Sexual abuse is hard to talk about. This post is intensely personal for me and may be the hardest thing I’ve ever written. It is itching a scar that hasn't completely healed, and may not until I see Jesus face to face. In these few hundred words I am touching on something I think about everyday and continue to struggle through. But because of the potential and real dangers of sexual abuse, even in our churches, I recognize my responsibility to address it as a pastor. To ignore the scandals in some churches and pretend that it couldn't happen in our own church is a dangerous folly that can lead to devastating consequences.
How does the church handle the issue of sexual abuse? In my estimation, not very well. At least, not in general. Some bury the abuse and refuse to deal with predators while inflicting even more damage on victims. I want more for the church, for those who have suffered, and for the glory of Jesus Christ. We should be asking, “What is the church’s responsibility?” “How does the gospel help all those impacted by sexual abuse?” “How do we protect the children in our care?” I certainly do not have all the answers, but what I have learned and am most convicted about is that we must address the issue of sexual abuse in the church with grace, with caution, and with care.
People who have been through the traps and maze of sexual abuse feel shame, failure, and intense anger. We wonder why this happened, and never feel like we get the clear answer we desire. Parents of the abused often blame themselves for “letting it happen.” As we experience all of this we have a tendency to isolate ourselves. With isolation comes bitterness. One of the greatest places for healing from sin and evil ought to be the church where love, truth, and community come together with supernatural power. Those who have suffered must be patiently listened to, lovingly held, and gently reminded who God is and what Christ has done. They need to be reassured that the Gospel is powerful and active, even in situations like sexual abuse.
The need for grace is not only for those who have directly suffered at the hands of another, but is also for the family of those who suffer. Though in varying degrees, when we love each other we all suffer when one suffers.
Grace for those who are suffering will come in various forms. Today I want to mention three graces that are particularly important for those dealing with sexual abuse. First is the grace of healing. Sin has been ravaging humanity since Genesis 3, and leaving wounds, scars, and death in its wake. When someone is emotionally and spiritually maimed, is there any real hope of healing? I must say boldly, yes! There is healing. And though not all wounds heal as quickly as others, the Lord has promised healing to those who need it. Jesus came preaching the good news of the kingdom and healing people both physically and spiritually. He cast out demons, restored sight to the blind, and set people free from abuse and abusers (John 8:2 - 11). Jesus heals us by the pouring out of his kindness to us in his promises of justice and love. Justice will one day come to all the afflicted and oppressed, and his love for us is unshakable. Those who have suffered under hateful and violent forms of sin can find life in the overflowing and unconditional love of our God. His grace comes in the form of forgiveness. Then there is the grace of forgiveness. I am not suggesting that the victim of sexual abuse is guilty of anything, but that the grace of forgiveness remains powerful to their recovery. They can learn to forgive those who have sinned against them, and in doing this find a new level of freedom from the bitterness of their abuse. And there remains forgiveness available to them if they have sinned after their abuse. Some will doubt God, others may even curse him after such dark days of pain. But even then the Lord remains faithful and ready to receive all who look to his Son, Jesus Christ. And the grace of hope remains very real for those who have suffered. Hope for the rebuilding and renewing of their hearts, for God’s continued work in and through them, and for the future reign of righteousness.
Grace is offered to all through the cross of Jesus Christ. He knows the pain and suffering of evil, and has overcome it all. He offers this grace to all who will come to him. The kind of grace I’m talking about here can take many different forms, but it must be present. Victims and their families need to be reminded they are loved and that God is good.
Every church is touched, in one way or another, by the evil of sexual abuse. It may not have happened on church property, and the abusers may not be church members, but, according to the National Center for Victims of Crime, one in five girls and one in twenty boys is a victim of child sexual abuse. According to RAINN, one out of every six American women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime. The statistics are out there, and it is a safe assumption that there are people in your church who are or will be victims of sexual abuse. The church needs to be prepared to help those who have suffered and protect those under their care.
Every church needs to know who is working with whom and when. I know well the pressure of getting volunteers to serve in kid's ministries, but there is never an excuse for sidestepping background checks for staff and volunteers, check-in systems and protocols that work to protect everyone. The policies any church employs should have adequate accountability built in as well. The church and its elders bear the sacred responsibility of protecting the flock.
Let me say caution does not equal suspicion. Requiring background checks and safety protocols does not mean we are suspicious of our people. Rather, it means we recognize the present reality of sin and brokenness and the need to care for the people God has entrusted us with.
This is a preview of something Jared will be wrestling through tomorrow, but the church needs to have policies in place for the offenders as well. Does a local church tell someone who has been convicted of a sex crime they are not welcome? Every church needs policies in place that are cautious but not closed off. Even sexual offenders aren’t beyond redemption.
Both grace and caution need to come from the Gospel and through the church to those who are dealing with sexual abuse. This can come in many forms. But the ongoing need for care must be addressed through safe community and gospel influenced relationships. Often times caring for those hurting begins by simply grieving with them; they need a shoulder to cry on and someone to talk to. What they don’t need is an abundance of words given too early, no matter how true. Nor do they need empty sentimentality about how things are going to be ok. They need to know others, and be known by others who love them. In that context, words then become life-giving. Again, we need to find ways of offering care for victims and the families of victims. This can be done through small group ministries that focus on healing, individuals and couples particularly gifted in serving those in such a situation, and a church culture that admits we are all broken and in need of grace.
Every church should evaluate their current perspective and policies when it comes to sexual abuse; not to protect itself, but to protect people; not to guarantee problems don’t arise, but so that when they do righteousness and healing can prevail.
DISCLAIMER: My (Pat) name may be in the byline, but this was a collaborative effort between myself and my Pastor, Joe Thorn.