10 steps to becoming a safer church for kids
Sitting with a survivor of sexual assault and listening to their story is difficult. I know. I’ve sat beside over 200 survivors in my role as a volunteer advocate. The stories can bring out feelings of sorrow, outrage, anger, and helplessness.
Most people don’t know what to do or say when someone close to them shares his or her story of being assaulted. The good news is that responding in a supportive way is strikingly simple.
“I believe you.”
Believing a survivor is the number one way to support them. As an advocate, a friend or family member, you get to enjoy the blessing of fully believing what you hear. You don’t need to take sides or wonder if you’re hearing the truth. You just believe because that’s what a survivor needs the most.
Trauma affects the brain and memory functions, and a basic understanding of that is important. Have you ever watched a horror movie and wondered why the characters ran to the basement rather than go outside? The answer is trauma! When we experience a traumatic event, the rational part of the brain shuts down, and our bodies react without conscious thought. Those reactions make no sense when viewed outside of the trauma. Often, what a survivor said or did at the time of their assault makes little sense – and that is completely normal.
Trauma affects memory, too. The part of the brain that records memories in the order they occurred also shuts down. This leads to memories of the event getting recorded in random pieces. Those pieces are in a part of memory that cannot tell time. That means a survivor will mix up the order of what happened and may give different accounts or remember something not remembered before. This, too, is completely normal.
“It’s not your fault”
Survivors of sexual assault will take the blame for their assault. This often comes out as “should or shouldn’t haves” and can sound like, “I should have stayed with my friends.” You may agree that different choices may have resulted in a different outcome. However, it is important for you to remember that no matter what the survivor did or did not do, the only person responsible for the sin of the assault is the perpetrator.
When you hear the survivor say something that sounds like they are placing blame on themselves, remind them that the perpetrator made his or her own decision to sin. It is not the survivor’s fault. Remind the survivor of this every time you hear that person try to take the blame.
As an advocate, it is not your responsibility to tell them how to be safer or what to do next time. This will affirm to the survivor that it really is their fault. Your job is to listen, believe, and keep telling them it’s not their fault.
“What do you want to do?”
Ask the survivor what they want to do regarding the assault. It may be that talking to you is all they need. Perhaps they want to tell someone else or go to law enforcement. Perhaps they are fearful and want help planning how to be safe. Don’t stop with asking the question, though. Your role as advocate is to help the survivor accomplish his or her goals. This is true, even if you think you have a better solution. The survivor knows what is best for them. By helping the survivor achieve state goals, you are helping the survivor begin to take back control. This empowerment is very powerful for the survivor.
A quick word of caution: you will be tempted to fix what. This comes from a loving and caring heart, from a place of wanting to help. This is not your problem to solve. Advocates are not fixers; rather, they walk beside the survivor, gently encouraging and supporting. The advocate role is one of listening and helping the survivor achieve his or her goals.
“Jesus understands. He loves you.”
Always remind a survivor of Jesus’ love. Some survivors find comfort in knowing they have a Savior who also suffered abuse, and that he understands their pain. Remember the trauma we talked about earlier? When a survivor recounts what happened, their brain goes back into trauma mode. Share Bible stories with survivors rather than Bible passages. Stories are easier for the mind to comprehend and remember. The ones that you remember are the best for retelling since you’ll be most comfortable sharing it. Another option is to ask the Survivor what their favorite Bible story is and then recall it together.
Believing, removing blame, empowering, and sharing Jesus. It will not feel like enough, but it is exactly what a survivor needs.
Informational brochures for dealing with mental health issues:
- Ask a Therapist Brochure This brochure gives you important questions to ask counselors when you seek counseling and don’t have access to WELS counselors.
- Christian or Non-Christian Brochure This brochure outlines potential concerns when a counselor is not a Christian, or is a Christian but not of your faith.
- Mental Health Issues Brochure This brochure will guide you when you believe you might need counseling for mental health issues.
- Therapy Models Brochure This brochure helps you sort out psychological terms and distinguish between different counseling processes.
- When to Refer Brochure This brochure is written to help pastors determine when a member is in need of other forms of counseling in addition to the spiritual counseling he offers.
Check out our own Freedom for the Captives list of counselors.
Developing Effective Church Policies on Child Maltreatment
Although churches, synagogues, temples and other places of worship are increasingly implementing policies to protect children from abuse, the policies adopted are often inadequate and of limited value. This article includes ten concrete suggestions for faith institutions that will aid in developing and implementing policies more likely to keep children safe.
1. Consult with at least one child abuse expert in developing policies
A church elder recently contacted the National Child Protection Training Center to express his frustration that their insurance provider told them to implement a child safety policy as a means of lowering their insurance rate. The insurance provider even gave the church several sample child safety policies. Unfortunately, the policies were vastly different and inconsistent with one another. When the church elder askedfor an explanation, the insurance provider explained, “It doesn’t matter to us what policy you adopt, you simply need to have one.”
Church elders and other faith leaders must understand that very few, if any, insurance company employees have investigated, prosecuted, treated or otherwise have significant experience in working with sex offenders. The insurance company is primarily interested in limiting liability and thus they will advocate for some policy, but they are in a poor position to develop or implement effective policies.
Although faith leaders should certainly consult with their insurance provider, they need to make a concerted effort to consult genuine experts on child abuse. Contact local law enforcement agencies, prosecutors’ offices and sex offender treatment providers and ask these true experts to assist in developing policies on child abuse. Making these contacts in advance will also assist the church or other faith institution in working with these very departments if and when a case of child abuse arises within a congregation.
2. Understand that insurance providers and some law firms have a vested interest in preventing future abuse – and keeping quiet about past abuse
Not only are insurance companies and some law firms poorly equipped to advise on developing church child abuse policies, they also have a vested interest in primarily thinking about the future. The reason for this is that preventing future abuse will limit liability for the church and the insurance provider. By the same token, insurance companies have a vested interest in not developing policies that may assist in uncovering abuse that has taken place in the past – because they believe doing so will increase the exposure of their client to liability. This is also why, when issues of past abuse arise, insurance companies and some law firms encourage churches to keep quiet and to limit any internal investigation.
The danger of keeping quiet
When the leaders of Vienna Presbyterian Church in Vienna, Virginia decided to publicly acknowledge their failures in responding to reports of sexual abuse by a youth minister and to apologize to the survivors, they were admonished by their insurance provider to keep quiet.Specifically, they received a letter from their insurance provider’s lawyer advising them as follows:
“Do not make any statements, orally, in writing or in any manner, to acknowledge, admit to or apologize for anything that may be evidence of or interpreted as (a suggestion that) the actions of Vienna Presbyterian Church…caused or contributed to any damages arising from the intentional acts/abuse/misconduct” by the youth director.
Ironically, this sort of advice actually increases the chance a church or other faith institution will be sued by victims. This is because most victims are not interested in large monetary settlements – they are interested in public, unequivocal apologies, genuine church reform and compassionate assistance in addressing the medical, mental health and spiritual damage inflicted by the perpetrator.Contrary to the fears of the attorneys, the church in Vienna has not yet been sued despite a public and unequivocal apology to those who suffered from abuse by a church leader.
A plaintiff’s attorney who has frequently sued churches for negligent handling of child abuse cases advises, “Doing the smart thing and doing the right thing is the same thing.”This same attorney notes that if churches or other faith institutions focus primarily on taking care of the needs of the victim, “they will find it goes better for them after that” because “it just takes all the venom out of the situation.”
The danger of limiting the investigation
In addition to avoiding an apology or at least limiting public statements, some law firms recommend that churches conducting an internal investigation speak only to those who have revealed abuse, as opposed to speaking with all of those who may have been abused or may have knowledge of abuse.This advice is contrary to best practices for child abuse investigators recommended by the National District Attorneys Association’s National Center for Prosecution of Child Abuse.
Since most victims will delay disclosure and many will not disclose until asked,failure to speak with all the children in the care of a sexual offender, or at least those children who share characteristics similar to known victims, will impede the ability of some children to share their experiences and access needed services. This failure will also impede the ability of the church to fully assess the conduct of a child abuser. Some law firms recommending a limited investigation suggest it may “re-injure” potential victims to ask them about their “sexual past.” In reality, the parents of victims, and the victims themselves, are often outraged when they discover a church knew a perpetrator offended against one or more children and failed to fully assess the possibility there were other victims. If a church purposely limits an investigation, and this abridged investigation results in a child abuser continuing to have access to children, this decision will almost certainly increase the church’s exposure to liability. More importantly, it will send a disturbing message to the entire church body, particularly any survivors, that the church is primarily interested in maintaining a positive public image and has no interest in finding, much less helping all the children who may have been harmed by a particular church worker.
3. Limit the opportunity for sex offenders to access children
Dr. Anna Salter, a sexual offender treatment provider, states it is important for parents and child-serving organizations such as churches to avoid “high risk situations.” This is because “we cannot detect child molesters or rapists with any consistency” and thus “must pay attention to ways of deflecting any potential offenders from getting access to our children.”
Many youth organizations have prevented the abuse of children in their care simply by limiting the access of potential offenders to boys and girls. Child abusers count on privacy to avoid detection of their criminal behavior. When churches or other faith institutions remove this privacy it becomes more difficult for the offender to succeed. At a minimum, then, faith institutions should have the following policies in place:
Two-deep leadership. If at all possible, children should always be in the care of at least two church workers. Even if a worker or volunteer has to remove a child from the group for a legitimate reason, the child and the worker should always be in the eyesight of at least one additional worker or volunteer. When developing two-deep leadership teams, it may be wise to avoid placing close family members or friends as teams. This is because a spouse or other close family member is more likely to protect a loved one who violates church rules or engages in concerning behavior with a youth.
Respect for the child’s privacy. Sex offenders like to see children undressing or otherwise seek an opportunity to initiate conversation about sexual topics. Accordingly, workers and volunteers should avoid watching children undress in locker rooms, showers or bathrooms.
Separate sleeping accommodations. At boarding schools, camps or other overnight settings, there should be separate sleeping accommodations for children and the adults. If there is a reason for an adult to enter the sleeping accommodations of children at night (i.e., a child has become ill), the exception should be well documented and, if at all possible, two adults should be entering the sleeping area. When requiring separate sleeping accommodations, make it clear this means truly separate. In one case, an offender arranged an overnight with youth during which he had an adjoining room door he could easily open and otherwise gain access to the children he molested.
Limit, if not prohibit, events at a worker’s home. In one case, a youth minister had the children he was working with over to his house for a party in which all the children joined him in a hot tub where he instructed some of the children how to masturbate with the jets. Again, sex offenders seek private access to children and allowing a worker to be alone with children at his or her house increases the risk. If there is a legitimate reason for hosting an event at the worker’s home, have some rules around such activities— such as an additional worker present. In the same vein, there should be regulations on church workers visiting the homes of children. In more than one case, church workers have visited children at their homes and have molested them.
Appropriate attire. Adult workers and volunteers should wear appropriate clothing at all times. Activities such as skinny dipping should always be prohibited. Again, offenders look for opportunities to initiate inappropriate sexual conversations with their potential victims. Accordingly, sexually suggestive or otherwise inappropriate apparel or behaviors should be prohibited.
Sexual jokes, comments or behaviors around children should be strictly prohibited. In one case, a “Christian” teacher told the boys in his care about the frequency he had sex with his wife on his honeymoon. The same teacher would slam on the brakes when driving the school van and comment to the boys this was merely a “ball busting exercise.” A protestant worker at a church boarding school hosted a pizza party in which the invited adolescent girls were “accidently exposed” to his pornography collection. In another case, a Lutheran school teacher made frequent jokes and impersonations of homosexuals. Apart from the fact that all of the behaviors described run contrary to the teachings of any legitimate theological practice, there are two practical, compelling reasons that behaviors such as these should be strictly prohibited and result in immediate discipline. First, these behaviors may be used by offenders to invite sexual conversations with children in the hope of engaging in sexual activity. Second, these behaviors create a climate making it much more difficult for abused children to disclose their victimization. For example, a boy being sexually abused by his father, or who may wonder about his own sexual identity, may be particularly reluctant to expose this victimization when he is in the company of a teacher and attends a school that allows jokes about same-sex conduct.
Windows and open doors. There may be times when a teacher or other adult will need to be alone with a child, such as a teacher giving a child a music lesson. In such a scenario, it is important to have an open-door policy where fellow teachers or others can enter unexpectedly and to have windows on doors so others can see what is happening in a particular room. Again, sex offenders look for opportunities to abuse children and it is the responsibility of a youth-serving organization to limit these opportunities.
Prohibiting corporal punishment. Corporal punishment of children is prohibited in most schools, day cares and other settings.There is a large body of medical and mental health research documenting that corporal punishment does very little good and is often harmful to children. As an additional concern, sex offenders may view corporal punishment as a socially permissible means to touch a child’s buttocks or other intimate parts of the body.
4. Conduct a background check and oral screening of workers and volunteers
Many seminaries do not conduct background checks or any other child protection related screening of their students prior to their graduation. In some instances, seminaries have been sued for negligently graduating a sex offender and sending them on to an unsuspecting flock.Despite their exposure to liability, many seminaries and other faith schools graduate students into congregations without having done a comprehensive assessment of possible risk factors. Even if a seminary has conducted some sort of screening, it is still wise for a local congregation to conduct both a background check and an oral screening of workers and volunteers. This is because the seminary may have conducted an incompetent screening or it may have conducted a screening upon the student’s admission to the seminary but did not examine behaviors that may have arisen during seminary training.
Although a background check is important, it will only reveal those who have been convicted of a crime against a child.This is problematic because most sex offenders, even some who have abused hundreds of children, have never been charged much less convicted of a crime. Accordingly, an oral screening of faith workers and volunteers should also be conducted. This screening may include:
- Asking the candidate if he has reviewed the church child protection policy and what his thoughts are about the policy. Candidates who don’t believe such policies are necessary or express any hesitancy in abiding by the policies may not be child abusers, but they are also less likely to be vigilant in keeping children safe.
- Asking a candidate interested in working with children the basis for that interest. In recommending this question, some experts suggest it may help locate workers and volunteers who understand their role is to help children and not the other way around. Offenders are often ego-centric and seek children who meet their needs (i.e., “Children are non-judgmental and make me feel good about myself.”) as opposed to what they can do for children (i.e., “I think I’m a very good teacher and I can help children read and otherwise grow intellectually.”)
- Asking a candidate whether they have any adult friendships. Some sex offender treatment providers have noted it is risky to place children in the care of an adult who appears to have no adult friendships or activities—and yet is frequenting settings and putting himself in situations where he has regular access to children. According to sex offender treatment provider Dr. Anna Salter, church groups should “be careful with men who involve themselves in youth activities and who do not have children of their own or children of that age. From church youth leaders to coaches to anyone who befriends your child, notice if they have grown-up friends and partners. If they do not, be very cautious about leaving them alone with your child.”
- Give the candidate a hypothetical case of potential child abuse and ask how she would handle the situation. If the candidate expresses any reservation in following the church child protection policy in response to a hypothetical case, it is a fair assumption that he or she will also hesitate when confronted with an actual case.
