Preventing child sexual abuse in our churches

How can you administer grace to all worshippers and still protect your young congregants?

Tabitha B. C. Abel, DrPH, is an adjunct faculty member, Treasure Valley Community College, Ontario, Oregon, United States.

Churches need to be concerned about the sexual abuse of children, especially when it happens within their doors. Tragically, children have even been abused by pastors themselves.1 How can churches protect the children in their midst? How can they identify perpetrators before anything happens? How can they avoid the pain that follows child sexual abuse?

There can be no short-term positive outcomes when sexual abuse of children happens in a church setting. Treasurers will consider the financial cost of such an incidence happening on church property or during a church-sponsored activity, and lawyers may consider the long-reaching ramifications as the church’s name is dragged through the law courts and court of public opinion. Counselors will deal with pain and heartache. Pastors will focus on the spiritual fallout that inevitably occurs when child molestation happens and Satan, again, wreaks havoc in the church.

Protecting children in church-sponsored activities

The concerns are valid, and church leaders and the officers of Adventist Risk Management are trying to get ahead of the problem by developing standards and workshops for those working with children on and off campus. These include volunteer staff working in Pathfinder clubs, children’s Sabbath School divisions, camp meetings, and denominational schools. Elders, deacons, and other personnel who do not specifically work with children are also required to attend these workshops, which are designed to keep children safe. Some conferences are slow to institute these programs, while others are advanced in their planning and execution, and attendance has become second nature to all helpers.

Volunteers are also required to sign a Volunteer Code of Conduct stating that they will abide by 11 specific safety requirements and allow a criminal background check.2 The code of conduct requires adults in charge of children to never be left alone with a child and to always interact with children where the activity becomes fully visible. This protects children from abuse and protects volunteers from false allegations and their consequences, which can be ruinous. Unfortunately, in signing compliance to all the requirements, signees are unlikely able to comply with all the rules 100 percent of the time, despite their best intentions. Undoubtedly, volunteers cannot be fully aware of all of the laws pertaining to reporting child abuse in their state or country because the laws are updated frequently; nevertheless, helpers must sign the agreement in order to volunteer. This can be of concern to those who are scrupulous in their practice of truthfulness.

We find it unlikely that a pedophile in the congregation will be on a convicted sex offender list in the United States, as only 3 percent of child sexual abusers are convicted. The other 97 percent are not convicted, usually for lack of evidence, and are therefore unidentifiable,3 but screening volunteers may stop those predisposed to interfering with a child from being allowed to volunteer. But there remains a greater danger from those who have yet to offend and those who have not been convicted of child sexual abuse.

What makes it worse is that only 10 to 13 percent of all child molestations are reported to the authorities. The church, however, should be commended for instituting requirements to keep our children safe. Many church employees are required by law to report suspicious sexual behaviors and child abuse to the local police department or Child Protective Services, as regulated by their state or country’s courts.

The value of a child

God’s first instruction to Adam and Eve was to make families. Children were an integral part of His plan and were to be loved, cared for, and taught God’s laws. The Bible records the value placed on children. In Psalm 127:3, 5 we read that “Children are a heritage from the Lord. . . . / Happy is the man who has his quiver full of them” (NKJV). Children are a blessing. One distinctive characteristic of God’s chosen people was that they were not to sacrifice their children to Molech or Baal (Deut. 18:10; Jer. 19:5) as did the neighboring nations. God detested this behavior. Sadly His people were not always obedient to God’s command.

Jesus reprimanded His disciples for telling mothers not to bring their children to Him to bless them because blessing children was important to Jesus (Matt. 19:13–15; Mark 10:13–16; Luke 18:15–17). Another proof reflecting His attitude was bringing Jairus’s 12-yearold daughter back to life (Mark 5:22–24, 35–42; Luke 8:41, 42, 49–56). In most cultures today, children are cherished. They are an investment, a heritage, and our future. They are quick to forgive, ready to trust, and generous in love. Jesus says, “ ‘But if you give them a hard time, bullying or taking advantage of their simple trust, you’ll soon wish you hadn’t. You’d be better off dropped in the middle of the lake with a millstone around your neck’ ” (Matt. 18:6, The Message).

Many people, today, still advocate death, imprisonment with no opportunity of release, or even torture for child sexual abusers. Child sexual abusers are reviled, and even if the accused are found innocent in a court of law, many in society still judge them to be guilty. Those who use a child sexually or abuse a child physically or emotionally are deemed to be without a moral compass. We do not condone miscarriages of the law, but we state unequivocally that child abuse in any form should not be tolerated.

Pedophile or child molester?

