings of our church were deeply divided, we organized a seminar on the subject of child abuse. The speaker, a therapist of great common sense, was able to dispel a number of misconceptions and helped some of our members realize how Martin had manipulated their feelings. We also organized a week of prayer and fasting for our church.

Yet the sense of woundedness caused by this one man's action and its fallout remain. Our congregation, which had previously been friendly, happy, and outgoing before all this came to light is still hampered by division and mistrust. Some people have changed their position and have apologized for siding with Martin. Others have not. One victim's family, previously very active in the church, comes to church only occasionally. Martin's wife, who supported her husband throughout, has virtually lost contact with us. The victims themselves have had significant therapy during the last three years. Only time will tell how well the emotional wounds have healed.

* "Martin" is a pseudonym, along with every other name mentioned in this article.

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Peter Winter is a pseudonym.

March 2001

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