An oral screening is not a panacea and, similar to a background check, will not catch most sex offenders. This is because many sex offenders understand the “right” answer to many questions and are more than happy to say whatever it takes to get near children. Nonetheless, an oral screening will assist in at least three ways. First, it sends the message that the church is serious about its child protection policies.This may deflect some sex offenders to the extent they realize that a church serious about child protection will be more difficult to operate in than a church which only gives lip service to the protection of children. Second, it may take away an offender’s excuses when a church seeks to discipline or remove him for violating policies. For example, if the screener makes it clear that making sexual jokes around children is prohibited, the offender can no longer say “I didn’t realize that” when confronted for violating the rule. Third, an oral screening may help screen out those applicants who may not be child abusers but who will not be vigilant in enforcing the child protection policies.
5. Teach personal safety to children in faith-based schools
A personal safety program for children sends a powerful message that the faith community is aware of the need for personal safety and is willing to help if a child is harmed.”] A personal safety program is not the same as sex education. The teacher or other instructor is simply telling children that the parts of their body covered by bathing suits are not supposed to be touched by others and, when they are, they should tell someone. If the person they tell doesn’t believe them, they should keep on telling until they are believed. There are a number of personal safety programs that can be easily modified for a faith-based school. In addition to teaching the children personal safety, it is important to provide instruction to the parents so that they can reinforce these lessons at home and will know how to respond if a child makes a disclosure.
Many faith-based schools teach fire safety, school crossing safety or even swimming safety and yet bristle at the thought of personal safety designed to empower children to protect themselves against offenders. Some professionals are opposed to personal safety classes because they believe the classes put the burden on the children to protect themselves.However, these children have already been led by their perpetrators to believe there is nothing they can do to stop the abuse. A personal safety program may give them a way out. In one case, a three year-old victim, who had received personal safety instructions from her church day care, subsequently reported to her mother being molested by a twelve-year-old boy. The boy confessed to the offense and was prosecuted in juvenile court. This is not an isolated anecdote.
It is important to remember that, although some children may disclose as a result of a personal safety program, many children will never voluntarily disclose abuse. This is because child abuse, particularly sexual abuse, is engulfed in secrecy and the victim may fear repercussions for disclosing abuse.It is also important to remember that many victims love their offender and count on their parent or other perpetrator for food, clothing, shelter and other basic needs. As bad as things may be at home, a child may fear that another environment will be worse.
6. Don’t investigate – report
When a child makes an outcry of abuse, many faith organizations decide they need to conduct a preliminary assessment or investigation to determine if the allegation is plausible before reporting the matter to the police. This is problematic for four reasons.
- First, it is unlikely that any church or other faith institution has forensic interviewers specifically trained to speak with a child about sexual abuse, police officers skilled at interrogating child sexual abuse suspects or mental and medical health professionals who can document physical and psychological injuries resulting from abuse. Simply stated, the church is not specifically trained to assess an allegation of child abuse and thus should refer the matter to the local authorities who are specifically trained.
- Second, any delay in reporting may result in the loss of critical evidence. Evidence on the child’s body, for example, will absorb, transfer or be washed away. Lubricants, pornography, sexual toys or other objects used in the abuse of the child may be destroyed. The perpetrator may use any delay to pressure the child or others to minimize or recant an allegation.
- Third, any delay in reporting is likely a violation of the law. In most states, churches and other organizations or professionals serving youth are mandated to report to the authorities any reasonable suspicion of abuse.
- Fourth, a church conducting an incompetent investigation that taints the memories of witnesses, results in the loss of evidence, or that provides the perpetrator with an opportunity to threaten or pressure one or more victims into silence may, on that basis alone, expose itself to liability. This is because an incompetent investigation may fail to detect an actual abuser. If the abuser continues to offend, which is likely, the church conducting the original investigation may be held responsible.
There may be instances in which the government declines to investigate a report of abuse even though there is compelling evidence or even an admission of wrongdoing. If, for example, the sexual offense took place in another country while a pastor was a missionary, the local law enforcement agency may be unable or unwilling to take any action. In such a case, the church may need to conduct an internal, competent investigation. Failure to do so may result in future victims and will expose the church to liability.If a church does not have as a member of the congregation a child abuse detective or other genuine expert, it may wish to retain such an expert to conduct the investigation or at least to serve the church as a consultant.
7. Develop church policies for sex offenders seeking to attend services or to join a congregation
Most offenders describe themselves as religiousand some studies suggest the most egregious sex offenders tend to be actively involved with their faith community. According to a national survey of 2,864 church leaders, 20% of these leaders knew of at least one convicted sex offender who was attending or was a member of their church. Accordingly, churches need to think in advance what their policies will be when a sex offender seeks membership in their congregation.
At a minimum, these policies should include:
Compliance with the law. The church should speak with the offender’s probation officer and with the local prosecutor’s office to determine if the offender can lawfully attend services or other functions at which children are present. If the offender is prohibited from attending public gatherings at which children are present, the church should inform the offender that under no circumstances will the church aid in a violation of the law. Once these boundary lines are clearly drawn, church leaders can then determine how to meet the offender’s spiritual needs.
Consultation with the sex offender’s treatment provider. If the offender is or has been in sex offender treatment, the church should require him or her to sign a release so the appropriate church leaders can speak with the treatment provider. This will assist the church in determining the potential dangers the offender poses to children and will also help the church leaders in meeting the needs of the offender.
Review of court and investigative records of the offender’s conduct. The appropriate parties from the church should review the original complaint filed against the offender as well as any records generated as a result. In many cases, an offender may have pled guilty to sexually abusing one child in exchange for dismissing allegations of abuse against other children. Indeed, the offender may even have confessed to abusing many more children but the other cases were dismissed as a result of the plea bargain. A complete review of these records will be more telling than simply examining the offender’s conviction record. In many states, accessing these records is as simple as visiting the court administrator’s office in the county where the perpetrator was convicted and asking to see any public files regarding the case.
Determine the level of supervision necessary to protect children. If the offender is considered a low risk by the government and his or her treatment provider, it may be possible for the offender to attend services but only under supervision of at least one and preferably two mature members of the congregation who will be with the offender at all times to ensure no children are harmed, and also to protect the offender from taunting or other misconduct that may be directed at him or her. If the offender is at a higher risk, or if there is any question as to risk, the church should establish separate services for the offender at his home or another location in which he can be ministered to. It may be appropriate to select a group of mature men who will also attend these services so that the offender can have some sense of fellowship. This scenario would allow the congregation to meet the offender’s spiritual needs without placing any child at risk. If the offender is a woman, the supervision should be provided by mature women from the congregation.
Even if the offender is at low risk, he should not be allowed to join a congregation where the victim attends services. If the offender abused a member of the congregation, he should be prohibited from joining the church. The congregation may work to find the offender another spiritual home but the emotional needs of the victim should always take priority. If it is necessary to find the offender a different church, it is critical to inform the new church of the basis for the offender’s removal. Otherwise, the offender may be given a “fresh start”—and access to a whole new set of potential victims.
The church leaders should inform the congregation of the offender’s request to attend worship or to join the congregation and take into account the needs of the entire church body. Offenders thrive on secrecy and they, and the community as a whole, are best protected when there is an open discussion of their conduct and their presence in the pew. Church leaders who believe they can keep secret the presence of a convicted sex offender are engaging in wishful, even dangerous thinking. In an age in which sex offender registries and conviction records are easily accessible online, members of the congregation will eventually discover an offender is present and may feel betrayed that the church hierarchy kept this from the members, particularly those members with children. Accordingly, the entire congregation should be informed of the situation and there should be a public discussion. The congregation should be particularly sensitive to the concerns of parents who worry that even if an offender is shadowed and otherwise monitored in such a way as to make additional abuse difficult, the offender may nonetheless have sexual thoughts when he or she is watching the children’s choir sing.
Even more importantly, church leaders should be sensitive to the fears of survivors of abuse who may be emotionally harmed by knowing there is an offender in their midst. Close proximity to a sex offender may be a weekly, painful reminder to survivors of their own suffering. Simply put, the church must minister to the offender in such a way that survivors are not re-victimized, emotionally or otherwise.
It is advisable to have a standing committee selected by the church body to oversee and enforce these policies. If the church or other faith entity has members with knowledge or experience in responding to or working with cases of sexual abuse it is wise to ask them to be part of this committee. If the church permits outside members to serve on such a committee, it may be helpful to have someone from the local law enforcement agency, social service department or prosecutor’s office to at least serve in an advisory capacity to the committee. The members of the committee themselves should be subjected to a background check. Needless to say, it will be difficult to regulate a sex offender in the church if the committee charged with his oversight also includes a sex offender.
8. Be cognizant that many offenders are seeking “Cheap Grace”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran minister executed by the Nazis because of his opposition to the government.Perhaps Bonhoeffer’s greatest contribution to theology was his recognition of the dangers of “cheap grace,” which Bonhoeffer defined as “grace sold on the market like cheapjacks’ wares. The sacraments, the forgiveness of sin, and the consolations of religion are thrown away at cut prices.”
Many sex offenders have found the value of “cheap grace” in faith communities. Simply put, these sex offenders have come to realize that if they cry readily and mouth the words of repentance they won’t have to take any action to remedy the damage they have inflicted. According to sex offender treatment provider Anna Salter, “If children can be silenced and the average person is easy to fool, many offenders report that religious people are even easier to fool than most people.”
Numerous clergy have been confronted with an offender who confesses to sexually abusing a child, emotionally expresses remorse and pledges abuse will never happen again. The offender begs for God’s forgiveness and some members of the clergy are quick to absolve the sinner and the sin. When this happens, many offenders return home, realize how easy it is to be forgiven and will molest their child again.
Given the manipulative nature of many offenders, members of the clergy may wish to ask a series of questions to determine the seriousness of the offender’s repentance. The pastor may wish to ask the following questions:
- Have you informed your spouse that you have sexually abused your child? If your wife wants you to move out of the house, are you willing to do it? If the child victim wants you to leave the house are you willing to do it?
- Have you informed your child’s medical provider that you have violated her body?
- Have you referred your child to a counselor to assist in coping with the abuse you have inflicted on him or her?
- Do you hold yourself fully responsible for your conduct – or do you believe your victim in some way contributed to the abuse?
- Have you turned yourself in to the police? Are you willing to confess your crimes to the police or will you make them “prove it”? If the government files charges for crimes you have committed, will you be pleading guilty or will you force your child victim to testify publicly and be grilled by any attorney you hire?
- Are you willing to enroll in a sex offender treatment program?
An offender who is confessing sexual misconduct but is unwilling to address the physical or emotional needs of his victim, to disclose the abuse to his spouse or to seek sex offender treatment may be seeking forgiveness but is giving no indication of an intention to repair the damage inflicted or to reform his behavior. Given the serious criminal nature of the conduct, an offender unwilling to turn him or herself into the police should be subjected to church discipline – not the recipient of sacraments.
Some members of the clergy have told me that such harsh treatment of an offender removes the gospel from the pastor’s work.When this happens, I often ask the objecting pastor how he would handle a situation in which a parishioner confesses to having committed numerous thefts, asks God’s forgiveness for his crimes but freely admits he has no intention of returning any of the stolen property to his victims, much less turning himself into the police. When confronted with this hypothetical, pastors have always told me they would not pronounce forgiveness since it is clear the offender is not truly penitent. The very same principle must be applied to the sex offender unwilling to hold himself accountable to the authorities or to do everything within his means to assist the children he has harmed.
9. Develop policies for responding to an allegation within the faith community
In addition to reporting an allegation to the police, the church should determine in advance how it will handle an allegation of sexual or other misconduct made by a child in the congregation against another member of the congregation. At a minimum, the accused offender should be suspended from activities involving children until the case is fully considered by the authorities. Even if the authorities decline to prosecute, this may not resolve the matter. For example, there may be credible evidence of child abuse but the government has determined it cannot prove the abuse beyond a reasonable doubt, or there may be a legal barrier to admitting a suspect’s confession or other evidence. It is also possible the government declines to prosecute because no crime was committed and yet the offender’s conduct is deeply concerning. In one case, for example, a Christian school teacher was discovered to be chatting online with a student in which he admitted having sexual thoughts about the child.
Although the church reported the incident to the police, law enforcement concluded a crime had not yet been committed. Although the government may have been unable to take action, the church certainly can. Simply put, the admission of sexual thoughts about a child, much less the communication of these thoughts to a girl, warrants immediate removal from teaching or other duties that places this man in the company of children. Accordingly, even when the government declines to prosecute, the church should fully assess the allegation and take appropriate action.
10. Policies must be accompanied with training
Employees or volunteers in a faith setting must receive annual training not only on church policies pertaining to child abuse but also on recognizing and otherwise responding to cases of child maltreatment. There are a number of training materials that can assist the faith community in carrying out this function.
According to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”Faith communities must recognize the attraction of child abusers to their institutions and must be proactive in keeping children safe. Failure to do so will result in additional cases of abuse, and in lifetimes of agonizing physical, emotional and spiritual damage.
Ministering to Adult Sex Offenders: Ten Lessons from Henry Gerecke
Henry Gerecke grew up in rural Missouri where first and second generation immigrants “farmed the land and worshipped God in the Missouri Synod Lutheran tradition.”Gerecke himself became a Lutheran Church Missouri Synod pastor, serving in that role from 1925 until his death in 1961. Gerecke was a faithful minister noted for his desire to minister to “people he felt more desperately in need of hearing the Gospel message.” This led him to “follow a call” to minister to his community’s downtrodden and forgotten—the poor, the elderly, the mentally ill and criminals.
Perhaps it was his heart for the suffering that led Gerecke, at nearly 50 years of age, to enlist as a chaplain in the United States Army during World War II. After several years of service and sacrifice, including a prolonged separation from his wife,Gerecke was asked to perform “one of the most singular [acts of ministry] ever undertaken by U.S. Army chaplains.” The farm boy from Missouri was asked to minister to Nazi war criminals responsible for murdering millions of men, women and children. The war criminals in Nuremberg had “spit on the notion of traditional Christianity [and] had broken a covenant with God, set down in the ten commandments…” These were the criminals the army assigned to Gerecke, in an “historic experiment in how good confronts evil.”
Although Gerecke considered it his Christian duty to save the souls of these men before their execution, he was not naïve in performing this function. When ministering to the Nazis, Gerecke took great pains to avoid being manipulated by master liars whose evil will shock the conscience until the end of time. Gerecke had little interest in according these men what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace.”According to Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran minister executed by the Nazis because of his opposition to the government, cheap grace was “grace sold on the market like cheapjacks’ wares. The sacraments, the forgiveness of sin, and the consolation of religion are thrown away at cut prices.” In contrast, Bonhoeffer said a Christian should seek “costly grace” which “comes as a word of forgiveness to the broken spirit and the contrite heart” and that “compels a man to submit to the yoke of Christ and follow him.” In keeping with Bonhoeffer’s concept of costly grace, Gerecke was determined to aid as many Nazis as possible in understanding the concept of genuine repentance.
Although most clergy will never be tasked with ministering to war criminals, many are tasked with the responsibility of ministering to those who have committed unspeakable crimes. Nowhere is this more important than in ministering to men and women who have sexually violated boys and girls.
In the quarter of a century I have been a child protection professional, Christian clergy have often asked my thoughts on ministering to child molesters—adults who have violated their own children and the children of others. In some cases, sex offenders have violated hundreds of childrencausing a lifetime of medical, mental health and spiritual damage. Equally troubling, many sex offenders violate children in the name of God, twisting scripture in any way possible to manipulate the child and protect themselves.