Unfortunately, most news reports misinform the public when they use the term child molester interchangeably with pedophile. Someone who has molested a child is a child molester—but may or may not be a pedophile. A pedophile is a person (frequently a male), who feels sexually attracted to children. They can be concerned about their strange sexual attraction and intend never to act on it. Many will never do so, especially if they get professional help. This sets up a conundrum for pedophiles who live where mandatory reporting laws inhibit minor-attracted people from obtaining the help they seek and need, and where discussing their attraction may result in their being ostracized, marginalized, and judged as a child molester.

Not all child molesters are, however, pedophiles. Child molesters may be malicious, sociopathic persons who seek their own pleasure with no care for the well-being of their quarry. All pedophiles do not become child molesters. However some, through lack of treatment and support, end up traveling down this dark road.

The dangerous road

 What makes the difference is discussion both professionally and among people who are involved in this matter. The three levels—attraction, arousal, and action—are now recognized, and the opportunity to intervene between attraction and action becomes essential to prevent child sexual abuse.

Youth are curious, and curiosity about human sexuality would be no exception. At family gatherings, in Pathfinder clubs, at church socials, and at home when parents are out, innocent “playing doctor” games can be the incidents that ignite unhealthy sexual behaviors in the susceptible child. Youth who are at least five years older than their victim may intentionally play with children inappropriately, giving the child pleasurable feelings of sexual stimulation that can lead the child into requesting further pleasure and mixed emotional turbulence.

A sadistic perpetrator may manipulate a situation to their advantage and go into deeper darkness and be unable to control what happens. This frequently results in more children being sexually abused. The victim, too, may become an abuser in the future, which leans toward explaining molestation as a learned behavior and not a sexual orientation gone awry. Whatever the case, what started as possibly innocent curiosity for some can start the spiral into depression, fear, self-loathing, isolation, and suicide for the perpetrator and cause untold emotional damage to a child.

Girls are molested more frequently than boys, but boys are less likely to report an adult or older teen molesting them. There are three mains reasons for this: (1) they fear that they are homosexual if the perpetrator is male, (2) they are less likely to believe that what was done to them was abuse, and (3) boys are taught to be “macho” and not easily emotionally upset.

The public is generally unaware of the facts about pedophilia. Pedophiles are as varied as the population in which they live and not likely to be vagrants luring children at the park or on their walk between school and home. They are usually caring men, more often than women, who are good with kids and liked by children. They are great teachers, social workers, pediatricians, and parents. They can be friends’ relatives, storekeepers, and coaches. According to researchers, 5 to 10 percent of the adult male population are pedophiles, with the majority not being exclusively sexually attracted to children.4 They may be in long-term marriages or relationships with people of the opposite (or the same) gender, and pedophilia is their secondary sexual attraction. Their attraction is usually to children of a specific gender and in a specific age range.

Grooming is the process whereby perpetrators gain the confidence of their prey and advance slowly from acceptable to unacceptable behaviors. It may start innocently with the perpetrator being a genuine friend of the child’s family or the child, but over time the relationship changes. Alternatively, he may look for a boy who would be unlikely to be believed by his family or would be unlikely to tell anyone. Such children are at risk.

But what can parents do when their teen does not advance past being attracted to 10-year-olds? That was normal behavior when they were 10 or 12 years old, but now, at the age of 16, this activity becomes unacceptable, weird, confusing, and even frightening. Do they have a child molester in their house who may be placed in juvenile detention? Are their other children at risk? What will colleagues say, or people at church, or their friends? What about the pedophile who has a spouse and three children and holds a position on the church school board? What about a Pathfinder staff member or a pastoral team member? What will happen if they reveal their need for help, even though they have not acted on their attraction?

They may believe that their best option would be to remain quiet and hope it goes away or to commit suicide before they do anything that hurts a child or brings shame on their family. No one will understand how disgusted they are with themselves. They believe that the hatred they incur would be deserved. They are alone.

All have sinned

Christians are familiar with the verse, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23, NIV). This comes as an inclusive statement. No one and no sin should be listed as unforgiveable. No one, therefore, can say they do not need Christ’s forgiveness and grace, whether their sin is immodesty, anger, lying, stealing, gluttony, adultery, gossiping, murder, homosexual behavior, or acting on a pedophilic orientation.5 Sin is sin, and everyone needs a Savior. Jesus’ saving grace happens for all sinners. He brings hope to everyone, though often that is not the message heard by non-offending pedophiles.

Would-be molesters are unlikely to believe that God loves them when the Christian community becomes closed to hearing their cry for help before they commit a crime. This behavior confirms their worst fears and makes many suicidally hopeless. The action of others makes them more fearful and isolated from society, which increases the risk of them acting on their attraction.

