Editor’s note: When it happens, sexual abuse in the church needs to be properly and promptly addressed. This is not an exhaustive paper giving all the necessary tools to deal with abuse; it is a personal story. Pastoral leaders are encouraged to become as informed and active as possible on this life-and-death subject.1
I am a 33-year-old woman who grew up in the Seventh-day Adventist Church. I was raised to be in the pew on Sabbath; wield a giant push vacuum to help clean the church on Friday; and seal envelopes for mass mailings for every event, whatever the day.
I seem, now, to be creating the same atmosphere for my children. They attend every practice, service, and event with their father and me. The way that they run free-range around the empty halls as I serve in various areas around the building warms my heart.
But it also gives me pause. And I have a good reason why it does.
When I was 15, an older peer in our youth group began to “groom” me. It became a horrifying, painful cycle of emotional; physical; and, ultimately, sexual abuse. I bore all of the wounds and damage that a sexually abused child takes into adulthood.
Back then, though needing and seeking help, I was counseled by people around me who loved me—yet had no tools to heal me. They were clueless about what to do for me and what I needed!
For instance, our youth leader at the time of my abuse was 25 years old. He had no prior training, aside from what an education at a Christian college afforded. He was not a counselor. He had no formal training in sexual abuse, much less emotional abuse. None of the pastors or elders in my church knew what to look for or how to help me either.
So, instead of being shielded from harm, I was an outcast; publicly shamed; forced to stand up in front of our entire youth group and admit my own fault; and, ultimately, scarred in irreparable ways by people who truly, deeply, loved me and wanted to help. What I experienced, no one else ever should. Ever.
So, I say this to youth leaders in our church today because I know how much you love and want to help the kids that you are leading. I know that you want them to form lifelong bonds with their Lord and Savior. I know that you want to do the right thing even if you might be ill-equipped to know what the right thing is when a young person makes a claim about having been sexually abused.
From having had a firsthand, terrible experience with being sexually abused, here are some steps I found helpful to handle it:
First, seek wise counsel
Find people who are older than you. I know pride or ignorance tells you that you have answers, but more often than not, you are too young and inexperienced to offer more than your opinion. Find help. Professional help. Call the counselor in your congregation or on staff, ask the elder who used to be the high-school principal. Call someone who has more experience with minors dealing with assault if you suspect or hear anything. Find professional help. Right away.
Second, know the signs
So many public entities are now required to go through training courses that, frankly, did not exist when I was young. Find out what the warning signs are for your specific student demographic. Look for the kids who suddenly change what they wear or who they hang out with or how sexual they become or how loud or quiet they suddenly make themselves seem or if they come to church at all.
As far as the predators go—do not be fooled by age, gender, charisma, or popularity. Predators have no definite make-up, no sign to tell you who they are. It may be the most charming of young men or the most trustworthy of young women. It may be one of your seemingly kindest and wisest leaders. It may be a parent eager to serve. Be aware, know what to look for, and do not just assume everything is OK, especially if you have suspicions.
Third, do not try to handle it in-house
I know your church is a wonderful place, but report any and all abuse. Report the hint of abuse. If you are wrong, that will be slightly uncomfortable. If you are right, you will save a child a lifetime of pain.
Now, I know it’s hard. Sometimes people you love will be hurt by your action of reporting. Sometimes it’s families you are close to. Sometimes it’s kids who are a delight. Sometimes it’s people who “could never.” Report it anyway. Do not sit down with them and a group of elders and try to pray them through abusing someone. It will not work—and it may also be illegal.2 Report someone you suspect of predatory behavior. You are morally and legally obliged to do so.
Fourth, do not try to solve it yourself
Victims of abuse need professional care. Send them to a professional. Tell the parents to send them to a professional. If a kid had a broken leg, you would not fix it yourself. Sexual abuse is much more serious. So how can you think you can fix the damage? You cannot. You are wonderful and kind and want to help, but you must send them to someone who is trained in trauma care and can offer them everything they need.
I know that many youth leaders have the best of intentions. But, please, take these words to heart. Jesus wants to capture the hearts of these children, and He asks us to be wise and never prideful. As we win kids to the Lord, let us be their safe place by protecting them from harm. It is your moral, spiritual, and legal responsibility, as church leaders, to do so—and anything less can make a bad situation infinitely worse.
- For resources, see https://women.adventist.org/enditnow-initiative.
- See Child Welfare Information Gateway, “Clergy as Mandatory Reporters of Child Abuse and Neglect.”https:// www.childwelfare.gov/pubPDFs/clergymandated.pdf.