A case example
As a case in point, consider this example of a protestant minister who sexually abused his daughter, a child still in kindergarten. When the girl questioned the morality of the sexual abuse, even suggesting her father’s conduct was sinful, the father retorted that there are exceptions to the rule against incest. The minister reiterated the creation account in Genesis as well as the history of the great flood and noted when the only inhabitants of this troubled planet were Adam and Eve or Noah and his family, that God used sexual abuse to populate the earth. The minster told his daughter that God appeared to him in a dream, and informed him this was one of those exceptional times. According to this clergyman, his sexual touching of his daughter was directly commanded by our Lord.
If you are a minister of the Gospel, and you are called to the prison cell where the man in this scenario is wallowing alone in the aftermath of his sins, how would you minister to him? In answering this question, a Christian pastor may benefit from a study of Henry Gerecke’s ministry to war criminals. Although no evil can compare to those of the leaders of the Third Reich, Gerecke’s ministry to these men is a theologically sound approach to use with adults who have committed crimes against children.
A caution about applying these guidelines to children who commit sexual offenses
Prior to discussing what this paper is about, we need to make clear what this paper is not about. We are not in these pages focused on sexual offenses committed by adolescents and teenagers. Although as many as one-third of all sexual offenses are committed by children,youth often sexually violate other youth for very different reasons than adults. Ministers working with children committing sexual offenses must take pains to learn the nuances involved with juvenile offenders and work in tandem with qualified medical, mental health and social service or criminal justice professionals. Rather than Henry Gerecke’s work with war criminals, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s work with delinquent and other struggling youth would be a better model for pastors to follow when working with most adolescent sex offenders.
Ministering to adult sex offenders: lessons from Henry Gerecke
Rather than juvenile offenders, this paper is focused on ministering to adult sex offenders—men and women who have, in many instances, violated multiple children in order to fulfill their own sexual or other carnal desires. How and why adults molest children is a complex topic and, once again, pastors are advised to work with sex offender treatment providers and other experts in ministering to this population. Within this broader context, though, there are general guidelines pastors should adhere to—guidelines that can be drawn directly from the ministry of Henry Gerecke at Nuremberg.
Lesson #1: Assess your own abilities for ministry of this kind
When asked to provide spiritual care for the Nazi war criminals, Pastor Gerecke took time to assess his own abilities and feelings, to search the scriptures, and to “pray harder than he ever had in his life.”One scholar describes the process this way:
Gerecke was badly shaken [by the request to minister to the Nazis] and asked [the Army] if he could think it over. He was terrified by the prospect of being close to the men who had tried to take over the world. Would he have to shake their hands? He imagined that simply feeling their breath on his face would be sickening.
In the same way Gerecke struggled with the very notion of ministering to mass murderers, clergy often struggle with the concept of ministering to adults sexually aroused by children, particularly when these offenders have acted on these sinful desires. The brief synopsis, presented earlier in this paper, of a father sexually abusing his daughter by convincing her that the abuse was ordained by God is a foretaste of the unseemliness of working with a child molester.
In learning details about an offender’s history of sexually abusing one or more children, the pastor may be repulsed to the point where he cannot effectively minister to the offender. This may be particularly true if the pastor is himself a victim of child abuse or has a close family member or friend impacted by this sin.It is a not a sign of weakness to conclude you are not ideally suited to minister to a particular offender—it is simply recognizing your own limitations and the need to find the clergy best equipped to work with this population.
It is critical to remember that counseling an offender is not a quick fix in which a pastor offers a prayer, a Bible lesson or two and urges the offender to come to church.Spiritually counseling an offender is often a long process requiring the pastor to descend into the darkest of valleys. Accordingly, it is essential for the pastor to make sure he is fully prepared for this battle physically, emotionally, and spiritually.
Lesson #2: Keep in the forefront of your mind the victims of the offender
Pastor Gerecke understood that if he was going to help the Nazi war criminals, he must fully understand the enormity of their evil. In the case of Gerecke, this meant visiting the sites of the Nazi cruelties and murders. One biographer describes Gerecke’s visits in this way:
Gerecke returned several times to Dachau. He never said what compelled him, nor whether his description of touching its walls as blood smeared his hands was literal or metaphorical. Whatever happened in his mind as he walked through the camp remained there for good. [As he stood] next to the ovens on that first visit, Gerecke said in a soft voice ‘How could they do something like this?’ He said it over and over again.
In more fully understanding the enormous suffering of the victims of the Holocaust, Gerecke was better positioned to convey this suffering to the killers, to work to instill genuine empathy and remorse, and to make it more difficult for the prisoners at Nuremberg to lessen their responsibility for their acts of terror.
In the same way, a pastor should seek to understand the suffering of the victim or victims of a sex offender. The victim may have communicated her pain through court testimony, victim impact statements to a judge, or comments to the media. Even if a pastor cannot obtain information about the suffering of a particular victim, he can obtain a general knowledge of the suffering of child abuse victims and, when working with an offender bring home this pain to a molester unwilling to acknowledge the likely impact of his offense on the child.
This can be as simple as asking obvious questions:
How do you think the victim felt? Do you think she felt betrayed? Do you think it was hard for her to go to school, to mask her feelings?
Was the victim bleeding, crying or otherwise displaying physical or emotional pain? Why didn’t you obtain a doctor or a counselor for her?
A pastor may wish to assign to the offender a reading of the Gospel of Luke—a Gospel that theologians have noted for its focus on the love of Jesus for “the lowly, the despised, and the outcast from society.”The Gospel of Luke also paints a moving portrait of Christ’s love for children—and a harsh rebuke to anyone who would harm them.
These lessons from Luke may invite a conversation for a godly view of victims, particularly children. As we will discuss, the Gospel of Luke also contains perhaps the clearest example of a criminal responding appropriately to his or her crimes.
Lesson #3: Closely review the evidence in order to lessen the possibility of being manipulated
To the Nazis, propaganda was a code word for lying—and the capacity of their war machine to manipulate the clearest of facts to their own ends was a stunning display of audacious vulgarity. To work with men of this ilk, Henry Gerecke took great pains to understand the evidence against them. This included attending the war crimes trial on a daily basis in order to maintain his balance in speaking with the defendants.
Men and women who sexually abuse children are also master liars who manipulate not only their victims, but also parents, churches and communities into believing their crimes are not particularly egregious or are even the fault of the victim. Sex offender treatment provider Anna Salter explains offenders’ skills at deception this way:
Very few of us have ever been suspected of a crime, and fewer still have been interviewed by the police about one. Under such circumstances, detection apprehension would be very high for most of us… But that would change had we practiced lying over serious matters every day, had we lived a double life, had we been questioned by upset parents or by police numerous times in the past. You are never going to run into a child molester who is not a practiced liar, even if he is not a natural one.
When it comes to manipulating pastors and others in the faith community, sex offenders often find Christians to be easy prey. According to one convicted child molester:
I consider church people easy to fool…they have a trust that comes from being Christians…They tend to be better folks all around. And they seem to want to believe in the good that exists in all people…I think they want to believe in people. And because of that, you can easily convince, with or without convincing words.
With manipulation at this level, pastors are well advised to follow the example of Gerecke in closely examining available evidence. If the parishioner is standing trial, a pastor may want to watch the proceedings. If the trial has already taken place, the clergy may want to review a transcript. At the very least, review the criminal complaint and any public documents that may have been filed with a court administrator.
Some years ago, I took a phone call from a protestant minister working with a convicted sex offender. The offender was in prison for sexually abusing a boy but had done some work for the church as part of a prison release program. In speaking to the pastor about joining the congregation upon his release, the offender said he had only abused one child one time and, upon being caught, promptly pled guilty as a sign of repentance.
I told the pastor I have never met an offender who simply pled guilty without any consultation with an attorney or an attempt at striking some sort of bargain with the prosecutor and suggested he check the original court records. A few days later, the pastor called to tell me the man was charged with sexually abusing 8 boys, had confessed to the police his molestation of all these children and, as part of a plea agreement, pled to violating one child and received a reduced prison sentence.
Clearly, this offender had not been honest with his pastor and if the clergy had not attempted to verify the actual facts, the pastor and the church would have been manipulated into concluding the offender was a lower risk than he really was. Moreover, allowing the offender to lie in this way does him no good. Change is always possible— but it begins with brutal honesty about our sins.
Lesson #4: stay within your field of expertise
There were a number of reasons the United States Army wanted Gerecke to minister to the Nazi war criminals—and not all of these reasons were benevolent. Since the Nazis were on trial for crimes against humanity, the army wanted to make sure it adhered rigidly to the Geneva Convention and this meant providing a chaplain for the prisoners.
There was, though, a less noble incentive—the army wanted to keep the prisoners alive long enough so they could hang them.To this end, the army assigned a mental health team to monitor the level of depression among the prisoners. Although Gerecke worked in tandem with this team, even rooming with the army psychologist, he stayed within his field of expertise of administering law and gospel and otherwise working to address the spiritual needs of the criminals.
Gerecke’s conduct is sage advice for pastors working with child molesters. The mind of a sex offender can be exceedingly complex and their motivation for offending hard to discern.Even seasoned sex offender treatment providers err in assessing or treating molesters. If this is true, then certainly a pastor with less training and experience can also make grievous errors in working with this population.
In one case, a pastor advised me that a child molester he was counseling was not a pedophile since he “only” had two victims and the offenses occurred many years ago. It had never occurred to this pastor that the offender may have had other victims for which he was never caught. In rendering a diagnosis of whether or not the offender was a pedophile, the pastor was also demonstrating an ignorance of the very term he was using. According to the DSM-5, a pedophile is someone with intense, recurring sexual thoughts about pre-adolescent children.Accordingly, someone could be a pedophile even if they had not acted on these desires or thoughts.
To avoid these pitfalls, a pastor should refrain from diagnosing an offender, assessing their risk, or otherwise making treatment recommendations. Instead, a pastor should work with the offender’s treatment provider, probation officer and other professionals and utilize their expertise in assessing an offender’s risk or the intensity of the treatment needed. Working with these professionals, the pastor and congregation as a whole can develop safety and other plans for an offender who is part of a church.
When a pastor strays outside his area of expertise, the advantage swings markedly in the direction of an offender seeking to manipulate the clergy or the church. When, though, a pastor works with other professionals and focuses on his primary area of expertise in addressing the spiritual needs of the offender, a successful outcome becomes possible.
Lesson #5: Don’t go it alone: compare notes with other pastors and professionals
In addition to cooperating with mental health and other professionals working with the prisoners at Nuremberg, Gerecke developed a working relationship with Sixtus “Richard” O’Conner, a Catholic chaplain who ministered to a number of the prisoners.Although Gerecke and O’Connor differed theologically, they had a shared objective at Nuremberg in which they “were trying to lead those Nazis who were willing to follow toward a deeper insight into what they had done.”
In shining a light on the brutality of the Nuremburg prisoners, Gerecke was following a wellestablished Lutheran pattern for ministering to unrepentant sinners. C.F.W. Walther, the first president of the Missouri Synod, believed the “preaching of the Law is the cause of contrition” (emphasis added).In focusing first on the evil of these men, Gerecke was preparing their heart for the Gospel.
In the same way it was difficult for Gerecke to assist mass murderers gain a “deeper insight into what they had done” it can be challenging to minister to sex offenders continuing to minimize or cloud their conduct in cognitive distortions that keep them locked in their sins. When this is the case, a pastor is wise to consult with or otherwise compare notes with other clergy or professionals who can assist in responding to the theological challenges.
In one instance, for example, a pastor was frustrated by his ministering to a fellow clergyman imprisoned for sexually abusing children in his congregation. Although the convicted sex offender acknowledged his sin, he also continued to blame his conduct on the “sins” of others.
For example, the imprisoned minister contended his wife withheld herself from him sexually and this contributed to his temptation to molest children. Unable to get through to the offender that God would hold him solely responsible for his crimes, the counseling minister reached out to other clergy to assist in finding new avenues to reach into the heart of this molester.
Our Lord found it beneficial to send his disciples in teams of two to minister to the world,and following a similar path may be particularly beneficial when ministering to a sex offender unwilling to fully accept responsibility for her or his conduct.
Lesson #6: Remember the offender was once a boy or girl
In working with the Nazi war criminals, Gerecke consciously sought to remember that “before their alliance with Hitler, before the choices they made that led to mayhem and murder, they had all been boys once and that they were still God’s children.”Indeed, Gerecke reminded the condemned men of the Bible verses each had received upon their confirmation as children. When standing with convicted war criminal Karl-Heinz Keitel on the gallows, Gerecke offered a prayer Keitel recalled his mother telling him long before he became a participant in genocide: “Christ’s blood and judgment are my adornment and robe of honor; therein I will stand before God when I go to heaven.”
In working with men and women who have sexually violated children, pastors may also find it beneficial to see these parishioners as children. Although most victims of abuse do not grow up to be sex offenders, a large number of offenders endured multiple forms of trauma. Indeed, recent research on male sex offenders finds that more than half of these offenders were maltreated in four or more categories of abuse including sexual abuse, physical abuse, emotional abuse, and emotional neglect.This is not to suggest childhood trauma causes abuse. An offender is always responsible for his or her conduct no matter what their childhood was like. This is simply to suggest that understanding and addressing these issues can assist an offender in turning away from his or her sins.
When an offender also endured significant childhood trauma, researchers have found that a “trauma-informed therapy” can reduce characteristics that may result in future offenses.Although the job of therapy is best left to sex offender treatment providers and other professionals, a pastor may be able to tag team with these professionals to address spiritual questions or dynamics pertaining to the offender’s childhood. In this way, the mental health and spiritual counselors are more likely to be treating the fire and not simply the smoke that has shaped an offender’s views and conduct.
Lesson #7: Be cautious in pronouncing forgiveness
Shortly before Hermann Goering killed himself, Pastor Gerecke met with him in his cell in an attempt to save his soul. Goering, though, was unrepentant, poking fun at the creation account in the book of Genesis, ridiculing the concept of the verbal inspiration of the scriptures, and rejecting the Christian concept of atonement, going so far as to call Jesus “just another smart Jew.”
Nonetheless, Goering wanted to go through the motions of receiving Holy Communtion as a sort of “insurance policy” in case Christianity was really true.In response, Gerecke refused to administer communion, telling Goering “I cannot with a clear conscience commune you because you deny the very Christ who instituted the sacrament…You may be on the church roll, but you do not have faith in Christ and have not accepted him as your savior. Therefore, you are not a Christian, and as a Christian pastor I cannot commune you.”
Gerecke tried again to bring his parishioner to repentance, telling Goering “(y)ou’ll never see you’re your daughter, Edda, in heaven if you refuse the Lord’s way of salvation.”Nonetheless, Goering refused, saying he would simply have to “take my chances, my own way.”
The tough approach Gerecke took with Goering in demanding a clear confession and otherwise seeing some fruit of repentance is a sound approach to working with adults who have molested children and who have convinced themselves that their conduct is not sinful, or at least not as sinful as the conduct of others.
In assessing the “repentance” of a sex offender, one scholar suggests that pastors seek a “true confession” from the penitent that does not involve blaming the victim or others for their conduct and that the pastor ask the penitent “tough questions” including:
“Have you informed your spouse that you have sexually abused your child? If your wife wants you to move out of the house, are you willing to do it? If the child victim wants you to leave the house are you willing to do it?
- Have you informed your child’s medical provider that you have violated her body?
- Have you referred your child to a counselor to assist in coping with the abuse you have inflicted on him or her?
- Do you hold yourself fully responsible for your conduct—or do you believe your victim in some way contributed to the abuse?