Be a part of the solution

Should Christians view those who voice that they are tempted to sexually abuse a child as though they have already acted on their sinful inclination? Having a sexual attraction to children may not be a sin; but acting on that attraction is. Christians can be the first to acknowledge the difference and the need for more knowledge and understanding and have an open discussion. These matters should no longer be avoided or ignored. At a time when society demands tolerance in all matters, child abuse seems to still be the exception. This is one of few situations where our tolerant culture will tolerate intolerance.

With this in mind, Christians can start taking steps toward protecting our children and helping those with a pedophilic orientation, no matter how the innate behavior developed. With growing understanding, Christians can help non-offending pedophiles find professional help and no longer ostracize them. We know that sharing their attraction with even one trusted person significantly lessens the chances of a pedophile acting on their attraction.

By discussing the topic of child abuse with an open mind, pastors are taking an important first step. The following actions can help pave the way for further understanding of the problems we face in reaching out to minor-attracted persons before they act on their attraction:

  1. Host workshops provided by church leaders about child safety, and institute the plans fully.
  2. Invite professionals, or someone versed in the behavior and management of pedophilia, to discuss pedophilia with parents, spouses, and compassionate individuals who have an interest in helping this despised population.
  3. Encourage a compassionate, understanding spirit in all levels of church leadership so that a self-disclosing, non-offending pedophile will receive intelligent, Christlike support and help in connecting with specialized professional help and resources.
  4. Institute safety policies so that nonoffending pedophiles can attend church-sponsored programs with a prevention partner (spouse, confidant), even though they have not committed a crime, to protect them from unfair accusations while protecting our children.
  5. Educate youth leaders, summer camp staff, Pathfinder staff, children’s ministries staff, school teachers, and others who work with youth about pedophilia and how to recognize young people who have a pedophilic attraction.
  6. Pray for wisdom in working for the safety of our children and the souls of non-offending pedophiles.

1 Cf. Samantha Nelson, “Choosing Grace: Forgiveness Restores a Broken Relationship,” Outlook (April 2017), 6. Samantha Nelson is CEO of The Hope of Survivors, a ministry for victims of clergy sexual abuse. She and her pastor husband serve in the Rocky Mountain Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.

2 See, for example, the Volunteer Background Check Form of the Oregon Conference, which includes the Seventh-day Adventist Church Ministry Volunteer Code of Conduct, March 2016, on page 3 _assets/287066. (accessed: July 2016).

3 Joan Tabachnick and Alisa Klein, A Reasoned Approach: Reshaping Sex Offender Policy to Prevent Child Sexual Abuse (Beaverton, OR: Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers [ATSA], 2011), /ppReasonedApproach.pdf, 19.

4 Sarah D. Goode, “How many paedophiles are there?” in Understanding and Addressing Adult Sexual Attraction to Children: A Study of Paedophiles in Contemporary Society (New York: Routledge, 2010), 14–20.

5 Tabitha B. C. Abel, Untouchable: Reaching the Most Despised With God’s Love (Charleston, SC: The Association for Sexual Abuse Prevention, 2017), 98, 126–143.

Ministry reserves the right to approve, disapprove, and delete comments at our discretion and will not be able to respond to inquiries about these comments. Please ensure that your words are respectful, courteous, and relevant.

comments powered by Disqus

Tabitha B. C. Abel, DrPH, is an adjunct faculty member, Treasure Valley Community College, Ontario, Oregon, United States.

May 2017

Download PDF
Ministry Cover

More Articles In This Issue

Someone’s watching

That day I saw my rebellious teenager soften before my eyes.

Aim lower, think smaller!

A pastor's focus on children's ministry will not only attract families and increase church membership, but will save heaven's favorite human treasure for eternity.

Nurturing the faith of pastors’ kids: Reflections on a pastoral family stress study

Explore with the author the biggest pastoral concern of all that of saving other children while losing our own.

The Second Clergy Wives Club

Being a pastor's second wife is not always easy—especially when the pastor stays in the church where his first wife was queen.

Pastor, you need to know

Does your pastoral leadership have the necessary gifts to properly nurture and shepherd the women in your church?

Pastoral marriages: A contemporary challenge

Marriages are taking a hit—and there's no pass for the pastoral couple.

View All Issue Contents

Digital delivery

If you're a print subscriber, we'll complement your print copy of Ministry with an electronic version.

Sign up

Recent issues

See All

Latest Videos

See All
Advertisement - AdventTours Wide Skyscraper (160x600)