I left congregational ministry a year ago to answer a call to ministry as a social worker at our local sexual assault crisis center. A part of my work now is training congregations to recognize and prevent child sexual abuse. What I have learned would shift how I do ministry with children and youth, and I’d like to pass some of my learnings on.
Preventing child sexual abuse is an adult responsibility, and it is a responsibility that should be in the forefront of awareness for those working with children and youth.
We are oriented toward nurturing the faith formation of the children in our congregations and to do that we need to also be concerned with creating an environment that is safe. Further, the call of Jesus points us to caring for the vulnerable among us. Children are vulnerable, both because of their size and because their mental, emotional and spiritual selves are still developing. As Maya Angelou says, “Sexual abuse … can take a child who knows nothing and turn her into a child who believes nothing.”
Child sexual abuse typically happens because someone manipulates the child, and perhaps protective adults, to the point where the abuse can happen.
Research tells us that 90 percent of victims know their abuser and that most victims are often actively involved in the church.
This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t trust people in our congregations, but it does mean that we should set up policies and procedures that enable us to have a wise trust.
What does this mean for how we engage in ministry with children? Abuse usually happens when a child is isolated with a perpetrator. Adopt a two adult rule. Best practice is to set up policies so no adult is alone with a child, and if they are alone, it should be in a public space. It is also important to invest time and energy into educating the adults who work with children about child sexual abuse — especially how to respond if a child discloses abuse and how to intervene if they see behaviors which make them concerned that a child is being groomed to be abused.
There are two other statistics that made me re-evaluate how I engage in ministry with children. Between one quarter and one third of those who sexually offend against minors are juveniles themselves. And the demographic of the average first-time child sexual offender is a 13 year old male. I would no longer feel comfortable having a youth be responsible for caring for children at church, at least not without other adults being present to supervise. I would also rethink the activities we played as a youth group. Games played in the dark would likely be replaced, as they provide such easy cover for groping or other forms of assault. These would not be changes that would be easily welcomed by our youth. I would also be saddened to make them, but would use the change as opportunity for further conversation about why the change is necessary.
Finally, I would be much more intentional about healthy sexuality and personal boundary education. That education would focus on both equipping parents to have open, ongoing conversations with their children, as well as creating space for that same type of conversation and teaching within the congregation.
If our children cannot talk about issues relating to sexuality why would we think that they will talk to us if something bad or confusing like sexual abuse is happening to them?
Fortunately, Mennonite Church USA has an organization, Dove’s Nest, that can help us in this task. I highly recommend that you connect with them to utilize their knowledge and expertise. As a faith community, we care about our children.
Let us commit to nurturing their faith development in settings where their whole selves are valued and protected.