- Have you turned yourself in to the police? Are you willing to confess your crimes to the police or will you make them ‘prove it’? If the government files charges for crimes you have committed, will you be pleading guilty or will you force your child victim to testify publicly and be grilled by any attorney you hire?
- Are you willing to enroll in a sex offender treatment program?”
Even if a pastor announces God’s forgiveness, it is appropriate to expect, even demand appropriate fruits of repentance such as turning oneself into the police and taking action to address the needs of the victim or victims. This is not in any way a new Christian concept. For example, Martin Luther’s catechism urged parishioners receiving Holy Communion to demonstrate genuine fruits of repentance including fighting temptation and doing “my best to correct whatever wrongs I have committed.”
Like the Pharaoh of Egypt,many sex offenders are adept at promising a change in behavior but short on delivering actual change. A pastor can play a critical role in ensuring a sex offender follows through on his or her promises to reform.
Lesson #8: Remind the offender of the second thief on the cross
In the Gospel of Luke, we are told that two thieves were crucified with our Lord. One of these thieves was unrepentant, mocking Jesus and demanding that he be taken from the cross.The other thief did not ask that the earthly penalty for his crimes be reduced. Indeed, this man said “(w)e are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve.” Instead, this man simply threw himself upon the mercy of God. In response, Jesus told the man “(t)oday you will be with me in paradise.”
In deciding to provide spiritual counseling to the men on trial at Nuremberg, the account of the thief on the cross “loomed large in Gerecke’s thoughts as he prayed for direction…”Although he realized “God wanted something incredible from him,” Gerecke also believed the Gospel of Luke provided a clear direction for performing this ministry.
Although the Gospel of Luke led Gerecke to deny the sacrament to Goering, it also led him to pronounce God’s forgiveness to three of the defendants of whom Gerecke wrote “God has changed these hearts along the way and now in the face of losing all material things, even their life, they could hear the promises of God to penitent sinners through the lips of Jesus who receives sin-burdened souls.”
In a similar way, a sex offender may have to lose everything including his family, his livelihood and even his freedom before finally understanding the value of the Gospel. A pastor may have to aid this process by demanding the penitent accept prison or other earthly consequences and cease with all excuses for his crimes. When this happens, when an offender sees only one recourse for his or her sins, the sweet release of the Gospel can be applied in all its glory. Gerecke understood there is no sinner for who the Gospel does not apply and this truth extends not only to war criminals but to child abusers. It is, simply put, an amazing grace.
Lesson #9: Find an avenue to care for yourself
In descending into the hell of the Nazi cruelties at the heart of the Nuremberg trials, Gerecke not only found time to pray and continue in the word, he also found solace in his friends. He and Father O’Conner found humor to be a relief and shared a love for baseball that included wagering on the outcome of the World Series.
Practicing self-care is critical to those working in the field of child protection—including pastors. Gerecke used prayer, scripture, friendship and baseball in order to cope. Pastors engaging in this work should develop their own list of activities and sources of relieving tension and anxiety. In addition to having a fellow pastor assist in coping with difficult theological issues arising when counseling a sex offender, a fellow pastor can be extremely helpful in tending to the spiritual needs of those counseling offenders.
When boarding an airplane, passengers are instructed to put on their own mask before tending to the needs of others. In a similar vein, pastors counseling sex offenders must be proactive in addressing their own physical, emotional and spiritual needs. Unless a pastor practices self-care, he will be of limited value to the penitent.
Lesson #10: Prepare yourself for criticism from multiple sources
In tending to the spiritual needs of Nazi war criminals, Henry Gerecke subjected himself to criticism from multiple sources. Gerecke was severely criticized for even shaking hands with the Nazi criminals, much less providing spiritual comfort.After the trials, Gerecke received hate mail with some calling him a “Nazi lover” and an “Anti-Semite” who had comforted those responsible for the murder of millions. On the other hand, Gerecke was criticized by some clergy for withholding communion from Goering.
Clergy providing spiritual counseling to sex offenders often face criticism from multiple parties. The victim and his or her loved ones may be angry, even hurt that a pastor would counsel a molester. The offender him or herself often has multiple supporters within a church who refuse to believe the offender has committed the crimes or, if he has, that he is fully responsible for his conduct. These supporters may be upset when a pastor withholds the sacraments from an unrepentant sinner or otherwise exercises church discipline. Although criticism of this kind may be understandable, it does not make it easier for a pastor to administer law and gospel to an offender.
In practicing self-care, a pastor may wish to brace himself for unfair criticism and also prepare his family. This is one additional factor warranting a self-care plan that includes a support network for the pastor and pastor’s family.
Henry Gerecke said a “religion without forgiveness is only the ghost of religion which haunts the grave of dead faith and lost hope.”It was in this faith that Gerecke lived and died. After his military service, Gerecke returned to his wife and eventually became a chaplain at the Menard penitentiary, “a maximum-security facility filled with twenty-five hundred murderers and rapists who he believed needed to hear the Gospel in the most desperate way.”
After Gerecke died suddenly of a heart attack, it was these very murderers and rapists who accorded their pastor a remarkable honor. These criminals requested, and the Gerecke family agreed, to have the reverend’s body transported to the prison chapel where some 800 of the “most dangerous men in the country” filed past the casket to pay their last respects.According to the Associated Press, these criminals considered Gerecke to be “their only friend.”
To many sex offenders, their only friend may be the pastor who brings them the Gospel. In delivering this saving message, the pastor must be prepared to be lied to, to be criticized unjustly, and to face agonizing hours reviewing or hearing harrowing accounts of abuse and ravaged lives. The pastor who endures to the end, who overcomes the fear, tears, and anger associated with this work, may one day see the most broken and hardened of souls joining him in paradise.
It is a cross worth carrying.
Applying Law and Gospel to Victims and Perpetrators of Child Sexual Abuse
Counselors and theologians failing to understand the dynamics of child sexual abuse cases often apply the concept of law and gospel incorrectly. When this happens, perpetrators are emboldened to offend again and many victims leave the church. To assist spiritual counselors in avoiding this pitfall, I provide an overview of the dynamics present in many cases of sexual abuse and the impact this has on children physically, emotionally, and spiritually. I also discuss the characteristics of many sex offenders and the efforts offenders make to manipulate both the victim and the church. In determining the proper application of law and gospel to victims and offenders, I discuss the law and gospel treatise of C.F.W. Walther. In doing so, I include examples of Walther’s application of law and gospel in cases of domestic violence and sexual exploitation. Finally, I include practical suggestions for psychotherapists and theologians in applying law and gospel to victims and to perpetrators of child sexual abuse.
“You are not rightly distinguishing Law and Gospel in the Word of God if you preach the Law to those who are already in terror on account of their sins or the Gospel to those who are living securely in their sins.”
Members of the clergy, church elders, and lay Christians often struggle with the application of Biblical law 1 and gospel 2 to victims and perpetrators of child sexual abuse. Partly as a result of ignorance of the dynamics involved in these cases, Christians often apply a heavy dosage of law to victims and gospel to offenders is a misguided, sometimes cruel application of theological principles often drives victims away from the church and emboldens offenders to remain in their sin, if not to offend again.
To assist the church in better responding to instances of child sexual abuse, I present an overview of the typical dynamics present in cases of child sexual abuse from the standpoint of the victim. I also highlight the impact of abuse on children physically, emotionally, and spiritually. In addition, I review cognitive features of child molesters, and the extraordinary steps taken by many offenders to manipulate not only their victims, but also the church as a whole.
In applying law and gospel to victims and offenders, I also present a brief biography of the legendary theologian C.F.W. Walther, whose seminary lectures on law and gospel delivered in 1884–1885 have influenced protestant pastors and church leaders for over a century. More importantly, I analyze one of Walther’s central thesis—that the gospel should be pronounced to “crushed” sinners and the law pronounced to “secure sinners.” I examine Walther’s use of this thesis in a case of domestic violence and in another case of sexual exploitation by a clergy. Finally, I also provide practical suggestions for pastors, church leaders, and laity in applying law and gospel to victims of sexual abuse and to perpetrators of sexual abuse. Although I focus on instances of sexual abuse, much of the principles discussed are also pertinent to cases of interpersonal violence and other forms of child maltreatment.
Overview of the Dynamics of Child Sexual Abuse
In order to spiritually counsel or assist sexually abused children in any way, both clergy and laity need to understand the dynamics inherent in cases of familial sexual abuse, as well as many other forms of abuse. Unfortunately, many in the clergy and laity have accepted decades worth of myths about child sexual abuse victims. These myths include the belief that children fantasize about incest and that childrens’ allegations of abuse are inherently suspect.
Sigmund Freud and the Historic Skepticism of the Mental Health Field Toward Victims of Child Sexual Abuse
In 1896, about a decade after Walther’s law and gospel lectures, Sigmund Freud gave an equally monumental lecture entitled “The Aetiology of Hysteria” in which he discussed 18 male and female patients victimized by sexual abuse as children and the profound impact this had on their mental health. By the close of 1897, however, Freud abandoned his theory partly on the basis that widespread sexual abuse was not probable (Masson 2003). Instead, Freud postulated the theory of infantile sexuality, which evolved into the Oedipus complex theory—the concept that children may fantasize about incestuous relationships and violence (Masson 2003).
Freud’s abandonment of the reality of numerous instances of child sexual abuse, and his subsequent assertion that such abuse is rare at best, was instrumental in fueling a dark chapter in the history of psychology. Dr. Anna Salter describes this history with this sober assessment of the field:
The history of psychology in the past one hundred years has been filled with theories that deny sexual abuse occurs, that discounts the responsibility of the offender, that blame the mother and/or child when it does occur, and that minimize the impact. It constitutes a sorry chapter in the history of psychology, but it is not only shameful, it is also puzzling. Hostility toward child victims and adult women leaks through the literature like poison. (p. 57)
This biased view of allegations of sexual abuse, coupled with high profile day care cases from the 1980’s in which many believed children were coached into false allegations (see, for a review, Hechler, 1988), spilled over into our mainstream culture, including religion. For example, one Christian publishing house printed a book whose author claimed there was an “industry” of child protection professionals working to manufacture allegations of abuse and to “snatch” children away from parents (Pride, 1986).
Clergy and laity with such a skeptical view of sexual abuse claims are more likely to view claims of abuse as suspicious, to conclude that the child was equally responsible for any victimization, and to apply a heavy dosage of law to problematic behaviors exhibited by the child—behaviors that, ironically, may be attributable to the abuse (for a review, see Anda & Felitti, 2012).
There is no excuse for modern era clergy applying such a distorted view of law and gospel to child abuse victims. Although all child protection professionals need to be mindful of the possibility of false allegations, a number of studies conclude that false claims of sexual abuse are rare (Oates et al., 2000) and that when children do lie, it is usually done to protect the perpetrator, not to get anyone in trouble (Lawson & Chaffn, 1992). Law enforcement offenders and other child protection professionals have made great strides in the past 25 years, improving their skills in interviewing abused children and in collecting evidence—thus further reducing the risk of false allegations ( Johnson & Vieth, 2012). Accordingly, it is unreasonable for any pastor to automatically assume that an allegation of abuse, even against a respected member of the church, is untrue.
There is also no excuse for clergy to fail to understand the dynamics inherent in cases of sexual abuse. There is a large and growing body of literature to assist spiritual leaders in understanding these dynamics—including many resources for the faith community (see, for example, Langberg, 1999; 2003; Tracy, 2005).
The Child Sexual Abuse Accommodation Syndrome (CSAAS)
In 1983, Dr. Roland Summit from UCLA published a pioneering paper which not only challenged decades of myths partly fueled by Freud’s theories, but that helped professionals and laypersons understand the dynamics present in child sexual abuse cases that make it difficult for children to disclose abuse timely, if at all. Although not universally accepted, Summit’s work has been widely heralded in the mental health field (Lyon, 2002) and accepted by many courts as helpful in assisting laity understand sexual abuse dynamics (Myers, 1997). Despite its imperfections, CSAAS is a helpful model for theologians or other laypersons to use in understanding the psychological dynamics present in many cases of sexual abuse. According to Summit (1983), sexual abuse cases are engulfed in secrecy, helplessness, entrapment and accommodation, delayed, conflicting and unconvincing disclosure, and retraction. Clergy and laity who take the time to understand these and other dynamics will increase the chance of responding sensitively to the spiritual needs of maltreated children.
According to Summit (1983), at least three dynamics convey to the victim that the abuse is to remain a secret. First, the circumstances of the abuse suggest the need for secrecy.be abuse may only happen when the victim and perpetrator are alone, it may only happen late at night when the door is locked and the perpetrator is whispering. Second, the secrecy is often a source of fear in which the perpetrator conveys to the child that bad things will happen if there is a disclosure. Bad things may include the abuse of the child’s sibling, non-offending parent, or pet. Disclosure may result in the victim’s placement in a foster home. Disclosure may result in the child’s embarrassment in front of fellow classmates who learn details of the sexual abuse through media or other sources. be child may fear that disclosure will result in his or her condemnation in their church community. Third, secrecy may result in a “promise of safety” and the hope of good things to come. The child may expect that secrecy will keep the family unit intact and may result in special privileges such as staying up later at night, a trip to a favorite vacation destination, or a new toy or other coveted item.
In Summit’s (1983) view, child sexual abuse victims typically feel helpless to stop the abuse. First, their size and immaturity create this feeling. A young boy or girl may be less than half the perpetrator’s height and weight and is likely less knowledgeable and mature. Second, in our society children are taught to obey those in positions of authority. In church, for example, children are taught to obey their teachers, pastors, and parents and that this obedience is commanded by God (Ex. 20:12). Perpetrators use this dynamic to their advantage as they admonish children to honor requests to submit to sexual conduct with the offender. Third, it is important to keep in mind that most sexual abuse is committed by a trusted, even loved, adult. Accordingly, Summit (1983) contends that many parents or other offenders simply need to suggest that they will no longer love the child if abuse is revealed. In one instance, a child lamented that his grandfather was in prison for sexual abuse and asked the prosecutor “is it OK if I keep grandpa in my heart?”
Entrapment and Accommodation
Since the child has a secret that he or she is helpless to do anything about, Summit (1983) said the child must “accept the situation and survive.” Summit claimed that a child may cope with abuse in at least three ways. First, and most commonly, a child will develop what Summit called a “coping mechanism.” It may be as simple as a child telling him or herself that the sexual abuse prevents a father from abusing siblings or that the victim is deriving benefits from the abuse in the form of money, gifts, or other privileges. For example, a grand jury investigation of former Penn State University football coach Jerry Sandusky concluded he had given golf clubs, trips, and other expensive gifts to boys he was sexually abusing (Thirty-Third Grand Jury Investigation Report, 2012).
Second, Summit (1983) also suggested that an abused child might dissociate during abusive episodes. To assist theologians in understanding dissociation, think of a time when driving a significant distance and you suddenly realize you have no memory of the drive because your mind was thinking about the sermon that needs writing or any number of other church or family obligations. bis is, at some level, a form of dissociation.
When sexually abused, a child may dissociate by subconsciously sending his or her mind to another place or room during abuse. In one case that the author is personally familiar with, for example, a child victim told the investigator she was with Winnie the Pooh in the hundred acre woods during the time her father was anally raping her. Dissociation of this type offers “a kind of temporary emotional escape from the horror, the fear, and that pain” of child abuse (Walker 2008 p. 16).
Third, in extreme cases of trauma, some children may develop what in Summit’s day was called a multiple personality disorder but is today referred to as dissociative identity disorder. According to the DSM-IV (APA, 1994), “Dissociative Identity Disorder is the presence of two or more distinct identities or personality states” that “recurrently take control of behavior.” Each personality state “may be experienced as if it has a distinct personal history, self-image, and identity, including a separate name.” In lay terms, a child abuse victim may sub-consciously develop a second personality or alter who “suffered the abuse . . . that alter is the one present during the abusive episodes, but is not the one seated at the breakfast table the morning after the attack, chatting away as if nothing happened” (Walker 2008, p. 16).
In movies such as Sybil and Primal Fear, Hollywood has given the general public a sense of dissociative identity disorder that is not always accurate. For example, football legend Herschel Walker endured bullying and cruel racism as a child, which led him to develop a second “Sentry” personality that would protect him whenever he felt threatened. Walker (2008) tells of going to a dentist to have teeth removed when this second, tougher persona took over and led him to refuse novocain or another anesthetic drug to numb the pain. However, Walker says he never changed his name when his “Sentry” personality exhibited itself—he simply developed a different, seemingly invincible persona. Clergy and laity alike should not assume that Christian victims of abuse are immune from dissociative identity disorder. Indeed, Hershel Walker describes himself as a devout Christian “baptized and washed with the blood of Jesus” (Walker, 2008, p. 43).
Theologians should be aware that although there is little doubt that dissociation exists, the medical and mental health fields are not in complete agreement as to the prevalence or even existence of dissociative identity disorder (Raison, 2010). Theologians may not need to understand the many nuances of this debate but should, as a general rule, understand that anyone diagnosed with dissociative identity disorder has likely suffered severe trauma and is in need of continuing, professional mental health support.
If a child cannot figure out a way to cope emotionally, what Summit (1983) calls a psychic economy, feelings of rage may cause a child to commit suicide, engage in self-mutilation, become promiscuous, or develop other harmful patterns of behavior. Clergy and laity unaware of these and other dynamics may be quick to dismiss a child’s allegations of abuse, concluding the child is exhibiting mental illnesses or is not credible given the closeness with a perpetrator and the many “kindnesses” a child has received from an offender. Similarly, the Christian pastor or lay member may unwittingly focus on delinquent or other behaviors without realizing these behaviors reflect deep seated childhood trauma.
Delayed and Unconvincing Disclosure
As a result of the dynamics described above, many children never disclose sexual abuse. When children do disclose abuse, Summit (1983) contends the disclosure is often delayed and comes out in an unconvincing manner. Consider, for example, a girl molested for years by her father. Not surprisingly, the child develops an array of mental health problems, truancy and delinquency behaviors, and is sexually promiscuous. At a family reunion, the child asks her father to borrow the keys to a car because she wishes to go on a date. Her father reprimands her, reminding her that the family reunion was planned for more than a year and she needs to stay put. Years of rage fueled by repeated molestations bubble over as the child yells at her dad that when she grows up she will not rape children. A guest overhears this outburst and reports the incident to the church pastor. When confronted, the father tells the pastor the outburst is true but the allegation is not. The father calmly explains the child is out of control and he is simply, as a Christian parent, trying to reign in his troubled daughter. Unless the pastor is aware of child sexual abuse dynamics, he may dismiss the underlying allegations without reporting the case to the authorities or taking any other appropriate action.
The ACE Studies: the Medical and Mental Health Risks of Child Abuse
The Adverse Childhood Experience Study is an ongoing collaborative research project between the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia, and Kaiser Permanente in San Diego, California. Over 17,000 patients participating in routine health screening volunteered to participate in the study. According to the ACE researchers, “data resulting from their participation … reveals staggering proof of the health, social, and economic risks that result from childhood trauma.” (Anda & Felitti, 2012). Specifically, the researchers queried adult patients on ten types of adverse childhood experiences including child sexual abuse, physical abuse, emotional abuse, neglect, and witnessing domestic violence. Researchers concluded that patients suffering from one or more adverse childhood experience were statistically more likely to suffer from a variety of medical and mental health problems with the risk of these conditions increasing markedly based on the number and severity of adverse experiences.
Clergy and laity not familiar with the ACE study are at risk to conclude an allegation of sexual abuse is not credible and to focus primarily on the victim’s behaviors, including delinquent and criminal behaviors, without fully appreciating the role childhood abuse played in their life. In spiritual terms, the danger is that a pastor will be quick to apply the law, without an appreciation of the need to provide a victim already burdened with enormous guilt the comfort of the gospel.
Spiritual Injuries Resulting from Sexual Abuse
There are a number of studies documenting the impact of abuse on spirituality. For example, in a study of 527 victims of child abuse (physical, sexual, or emotional) it was found that there were significant “spiritual injury” such as feelings of guilt, anger, grief, despair, doubt, fear of death, and belief that God is unfair (Lawson, Drebing, Berg, Vincellette, & Penk, 1998). However, the same study found that survivors of childhood abuse report praying more frequently and having a “spiritual experience.”
When the perpetrator is a member of the clergy, the impact on the victim’s spirituality may be even more pronounced. Clergy abusers often use their religion to justify or excuse their sexual abuse of children. According to one study, clergy in treatment for sexually abusing children believed that God would particularly look after the children they had victimized and otherwise keep them from harm (Saradjian & Nobus, 2003). Through their religious role, these offenders also engaged in “compensatory behavior” and believed that their good works in the community would result in God excusing their moral lapses with children.be religious cover used by clergy abusers is often communicated to the victims in a manner that irreparably damages their spirituality. Specifically, church attendance of these survivors decreases, they are less likely to trust God, and their relationship with God often ceases to grow (McLaughlin, 1994).
The Importance of Spirituality for Many Abused Children
Spirituality is of critical importance to most children. Indeed, a “growing body of theoretical and research literature suggests that spiritual development is an intrinsic part of being human” (McLaughlin, 1994, p. 14). Research from UCLA’s Higher Education Research institute found that 77% of college freshman believed “we are all spiritual beings” (p.14). Eighty percent of these freshmen said they had an “interest” in spirituality (McLaughlin, 1994). Some studies suggest spirituality may be particularly important to vulnerable children. In a study of 149 youth in an institutional care setting, 86% of these children considered themselves spiritual or somewhat spiritual (McLaughlin, 1994). As an example of the importance spirituality plays for some vulnerable youth, a teenage survivor of the sex industry told a journalist, “I admit that I’m still struggling, even after six months away from the business … Because I dropped out of school I have few career options … Yet I know what God wants for me. I need to be healed” (Yancey, 2010, p. 73–74).
Gall (2006) found that a victim’s “spiritual coping behavior” might play either a positive or negative role in the survivor’s ability to cope with the abuse and with life in general. Victims of severe abuse may remain “stuck” in their spiritual development such as remaining angry with God. Children abused at younger ages are “less likely to turn to God and others for spiritual support” (Gall, 2006, p. 838). Nonetheless, even victims describing a difficult relationship with God “still rely on their spirituality for healing.” Victims who experience “greater resolution” of their childhood abuse are able to “actively turn to their spirituality to cope…rather than attempt to cope on their own” (Gall, 2006, p. 839). When Christian clergy and laity mis-apply law and gospel to victims of abuse, they risk destroying the very coping mechanism many children need to survive physically and emotionally—their sense of spirituality.
Overview of Dynamics of Child Molesters
Child Molesters Vary in Their Typology
It is beyond the expertise of theologians to diagnose or even understand the myriad types of sex offenders or the mindset of those who sexually abuse children (Schlank, 2010). This is important to understand because many pastors and laity assume that everyone who sexually violates a child does so for the same reason or requires the same degree of supervision, consequences or treatment. For example, there is a difference in the risks posed by a 19-year-old man impregnating his 15-year-old girlfriend and a man accused of molesting multiple boys or girls at a church summer camp. There is also a difference between adult and juvenile sex offenders—with the latter generally more amenable to treatment (Carpenter, Silovsky, & Chadn, 2006).
In dealing with any particular sex offender, it is important for church leaders to consult with a mental health professional well versed in the literature on sex offenders and who is experienced in dealing with this population. If a parishioner sought spiritual guidance on treating their cancer, diabetes or other ailments, a wise pastor would inquire about the physician’s diagnosis and treatment options. A wise pastor would do this because he or she is not a physician. In the same vein, a pastor should not be deciding the risks posed by a given sex offender without consulting a mental health professional who is skilled in the treatment of sex offenders and who, ideally, has assessed and/or treated the offender in question.
Having said this, there are some general characteristics of child molesters that every pastor should know— in part because sex offenders often count on clergy and laity to be ignorant about these characteristics. For starters, clergy and laity should have a working definition of a pedophile. A child molester meeting the DSM-IV criteria of pedophilia (1) is at least 16-years old, (2) is at least five years older than the child victim, and (3) over a period of at least 6 months has “recurrent, intense sexually arousing fantasies, sexual urges, or behaviors involving sexual activity with a prepubescent child or children (generally age 13 years or younger)“ (APA, 1994).
Although this working definition is helpful, clergy and laity should be cautious in applying the definition without professional guidance. In one instance that the author is personally familiar with, a church assumed the allegations of sexual abuse made by two separate children could not be true because, if they were, the pedophile in question would have had dozens of additional victims in his life. There were two glaring errors made by the church. First, the church leaders failed to recognize that many pedophiles molest hundreds, even thousands, of children without ever getting caught (Abel et al., 1987). Accordingly, it is possible that the alleged offender may have had other victims. Second, and equally important, the offender may not have been a pedophile but could have fit into any number of categories of sex offenders. In commenting on the various reasons offenders molest children, one sex offender treatment provider notes the following:
There is a subgroup of child molesters who molest children simply because they are sexually attracted to them. There are others who molest because they are antisocial or even psychopathic and simply feel entitled. There are still others who use children for the intimacy they are too timid or impaired to obtain from adults. And there are others who molest children for reasons we don’t understand at all. (Salter, 2003, p. 75)
Many child molesters are religious
Although clergy and laity may never be able to master the myriad nuances of sex offenders, they can and should be cognizant of a number of pertinent characteristics of those who offend against children. For starters, the faith community needs to be cognizant that sex offenders are often religious and many of them attend church. In a study of 3,952 male sex offenders, 93% of these perpetrators described themselves as “religious” (Abel & Harlow, 2001).
Religious sex offenders may be the most dangerous group of child molesters.
There is some evidence that “religious” sex offenders may be the most dangerous category of offenders. One study found that sex offenders maintaining significant involvement with religious institutions “had more sexual offense convictions, more victims, and younger victims” (Eshuys & Smallbone, 2006; Firestone & Moulden, 2009). According to another study, clergy sex offenders share the same characteristics of non-clergy sex offenders with the exception that clergy are more likely to use force (Langevin et al., 2000).
Child molesters manipulate both children and the church.
Child molesters, particularly those meeting the diagnostic criteria of pedophilia, are extremely manipulative of not only their victims but also the church as a whole. According to Salter (2003, p. 28) “If children can be silenced and the average person is easy to fool, many offenders report that religious people are even easier to fool than most people.” In the words of one convicted child molester:
I consider church people easy to fool … they have a trust that comes from being Christians … they tend to be better folks all around. And they seem to want to believe in the good that exists in all people … I think they want to believe in people. And because of that, you can easily convince, with or without convincing words. (Salter, 2003, p. 29)
Child molesters are skilled at deception because, in part, they have considerable practice at lying to their families, their victims, their friends, and to themselves. Sex offender treatment provider Anna Salter describes the abilities of molesters to lie convincingly in this way:
Very few of us have ever been suspected of a crime, and fewer still have been interviewed by the police about one. Under such circumstances, detection apprehension would be very high for most of us … But that would change had we practiced lying over serious matters every day, had we lived a double life, had we been questioned by upset parents or by police numerous times in the past. You are never going to run into a child molester who is not a practiced liar, even if he is not a natural one. (Salter, 2003, p. 203)
Not only are child molesters skilled at lying to pastors and parishioners alike, they are often proud of their abilities to fool the leaders and members of their congregations. In the words of one convicted child molester:
(T)here was a great amount of pride. Well, I pulled this one off again. You’re a good one … there were times when little old ladies would pat me on the back and say, ‘You’re one of the best young men that I have ever known.’ I would think back and think ‘If you really knew me, you wouldn’t think that.’ (Salter, 2003, p.199)
Many child molesters offend with others present
In many instances, a child molester offends with other children or even another adult present. According to one study, 54.9% of child molesters offended when another child was present and 23.9% offended when another was adult present (Underwood, Patch, Cappelletty, & Wolfe, 1999). The abuse, of course, may be subtle and not easily detected. For example, a child molester in a Christian school may call a pupil up to his desk ostensibly to review an examination while, at the same time, touches the child’s genitals which are covered from the other students by the desk. As another example, a father may touch a child beneath the bed covers while his wife is asleep in the same bed. Offenders report that molesting a child with others present may be more arousing and may also give them more power over the child—conveying to the victim that he or she can be abused at any time, in any place, with anyone present. The fact that many sex offenders molest victims with others present is critical for clergy and laity to understand. Without this recognition, offenders often argue that a child’s allegations are absurd—after all, who would sexually touch a child with others in the room? A pastor acquainted with studies such as those cited in this article will tell a suspect that, as it turns out, many sex offenders engage in precisely this conduct.
Many child molesters carefully select their victims
Many child molesters put a great deal of time and thought into selecting the children they will violate. There are two reasons for this. First, sex offenders often look for the easiest target. Second, sex offenders often look for the child or children least likely to be believed should he or she disclose the abuse. A Christian convicted of sexually abusing children at church was asked how he selected his victims. The offender icily responded:
First of all you start the grooming process from day one … the children that you’re interested in … You find a child you might be attracted to … For me, it might be nobody fat. It had to be a you know, a nice looking child … You maybe look at a kid that doesn’t have a father image at home, or a father that cares about them … if you’ve got a group of 25 kids, you might find 9 that are appealing … then you start looking at their family backgrounds. You find out all you can … which ones are the most accessible … you get it down to one that is the easiest target, and that’s the one you do. (Salter, 2003, p. 57)
This is a critical dynamic for clergy and laity to be aware of (Vieth, 2011). When sex offenders are suspected of abuse, they often point to the accuser and remind the congregation of the child’s history of problems— ignoring the fact that it was precisely these problems that made the child such an easy target. Simply stated, child molesters often select damaged children or, in the alternative, they damage the children in their homes and then cite the damage as proof the victim cannot be believed. It is a wicked game in which the church and the children often lose.
Child molesters often abuse children in the name of God.
Child molesters often use religious or spiritual themes in the abuse of children. Child molesters may cite a child’s biological reaction to abuse and contend the victim equally enjoyed the abuse and is equally sinful. It is not uncommon for a molester to pray with his victim and ask God’s forgiveness for both. A molester may tell a victim that if he or she disclosed the abuse, the church will condemn the victim for his of her sin. In one case that the author is personally familiar with from his experience as a prosecuting attorney, a child eventually learned to initiate sexual activity with her father simply as a means of getting the abuse over with. The perpetrator, however, reminded the victim of the initiation and convinced her she was the offender. The victim developed a series of medical and mental health conditions including attempted suicide.
In a highly publicized case, Father Lawrence Murphy sexually abused as many as 200 deaf or hard of hearing boys and often used spiritual language or religious concepts in the abuse. For example, he told one victim that, “God wanted him to teach the boy about sex but that he had to keep it quiet because it was under the sacrament of confession” (for a review, see Goodstein, 2010).
According to one sex offender treatment provider, sexual abuse in the name of God creates a “triple trauma” involving the abuse itself, the betrayal of trust, and spiritual harm that often includes “threats regarding God and damnation” (Pendergast, 2004). According to Pendergast:
Fear of retribution from God, whom the abusers related ‘gave me permission to do this to you,’ and ‘if you tell anyone, God will punish you in hell for eternity,’ produces an intense fear as well as feeling of confusion. The confusion results from the fact their religion teaches them that what they are doing is wrong and sinful, but the religious abusers teach them that the God of their religion gave them permission to sexually abuse them. (p. 285)
In one case that I handled as a prosecutor, a teenage victim of a neighborhood child molester told me, when I was preparing her for court case, that she had not disclosed the abuse for years because she was certain her church would reprimand her for the sin and not the offender. The child had internalized many of the messages provided by the perpetrator and saw no difference between sinning and being the victim of sin.
What would Walther Do?
C.F.W.Walther: A Brief History
Carl Ferdinand Wilhelm Walther was born in Germany on October 25, 1811. His great grandfather, grandfather, and father were pastors and Walther continued this family tradition. Although little is known of Walther’s mother, there is some indication his father was physically abusive. In reference to his father, Walther said “A young man must endure much pain, ere he becomes a gentleman” (Walther, 2010, p. 100). As one example of this strictness, there was a special sofa in the family parlor reserved only for guests. When the boy Walther forgot this rule and sat on the sofa he was physically punished (Suelgow, 2000). This harshness may have particularly impacted the sensitive Walther who, according to one scholar, lacked self-confidence and saw himself as a “miserable boy” (Barnbrock, Espinosa, Holtan, Schaum, & Egger, 2011). Although there is little, if any, indication that Walther ever considered himself a victim of child abuse—the harsh discipline of children was more commonly accepted in his era than in ours 1—it is possible that, under current law, Walther’s childhood would be deemed abusive (Vieth, 1994).
Although it is difficult, probably impossible, to accurately assess how physical blows received as a boy may have impacted Walther, it is interesting to note that he developed some of the characteristics of children enduring maltreatment—including bouts of depression. Indeed, Walther suffered at least three nervous breakdowns at different points in his life and, at the height of his career, wished that he were dead (Harrison, 2011). 2 Although there may have been a biological component to Walther’s mental illness and any or all of the myriad heartaches in his life may have contributed to his depression, the impact of violence during his childhood should not be excluded as a possible contributing factor (Barnbrock et al., 2011). Whether or not the violence he experienced influenced his empathy toward victims, there is evidence that, on more than one occasion, Walther displayed a remarkable sensitivity to the victims of physical and sexual exploitation.
Walther was part of a group of Saxons who migrated to Missouri in search of religious freedom. The group was led by Martin Stephan, a charismatic leader who became increasingly isolated from his followers. Stephan assumed dictatorial powers and insisted the Saxons build roads and bridges prior to planting crops or homes. There were also allegations of financial mismanagement and, most seriously, the sexual exploitation of a number of women. Additional details of these events, and Walther‘s response, are discussed below.
Walther eventually became the leader of the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, serving as its first president. Under Walther’s leadership, the synod grew from 30 congregations to 678, and from less than 5,000 baptized members to nearly 450,000. He oversaw the development of schools, seminaries, and publications (for a review, see Walther, 2011). His most noteworthy achievement, however, was a series of Friday evening seminary lectures on the application of law and gospel—lectures that have profoundly influenced Christianity for more than a century.
Walther’s Application of Law and Gospel in Cases of Sexual or Domestic Abuse
The case of a woman seeing an abusive husband.
According to Suelgow (2000), while still serving as a pastor in Germany, Walther provided spiritual counseling to a woman whose husband physically abused her. On one occasion, the woman was beaten so severely that she was unconscious. Walther intervened on behalf of the woman’s safety, going so far as to draft a petition for separation. Although Walther was reprimanded and fined for his intervention, he wrote a letter defending his conduct and his theology. It may even be that Walther lied to the authorities as a means of protecting the woman—claiming she was not interested in emigration to America when in fact both the woman and her son appeared on the immigrant list.
Perhaps the blows Walther received from his father made him particularly empathetic to others “disciplined” with violence. Whether or not this is true, Walther understood that a husband pledged to love his wife as Christ loved the church would not beat her (Eph. 5:34). In a wedding sermon on the obligations of a husband to love his wife, Walther said:
(T)he Christian husband should love his wife in deed, care for her body and soul, pray for her and with her, not let her lack any good thing, be her protector, comfort her in moments of sadness, and as his other self, daily seek to provide her joy. (Walther, 1978, p. 176, emphasis added)
Obviously, a man who is physically striking his wife is failing his Christian obligation to protect her and to fill her life with joy. Long before a societal recognition of domestic violence, Walther understood this fundamental principle of a Christian marriage.
The case of Martin Stephan
Suelgow (2000) also details that, upon their arrival in Missouri, the Saxon immigrants divided themselves into two groups with Walther among the pastors and parishioners remaining in St. Louis and the rest going to Perry County under the leadership of Martin Stephan. On the voyage to America, Stephan became increasingly isolated from his flock and prepared documents declaring himself Bishop and assuming significant powers over his flock. In Perry County, Stephan ordered the Saxons to build roads and bridges instead of planting crops or constructing dwellings. He ordered the pastors and parishioners in St. Louis not to visit Perry County without his explicit permission.
On May 5, 1839, one of the pastors remaining in St. Louis, Friedeman Loeber, delivered a “soul-searching” sermon. Although the contents of the sermon no longer exist, Loeber’s words contributed to two women visiting him separately and confessing to sexual relations with Martin Stephan. In the days that followed, two additional women also made detailed confessions.
Loeber confided in his fellow St. Louis clergy who selected Walther to travel to Perry County to address the situation. One factor in selecting Walther appears to be that he was the pastor who had “expressed greater opposition to Stephan” (Suelgow, 2000, p. 50–52).
Walther arrived unannounced and in direct contradiction to Stephan’s edicts. When Walther arrived, Stephan and others were gathered around a campfire and there was an immediate confrontation with Stephan who, according to one scholar, expressed “total disapproval” of Walther’s presence (Suelgow 2000, p. 50–52). The next day, Walther met alone with Stephan. Although he did not apparently discuss the allegations of sexual exploitation, there is no doubt that Walther was openly defying Stephan and otherwise making it clear his belief that Stephan’s conduct was sinful. Walther then proceeded to undermine Stephan’s authority by preaching publicly, by encouraging parishioners to plant crops and build houses as opposed to roads and bridges, and to otherwise deliberately “give the impression … that something was very wrong” (Suelgow, 2000, p. 51). Within a few weeks, most of the St. Louis Saxons also arrived, formed a church council and invited Stephan to meet with them. When Stephan refused, calling the council a “rebellious faction,” the council excommunicated Stephan on the basis of teaching false doctrine, financial mismanagement, and sexual immorality. Stephan was given the option of a church trial, returning to Saxony, or exile across the river to Illinois. Stephan chose the latter and never returned to his parishioners.
Some modern day theologians and scholars challenge Walther’s handling of the Stephan matter, alleging Walther violated the principle in the gospel of Matthew to first privately confront a sinner (Manteufal, 2011). One theologian calls Walther’s application of the principles in Matthew “dubious” and fraught with “serious errors” (Manteufal, 2011). I contend that this analysis is flawed on at least three grounds. First, Stephan’s misconduct involved more than just sexual relations with multiple women, it involved dictatorial demands on all of the Saxon pastors and parishioners including a prohibition from setting foot in the colony without permission. Accordingly, Walther fulfilled his obligations in Matthew simply by showing up—his mere presence informed Stephan that Walther regarded his edicts and conduct as sinful.
Second, Walther did meet privately with Stephan before advising the immigrants in Perry County to violate Stephan’s commands. Although Walther did not apparently speak about the allegations of sexual exploitation, it is a fair inference that Walther received a clear indication of Stephan’s unrepentant state. Indeed, shortly after his meeting with Stephan, Walther delivered a sermon based on the text of John 3:20: “For everyone who does wicked things hates the light, and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed” (Concordia Seminary, 2011).bis text and accompanying sermon suggest Walther had concluded that Stephan had hardened his heart and was far from the broken sinner for which the gospel is intended.
Third, an explicit confrontation with Stephan about the sexual exploitation allegations may have endangered the lives of others. Given that Stephan had left his wife in Germany, that multiple women had accused him of sexual offenses, and that he had created a situation in Perry County where he was seemingly immune from oversight raised a strong possibility of additional victims. Too strong of a confrontation with Stephan may have caused him to pressure other women not to disclose additional offenses. Moreover, Stephan’s control of the treasury and the sway he had over the immigrants, a sway that was endangering their lives because crops were not planted, required extreme caution.
If a member of a congregation were observed by a fellow believer to be holding up a convenience store with a gun, it would be ludicrous to suggest our Christian obligation is to speak with the man before calling the police or taking other meaningful action to protect the victim of this crime (Schuetze, personal communication). Applying Mathew 18 in such a rigid, thoughtless manner would endanger lives should the criminal choose to fire the weapon to avoid capture. In cases of sexual exploitation and abuse, there is also a grave danger in rigidly adhering to Mathew 18 in that doing so may result in an offender destroying evidence, pressuring victims to remain silent or recant, or even the possibility an offender may harm himself.
The seriousness of Stephan’s conduct cannot be overstated. Given his absolute power over the flock, and the vulnerability of the Saxons in a new country and culture, the potential for continued abuse was extremely high. In many states today, it is a felony crime for a pastor to have sex with a parishioner that he or she is providing spiritual counseling to, even if the parishioner consents (Minnesota Statutory Section, 609.344, subd. 1(k)(l)(ii) 2012). As noted by one historian, the women Stephan sexually exploited were both “impressionable and vulnerable.” (Concordia Seminary, 2011). Although Walther may not have had our modern era appreciation of the significant differences in power between a pastor and the parishioner he is counseling, Stephan’s conduct was so extreme it is difficult to believe Walther did not understand the egregiousness of the conduct.
Walther’s handling of the Stephan situation is akin to the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Corinthians in which he urged that a man involved in an incestuous relationship be expelled from the congregation (1 Cor. 5: 1– 13, ESV). Paul did not ask the congregation to meet privately with the man before excommunication or wait until Paul could visit and examine the man. Instead, Paul wrote “For though absent in body … I have already pronounced judgment on the one who did such a thing … You are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved” (1 Cor. 5:3–5).
It is interesting to note that Paul does not urge the excommunication of the woman involved in this incest— perhaps an implicit understanding of her vulnerability. Similarly, Walther and the other Saxon pastors appear to have recognized the particular vulnerability of the women Stephan exploited and simply pronounced forgiveness and the full force of the gospel. The law was reserved for the unrepentant perpetrator.
Applying Law and Gospel to Victims of Child Sexual Abuse
In a great many of his published prayers and addresses, C.F.W. Walther recognized that Christians are charged with grave responsibilities for the care of children and that God will hold us accountable for our unfaithfulness in discharging this duty (Walther, 2011). Walther called children “far more precious than gold or silver, than house and home” and said that God would one day ask us “Where are the children I have given you? Have any of them been lost?” (Walther, 2011, p. 136).
Reflecting his belief that God was especially concerned with the welfare of children, Walther prayed “Lord Jesus, by Your holy Word You have again warned us against despising any one of these little ones, for their angels always behold the face of Your Father in heaven.” In the care of children, Walther admonished his parishioners to “leave no stone unturned to keep them safe from the evil foe and the world …” (Walther, 2011, p. 133).
Given his childhood history and his pastoral history in applying the law and gospel in cases of violence and sexual exploitation, it is more than conjecture to suggest that if Walther were alive today he would take heed of the many studies documenting the devastation that abuse has on a child’s spirituality. Accordingly, pastors wishing to follow the spirit of Walther in applying law and gospel to victims of child abuse may begin by reviewing the Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) Studies and remind themselves of the shattered lives left from child abuse. With these studies in mind, a pastor contemplating the words of our Savior will likely find a clear course of action—the liberal use of the gospel, and the sparing use of the law. To this end, the following guidelines may be of assistance.
Avoid the Temptation to Focus on the Victim’s Sins
If the ACE studies are accurate, a pastor or other Christian meeting with a boy or girl, man or woman, abused as a child may very well see the aftermath of this exploitation—a child or adult who has turned to alcohol, drugs, smoking, sex, food, etc. in search of solace. The victim may have anger problems, multiple divorces, a criminal history, drug or alcohol problems, or mental illness. Consequently, the victim may be the subject of church gossip as elders and other modern day Pharisees whisper her shame and promote their own righteousness. When confronted with such a pilgrim, a pastor may be tempted to focus his or her gaze on the specks in the victim’s eye, and avert attention away from the gaping hole in the victim’s heart—a hole that can only be filled by the gospel. A pastor who judges quickly and harshly may lose the child forever— and will one day be a subject to the gaze of a Savior who asks us to care for the suffering.
Instead, the pastor should recognize the brokenness before him—a brokenness that may have displayed itself for years. Jesus came to bind the wounds of the broken-hearted and the gospel may be the only tonic the abused child has never experienced. The pastor must pour out this oil liberally.
Assure the Victim of Christ’s Empathy
A victim may question the goodness of God, in part, because of the theological statements made by the offender. The victim may also question whether or not God can truly understand his or her pain or experiences. When this is the case, a Christian pastor can assist by showing the child a very different image of God. Tell the victim that those who abused him or her violated the clear commandments of God and that any twisted theology they employed in justification came not from God, but from Satan himself. Tell them that Jesus understands such toxic theology—after all, the devil employed that trickery on Christ as well (see, for example, Mt. 4: 1–11). More importantly, speak of Christ’s love of children and the grave warnings he gave to anyone who harms them—telling his disciples that the angels of children have direct access to his Father and that being tossed into a sea with a millstone around their neck would be a better choice than to hurt a child (Mt. 18:6). Tell them that Christ, the very Son of God, was a descendant of a sexually exploited woman ( Joshua 2, 6:22–25; Heb 11:31; Mt 1:5), and was frequently seen in the company of other sexually exploited women as he promised not only his help, but the very kingdom of God (Mt. 21:31).
Tell the suffering soul that Jesus understands maltreatment. As one who was called names and mocked with purple robes and twisted thorns, Christ understands emotional abuse. As the recipient of blows to his face and whips to his back, Christ understands physical abuse. As one nailed naked to a tree, publicly exposed to the jeers of soldiers, Christ even understands the pain of children forced to disrobe before the eyes of men with only evil thoughts. Surely he has borne our sorrows.
Apply the Gospel Compassionately
The victim may have extreme guilt over the usage of drugs or alcohol, may have suffered from myriad failed relationships or a host of other problems. The pastor should recognize the enormity of this pain and assure the survivor of God’s forgiveness and love. Simply stated, the pastor must display the compassion of our Savior.
Tony Campolo tells of being at a diner early one morning and overhearing Agnes, a prostitute, lament that she was about to turn 39 years old and had never had a birthday party. Campolo worked with the manager of the diner to arrange for a splendid party for Agnes, complete with a birthday cake. Upon seeing the cake, Agnes was overcome with this strange love. She asked if she could take the cake to show her mother. As Agnes left momentarily with the cake, Campolo led all the prostitutes gathered for the party in prayer for Agnes (see Campolo, 2009, for a complete account). In other words, Campolo preached the gospel by demonstrating the compassion of Christ.
Assist the Victim in Accessing Appropriate Medical and Mental Health Care
Pastors should not ignore the needs of those struggling with drugs, alcohol, sexual impulses, anger, or any number of other conditions often found among those ripped from childhood. In helping the child access mental health services, pastors should seek a mental health provider current on the literature addressing childhood trauma and who is skilled at providing counseling or other services. Many well-educated professionals have had very little training at the undergraduate and graduate level on child sexual abuse (Champion, Shipman, Bonner, Hensley, & Howe, 2003), and thus it is critical to ask some questions before making a referral. In some cases, an incompetent counselor may be worse than no counselor at all.
Refrain from Platitudes
Many well-meaning theologians are quick to offer a biblical platitude to complex spiritual struggles. When this happens, a victim often feels frustrated and looks elsewhere for guidance (Brown, 2009). Consider, for example, the complex theological questions contained in this survivor’s account of trauma, shared with the author:
When I was a little girl, my dad would come into my bedroom to tuck me in. He would read me a story and then he would have me utter my bedtime prayers. ‘Now I lay me down to sleep … ’ After the prayers, Dad would sexually abuse me. When the abuse was done he would tell me things like ‘God doesn’t hear your prayers. If he did, he wouldn’t allow me to touch you sexually right after your prayers. Either there is no God or, if God exists, he is unable to protect you.’ I have never forgotten what my dad said. I’m a grown woman now and, every time I pray, I remember all the times I asked God to watch over me during the night, and how the prayers went unanswered. I want to pray, I want to be close to God, but I don’t know how. I’m thinking maybe my dad was right—either there is no God or else he is unable to protect me. Please tell me what to do.
A pastor engaged with this parishioner will need to explore the toxic theology presented by her father as well as the difficult questions posed about prayer. Simply stated, a platitude won’t due. What is likely needed is a series of theological discussions on these myriad issues. The pastor may wish to recommend helpful books or materials on one or more of these issues and discuss the assignments with the parishioner (see, for example, Yancey, 2010 for a helpful book that includes myriad references to the unanswered prayers of child abuse victims). The pastor must be invested for the long haul.
Don’t Make Forgiveness Into a Law, But a Change of Heart Rooted in the Gospel
Many victims of abuse struggle with the issue of forgiveness and, when forgiveness does occur, it often takes time (Worthington et al., 2000). Consider, for example, the pain of this victim, shared with the author:
I am a police officer and a Christian. I’ve been baptized, confirmed, and have faithfully attended church all my life. I am, though, deeply troubled. When I was a boy, my father cruelly abused me. One of his favorite things to do was to take me into the barn (we lived on a farm), strip me naked, bind my hands together with a rope and then toss the other end of the same rope over the rafters in the barn so that I would hang naked in the barn as he beat me with a stick. The sound of that stick, the smell of that barn, and the sight of my blood are never far from my memory. I am a good person, and I believe Jesus is my savior. At the same time, though, I know I’m going to hell. I recall the Sunday School lesson of Jesus scolding Peter that our obligation is not to forgive seven times but seventy times seven— meaning an infinite number of times. I recall Jesus saying that if we can’t forgive others, we won’t be forgiven. Try as I might, I cannot forgive my father. Why should I have to go to hell because I can’t forgive the man who tortured me?
Although some of the answers to this question may differ depending on the particular denomination of the survivor, it is clear that the survivor has multiple theological questions, which need careful consideration and compassionate responses (Tracy, 2005). As a starting point, though, three concepts may be helpful. First, assure the survivor that forgiveness is not a toleration of sin. The child abuse victim has every right to have a perpetrator prosecuted and otherwise held accountable for crimes committed. If forgiveness was the toleration of sin, no government could enforce the law, no parent could correct a child, and no church could exercise discipline.
Second, recognize that forgiveness cannot be forced. Requiring the victim to forgive a perpetrator as a condition of redemption is simply to place the victim under the law. Instead, suggest to the victim that forgiveness is a gift of God that allows the survivor to let go overwhelming feelings of anxiety, hatred, and anger. Many victims have told me over the years that until they forgave an offender, the perpetrator continued to have power over them. Martin Moran, a survivor of child sexual abuse at the hands of “Bob,” a man at a church summer camp, described the process of forgiveness with these words (Moran, 2005, p. 279):
And a thought came to me. Something Sister Christine said all those years ago. That with the really tough things it would always come down to grace. A gift from the beyond that moves us toward our own salvation. And as I crawled out into the thick Los Angeles traffic, what I kept hearing in my head was this prayer, a plea repeating: OK, grace, please, let it go, let him be, for heaven’s sake. Let him rest. I mean Bob, of course. But then, I realize I’m really talking about someone else. The twelve-year-old. The sweet kid caught in a photo, still talking his way out. And I’m not sure how in the world to let him rest. Not yet, anyway. Third, point the victim to the cross and trust the Holy Spirit to do His work. Diane Langberg, a Christian psychologist specializing in counseling sexually abused children, puts it this way:
It has been my experience in my work with survivors that rather than simply telling them they need to forgive—a statement that often overwhelms them with despair—it is much more helpful to teach them, as they are ready, about the work of God in Christ on the cross … Over time, clients see evidence of that work in their own lives … the recognition of that wonderful redemption almost always results in a hunger to be like the one who has loved them so faithfully. (Langberg, 2003, p. 185)
Cautiously Respond When a Victim Asks to Confront the Perpetrator
Martin Moran chose to confront the man who molested him at a church camp only to find that the offender continued to engage in cognitive distortions that minimized his conduct. Specifically, the perpetrator told Moran:
I wanted to help you. You were such a gentle soul … Mentally, you were way ahead of the other boys. You were special … there were others, I admit. But not like you. You were so curious about things … you were shy and I wanted to teach you about the land and animals and help you gain confidence. And you did. (Moran, 2005, p. 274). VIETH 269
Rather than genuine repentance, the offender continued to minimize his own conduct and suggest to Moran that somehow the sexual abuse was good for him. This is not an isolated or unusual occurrence and pastors need to help survivors understand that a confrontation with the offender is unlikely to go as they envision. If they nonetheless choose to confront the offender, the survivor should be fully prepared by a mental health professional to process the event before and after the confrontation. It may also be wise for a pastor, counselor, or other support person to be with the victim during any confrontation so that the support person can immediately challenge the cognitive distortions the offender may direct at the survivor (Langberg, 2003).
Seek the Lost
Preaching the gospel to abused children involves more than waiting for one to appear in our office or even our churches—it means an active search for the lost. Given how many of these children are driven from the church by Christians who violated their bodies in the name of God and by other Christians who, at best, responded passively, there is an urgent need for Christendom to adorn itself in sackcloth and ashes and then change course. Pastors should be proactive in preaching about the sin of child abuse, Christian publishing houses should produce books and other materials directed at abused children or those who seek to help them, and every Christian should promote and enforce rigorous child protection policies as a public witness that the church cares for children in deed and not just in word (Vieth, 2011). This is not an easy course to take and many will bristle at a bold ministry to abused children, particularly if this means bringing such damaged souls into our midst. If, though, the church cannot heed Christ’s command to care for children, those closest to God in faith (Mt. 18: 3, Lk 10:21) and yet the most vulnerable, it is doubtful a church can consider itself truly Christian. In addressing the needs of abused children, the church has done too little for too long and, when it has acted, has often done so for the wrong reason—such as avoiding a lawsuit (Lytton, 2008). Instead, the church needs to act out of genuine repentance and an overgowing of Christian love. Let that reformation begin with each of us.
Applying Law and Gospel to Perpetrators of Child Sexual Abuse
Throughout his lectures on law and gospel, as well as his addresses and prayers, Walther was deeply concerned about applying the gospel to “secure sinners.” Walther claimed that a Christian church does not “tolerate obvious servants of sin” (Walther, 2011, p. 155). In his lectures on law and gospel, Walther told his seminary students: “Do not proclaim forgiveness of sins to impenitent and secure sinners.bat would be a horrible mingling of Law and Gospel. It would be like sticking food into the mouth of a person who is already filled to the point of vomiting …” (Walther, 2011, p. 45).
Avoid Cheap Grace
Walther’s words reflect the concept of “cheap Grace”—a term coined by Dietrich Bonhoecer, a Lutheran minister executed by the Nazis because of his opposition to the government (for a review, see Metaxas, 2010). Bonhoecer defined cheap grace as “grace sold on the market like cheapjacks’ wares. The sacraments, the forgiveness of sin, and the consolations of religion are thrown away at cut prices” (Bonhoecer, 1959, p. 43). Many sex offenders have found the value of “cheap grace” in faith communities. Simply put, these sex offenders have come to realize that if they cry readily and mouth the words of repentance they won’t have to take any action to remedy the damage they have inflicted. Numerous clergy have been confronted with offenders who confess to sexually abusing children, emotionally express remorse, and pledge that abuse will never happen again. Many offenders beg for God’s forgiveness and some clergy members are quick to absolve sinners while simultaneously ignoring the needs of victims. When this happens, many offenders return home, realize how easy it is to be forgiven and will molest children again.
Ask Tough Questions
Given the manipulative nature of many offenders, members of the clergy may wish to ask a series of questions to determine the seriousness of the offender’s repentance. Pastors faced with offenders may wish to ask the following:
- Have you informed your spouse that you have sexually abused your child? If your wife wants you to move out of the house, are you willing to do it? If the child victim wants you to leave the house are you willing to do it?
- Have you informed your child’s medical provider that you have violated his or her body?
- Have you referred your child to a counselor to assist in coping with the abuse you have inflicted on him or her?
- Do you hold yourself fully responsible for your conduct—or do you believe your victim in some way contributed to the abuse?
- Have you turned yourself in to the police? Are you willing to confess your crimes to the police or will you make them“prove it”? If the government files charges for crimes you have committed, will you be pleading guilty or will you force your child victim to testify publicly and be grilled by any attorney you hire?
- Are you willing to enroll in a sex offender treatment program?
An offender who is confessing sexual misconduct but is unwilling to address the physical or emotional needs of his victim, to disclose the abuse to his spouse, or to seek sex offender treatment, may be seeking forgiveness but is giving no indication of an intention to repair the damage inflicted or to reform his behavior. Given the serious criminal nature of the conduct, an offender unwilling to turn him or herself into the police should be subjected to church discipline—not the recipient of sacraments (Metaxas, 2010).
Apply the Law as an Act of Genuine Love
Some members of the clergy have suggested to me that such harsh treatment of an offender removes the gospel from their work. Pastors with this concern should contemplate how they would handle a situation in which a parishioner confesses to having committed numerous thefts, asks God’s forgiveness for his crimes, but freely admits he has no intention of returning any of the stolen property to his victims, much less turning himself into the police. When confronted with this hypothetical, many pastors acknowledge they would not pronounce forgiveness since it is clear the offender is not truly penitent. This is the universal response that I have received when presenting this hypothetical scenario to clergy attending lectures. The very same principle must be applied to sex offenders unwilling to hold themselves accountable to the authorities or to do everything within their means to assist the children they have harmed.
Such a harsh application of the law is not cruel, but a genuine act of love. A sex offender unwilling to accept full responsibility for his conduct, who continues to minimize his offense or to blame others for his conduct is not yet the “crushed” sinner Walther believed to be ready for the gospel. Specifically, Walther said:
Woe to everyone who pampers secure sinners with soft pillows and cushions! These preachers lull to sleep with the Gospel those who ought to be awakened from their sleep with the law. It is a wrong application of the Gospel to preach it to people who are not afraid of sinning. (Walther, 2010, p. 39)
Just as Walther believed God will hold us accountable for failing to care for children, it is also true God will hold us accountable for failing to properly apply the law to those sex offenders secure in their sins. Pastors offering cheap grace provide a false solace and serve only to endanger the soul.
Seek True Confession
Like Walther, Dietrich Bonhoecer recognized the need for true confession, fearing that many parishioners avoid discussing their sins with a fellow Christian in the secret hope of continuing their conduct. Bonhoecer believed these Christians recognize that a brother in the faith may hold them accountable for their sins and demand a change in their behavior (Bonhoe cer, 1954). Fearing the necessary dosage of the law, these sinners unwittingly also deprive themselves of the gospel.
Recognize the Value of Earthly Consequences
When a pastor provides a healthy dose of the law, the child molester is forced to realize how much damage he has done and the consequences of his actions. be sex offender may lose his freedom and his family, may have significant restrictions on where he can work and live, and may forever be ostracized by society. It is only in this brokenness, though, that an offender will find the true power of the gospel. For many sex offenders, the only way to the cross is to lose everything.
Consider, for example, the two thieves crucified with Jesus. Although both thieves recognized their crimes, one of the men was not repentant, choosing instead to mock Christ and demanding that Jesus take this criminal from the cross (Lk 23:39). be other thief, though, did not ask to be excused from earthly consequences for his sins, acknowledging, “(w)e are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve” (Lk. 23:41).bis repentant sinner simply threw himself upon the mercy of his Lord. In response, he received the gospel: “I tell you the truth,” Jesus said, “Today you will be with me in paradise” (Lk. 23: 42– 43).
When confronted by sex offenders complaining of prison sentences and registration requirements, clergy and laity may wish to remind them of the thief who accepted governmental punishments for his crimes and asked only for the mercy of God. It was this genuine repentance, a repentance that did not seek relief from earthly consequences to sin, that Jesus responded to with unmerited grace.
Jesus called on us to display the humility and faith of “little children” if we are to enter the kingdom of heaven (Mt. 18: 2–3). Jesus also warned us not to cause these children to sin and said that, “whoever welcomes a little child like this in my name welcomes me” (Mt. 18: 5–6). Unfortunately, many who sexually abuse children do so in the name of Christ and purposely twist theology in such a way as to convince the child he or she is responsible for the abuse. As a result, many of these children suffer significant medical, mental health, and spiritual damage. Abused children are at greater risk to develop problems with drugs, alcohol, smoking, anger, and a host of other ills.
Clergy and laity unfamiliar with these dynamics often apply the law to victims and the gospel to perpetrators of abuse.When this happens, perpetrators are emboldened to strike again, and many children are lost to the church.With a large and growing body of research documenting these facts, the church can no longer hide behind ignorance. Simply stated, the church must properly apply law and gospel to victims and offenders and to otherwise fully prepare for the day of judgment when our Lord will ask each of us, “Where are the children?”
A pastor is counseling a couple in his congregation. In the course of the session it’s revealed that the husband has sexually abused his 12-year-old daughter. He admits his sin. He recognizes it was wrong. It happened three months ago and he hasn’t done anything since. He seems crushed. He cries. He promises never to do it again. The pastor applies the gospel and assures him that Christ paid for his sin of sexually abusing his daughter.
But now what does the pastor do? Does he report the man to Child Protective Services or law enforcement? Does he encourage the man to turn himself in, maybe offer to go with him to the proper authorities? Everyone in the room knows the consequences of such actions. The man will be arrested and charged with child sexual abuse. The family will be torn apart. He is the main provider in the family. They are trying to work out their problems as a family and have made some progress. Besides, he has been an active member of the congregation for many years.
There are a number of factors the pastor has to consider as the spiritual leader of this couple and congregation. First, what does the law say? In most states, members of the clergy are mandated reporters in cases of child abuse and neglect. For example, Wisconsin Statute 48.981(bm) states:
Except as provided in subd. 3. and subs. (2m) and (2r), a member of the clergy shall report as provided in sub. (3) if the member of the clergy has reasonable cause to suspect that a child seen by the member of the clergy in the course of his or her professional duties: Has been abused, as defined in s. 48.02 (1) (b) to (f ); or Has been threatened with abuse, as defined in s. 48.02 (1) (b) to (f ), and abuse of the child will likely occur.Except as provided in subd. 3. and subs. (2m) and (2r), a member of the clergy shall report as provided in sub. (3) if the member of the clergy has reasonable cause, based on observations made or information that he or she receives, to suspect that a member of the clergy has done any of the following:Abused a child, as defined in s. 48.02 (1) (b) to (f ). Threatened a child with abuse, as defined in s. 48.02 (1) (b) to (f ), and abuse of the child will likely occur.
This statute makes it clear that in the State of Wisconsin members of the clergy are mandated reporters of child abuse. It says, “A member of the clergy shall report.” But what is often confusing to many pastors is what is stated in point 3 of this same document:
A member of the clergy is not required to report child abuse information under subd. 1. or 2. that he or she receives solely through confidential communications made to him or her privately or in a confessional setting if he or she is authorized to hear or is accustomed to hearing such communications and, under the disciplines, tenets, or traditions of his or her religion, has a duty or is expected to keep those communications secret. Those disciplines, tenets, or traditions need not be in writing.
At first reading we may conclude that this “exception” applies to WELS pastors and that we are not mandated reporters. But let’s take a closer look at what this document says. It states that members of the clergy are not required to reveal “confidential communications” received in a “confessional setting” if the “disciplines, tenets, or traditions of their religion” expect those to be kept a secret.
This leads us to ask the question, “Does Scripture teach what this law describes? Can we say that ‘confidential communication received in a confessional setting in our ministry must be kept a secret’ is a tenet of our religion?” There is no doubt God’s Word instructs us to keep a confidence. It also warns us about spreading false rumors about others. The apostle Paul (1 Tim 5:13) and the book of Proverbs (Prov 11:13) both warn against gossiping. Pastor and people alike are to honor the Eighth Commandment. As Luther explained it in his Small Catechism: “We should fear and love God that we do not tell lies about our neighbor, betray him or give him a bad name, but defend him, speak well of him and take his words and actions in the kindest possible way.” In general, a pastor needs to hold in confidence what is confessed to him. On the negative side, a pastor who shares private information about his members will soon lose the confidence of his people.
In all of this, though, it is important to remember that the reason why God instructs us to keep a confidence and not gossip about others is to protect that person’s reputation from needless and in some cases unfounded accusations. However, the Eighth Commandment does not protect perpetrators of child abuse from facing the consequences of their sin. Keeping a confidence is not an absolute, especially when others are being harmed or may be hurt. God looks at our motive for breaking a confidence. If it is to hurt the person’s good name, it is sinful. But if is done to help that person or protect another from harm, then our motive is God-pleaseing. So while Scriptures does teach a doctrine of keeping a confidence, it does not teach a doctrine of confidential or privileged communication as defined by the law. It doesn’t compel us to keep secret everything that is confessed to us in private. Keeping a confidence has its limitations.
Another teaching of Scripture where the doctrine of keeping a confidence plays a part is Christian admonition. When someone sins against us, Jesus instructs us to confront the person privately at first—“just between the two of you.” Here again, confidentiality is not presented in an absolute sense. If the person doesn’t listen to our admonition, we bring others into the mix. Finally, we make the sin of an impenitent sinner known to the entire congregation. We do not keep this sin a secret because that would not be in the best interests of the sinner.1 So it is with perpetrators of child abuse. It is not in the best interests of the sinner to keep the sin a secret. He or she needs help to avoid this sin in the future. This person needs to bring forth fruits of repentance which means doing all he or she can to avoid that sin in the future and help the person who was sinned against.
Keeping the sin a secret does not help the person who was abused, either. Even though that person’s life may go from bad to worse in the near future, he or she will be spared future abuse at the hands of this perpetrator. This person also can begin to go down the long road toward healing.
So it is clear that nowhere in the doctrines of Christian admonition, the ministry of the keys, or the Eighth Commandment does Scripture teach a doctrine of confidential or privileged communication as defined in Wisconsin law. This means that in Wisconsin and other states with similar laws WELS pastors are mandated reporters of child abuse. (You can check the law in your state childwelfare.gov/topics/systemwide/laws-policies/state/ and should consult your District President.)
Legal counsel would concur with this understanding. Victor Vieth is a former prosecuting attorney in child abuse cases. He presently serves as the national director for the National Child Protection Training Center. He is a frequent speaker on child abuse and his legal counsel is sought on various levels of government. He is also a WELS member. In an email communication with this writer he stated,
First, a pastor is only protected from a criminal prosecution (or a lawsuit for that matter) if the information about abuse is received “solely through confidential communications in a confessional setting.” In other words, if the pastor learns of the abuse from the victim or another source or sees obvious signs of abuse, he would be still be required to report, though not necessarily required to report what he heard in the confessional. Second, the pastor must also be withholding the information obtained from the confessional pursuant to the “disciplines, tenets, or traditions of his or her religion.” I am not aware of a Wisconsin Synod Creed (much less a scriptural creed) that requires a pastor to keep confidential the confession of a child molester, particularly when keeping the confidence will likely cause ongoing harm to children.
However, there is a more compelling reason than compliance with civil law why we as pastors should report cases of child abuse or neg lect. This is what God would have us do. In our circles we have given much attention to Jesus’ words in Matthew 18:15-18. Yet what we often overlook is that Matthew 18 also includes verse 6 where Jesus warns, “If anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and be drowned in the depths of the sea.” The biblical text uses the verb skandalivzw which means to “cause to stumble, give offense or scandal to someone.” Child abuse causes children to stumble in the faith in many ways. Later in life it can trigger sinful behavior such as substance abuse and promiscuity as the person looks for ways to cope with the painful memories. It often confuses the person spiritually and theologically: “If there is a God, why didn’t he help me? If God promises to answer our prayers, then why didn’t he stop my abuse? I prayed about it many times.” Just consider how difficult it can be for a person who has suffered abuse to pray the Lord’s Prayer:
- Our Father in heaven—“My biological father abused me. I struggle to call God ‘Father.’”
- Your will be done—“Was it really God’s will that my relative abuse me? And if it wasn’t his will, then why didn’t he stop it?”
- Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us—“Do I really have to forgive this person for hurting me? I am not sure I can do that. Does that then mean I am not forgiven?”
- Lead us not into temptation—“Am I really at fault for this abuse? Am I really the one who tempted my abuser? That is what this person kept telling me.”
- Deliver us from evil—“Why didn’t God deliver me from this evil?”
These are only a few examples that demonstrate how child abuse can cause children to stumble in their faith.
Some pastors resent, even reject, the idea that they are mandated reporters of child abuse. Instead we as pastors should thank God for this law and embrace it. This law reflects God’s Word. This law tells us to do what God would have us do. Jesus cared deeply for children, even as he cared for all. Jesus recognized that children were valuable and vulnerable. That is why he spoke the strong warning in Matthew 18:6.
Dealing with cases of child abuse is difficult. The situation can be complex and we are not always sure what we should do. Seeking the advice of a professional is wise. But as we work through these challenging matters, let’s not only show concern for the spiritual welfare of the abuser and lead that person to repentance. Let’s show equal concern for the child who was abused. Through no fault of their own, this child was the victim of a sin. Remember, Matthew 18 also includes verse 6.
There are numerous federal and state laws that define child abuse and neglect. In determining whether or not a specific action violates civil or criminal law, it is necessary to consult with local authorities. The following general definitions of child abuse and neglect are taken from the World Health Organization and the International Society on Child Abuse and Neglect. In reviewing these definitions, Christians should keep in mind that God’s standards are much higher than earthly standards. In God’s eyes, for example, even lustful or hateful thoughts about a child constitute abuse in direct violation of God’s commandments (Matthew 5:21-22; 27-30).
Physical abuse of a child is defined as the intentional use of physical force against a child that results in – or has a high likelihood of resulting in – harm for the child’s health, survival, development or dignity. This includes hitting, beating, kicking, shaking, biting, strangling, scalding, burning, poisoning and suffocating. Much physical violence against children in the home is inflicted with the object of punishing.
Sexual abuse is defined as the involvement of a child in sexual activity that he or she does not fully comprehend, is unable to give informed consent to, or for which the child is not developmentally prepared, or else that violates the laws of society.Children can be sexually abused by both adults and other children who are – by virtue of their age or stage of development – in a position of responsibility, trust or power over the victim.
Emotional and Psychological Abuse
Emotional and psychological abuse involves both isolated incidents, as well as a pattern of failure over time on the part of a parent or caregiver to provide a developmentally appropriate and supportive environment. Acts in this category may have a high probability of damaging the child’s physical or mental health, or its physical, mental, spiritual, moral or social development. Abuse of this type includes: the restriction of movement; patterns of belittling, blaming, threatening, frightening, discriminating against or ridiculing; and other non-physical forms of rejection or hostile treatment.
Neglect includes both isolated incidents, as well as a pattern of failure over time on the part of a parent or other family member
to provide for the development and well-being of the child – where the parent is in a position to do so – in one or more of the following areas:
- Emotional development
- Shelter and safe living conditions.
Source: Preventing Child Maltreatment: A Guide to Taking Action and Generating Evidence
Understanding and Preventing Child Sexual Abuse: A Primer for Parents and Caretakers
By Victor I. Vieth and Alison Feigh
The trial of Jerry Sandusky has caused parents and others entrusted with the care of children to ask a number of questions about child sexual abuse and about the role of parents in keeping children safe. Some of the common questions parents have asked the National Child Protection Training Center, and our answers, are below.
How do children disclose sexual abuse?
Generally speaking, children don’t intentionally disclose their victimization.There are many reasons for this. As adults, we would feel uncomfortable publicly disclosing even positive sexual experiences with our marriage partners. In the same way, children are understandably reluctant to disclose their sexual experiences—particularly when the experiences are negative. Since most abuse is at the hands of a loved one, the child may be worried what will happen to their parent, and to them, if the parent is removed from the home. A boy may be worried that disclosure will cause him to be labeled as weak or that it will say something about his sexual orientation. Children who have a biological reaction to sexual abuse may blame themselves for the abuse. If a child didn’t say no because they were confused or afraid, they may blame themselves for not being able to get away. Some children have been threatened or had their pets threatened as a means of coercing them to maintain the secret. One survivor of abuse told how her father tortured her cat as a means of keeping her quiet. Children who have been photographed may be scared that the images of them being sexually assaulted by a loved one will be shown on television or on the Internet. As a result of these and other dynamics, many victims carry their secrets into adulthood, even to the grave.
If children seldom intentionally disclose child sexual abuse, how does the victimization come to light?
In many cases, the child makes an accidental disclosure. In one school, for example, the children were asked to keep a journal as a means of encouraging them to write. One of the children wrote in her journal about her father sexually abusing her, unaware that the teacher would be collecting the journals. In another case, a girl was staying over at a friend’s house and the mother of her friend overheard her bedtime prayer: “Dear God, please don’t let dad have sex with me on my birthday.” Sometimes, older children disclose abuse as part of an angry outburst. In one case, a father denied his teenage daughter the keys to the car and, at a family reunion, the daughter angrily denounced her dad and called him a child molester.
Sometimes, a child will tell a best friend who discloses the abuse to an authority figure. In one case, a 14 year old rape victim detailed the abuse in a letter to her best friend in northern Minnesota. The letter was discovered by the mother of the victim’s friend.
Sometimes a child may present to the doctor with a sexually transmitted disease or perhaps a parent or other party will walk in on the abuse. In one study, 54% of child molesters admitted that, on one or more occasions, they had sexually abused a child with another child in the room and 23% had molested a child with another adult in the room.
Apparently, the increased risk of getting caught enhanced their excitement. Moreover, if they could abuse the child with others in the room, this would increase the child’s feeling of helplessness. Perpetrators might do this by abusing a child while a spouse is also in the bed sleeping or may begin to fondle her or him while watching TV under the same blanket with a child.
Children or teens may disclose following a training on personal body safety. Abuse may also come to light after adults have received training on warning signs and how to talk about abuse prevention to the children in their care. Even with training, children may not disclose and adults must remain the primary protectors of children.
Are certain behaviors indicative of being a child sexual abuse victim?
Most behaviors consistent with being abused are equally consistent with other causes. A child experiencing nightmares could be a victim of abuse or could simply be a child who watched a scary movie. However, research from William Freidrich of the Mayo Clinic has identified sexual behaviors in young children that are not diagnostic but have a correlation to that child being victimized sexually.
When these behaviors are observed in children below the age of 6 there is a chance that child has been victimized sexually or has been exposed to pornography or other sexually inappropriate activity. These behaviors include inserting objects in their body cavities, manipulating genitals with an object, acts of oral sex, and imitating sexual behavior with dolls. In one school, the after-school worker discovered a 7 year old girl performing cunnilingus on a 5 year old girl. The fact that such a young child is aware of this sexual act, much less performing it, is suggestive of sexual abuse or exposure to developmentally inappropriate sexual material. Simply stated, the child did not acquire this knowledge by watching Sesame Street.
If a child demonstrates a shift of behavior, suddenly has difficulty concentrating, or suddenly wants to disengage from activities that they liked in the past, those are signs for a caregiver to engage. The signs may not indicate abuse, but they do present opportunities for parents to connect with their children.
If the child doesn’t want to talk about the issue with a parent, brainstorm together other adults that both the parent and child trust who can be asked to check in about the problem. Every child should have five adults whom they can talk to about problems. Asking one of the five adults to check-in can serve as a powerful reminder that the world is full of adults who want children to grow up healthy, safe, and strong.
If the day care, school, summer camp, or church my child attends conducts a criminal background check on workers and volunteers, is that enough to make sure my children are safe?
Although a criminal history check may satisfy the school or camp insurance company, it does little in identifying a potential predator. Most predators do not have a criminal history. Studies indicate there is no better than a 3% chance a sexual predator will ever be apprehended.When predators are apprehended, many have accumulated hundreds of victims. There is in the Wisconsin prison system a predator who has confessed to sexually abusing more than 1,200 children. A study of 561 non-incarcerated sex offenders concluded these men sexually abused 195,000 victims. Simply stated, a criminal history check is a good first step, but it is not meant to stand alone.
If a background check, by itself, is not enough, what sort of policies should I make sure are in place at the schools or camps my child attends?
At a minimum, parents should look for the following policies:
- Two-deep leadership. If at all possible, children should always be in the care of at least two workers. Even if a worker or volunteer has to remove a child from the group for a legitimate reason, the child and the worker should always be in the eyesight of at least one additional worker or volunteer. When developing two-deep leadership teams, it may be wise to avoid placing close family members or friends as teams. This is because a spouse or other close family member is more likely to protect a loved one who violates church rules or engages in concerning behavior with a youth.
- Respect the child’s privacy. Sex offenders like to see children undressing or otherwise seek an opportunity to initiate conversation about sexual topics. Accordingly, workers and volunteers should avoid watching children undress in locker rooms, showers, or bathrooms.
- Separate sleeping accommodations. At boarding schools, camps, or other overnight settings, there should be separate sleeping accommodations for children and the adults. If there is a reason for an adult to enter the sleeping accommodations of children at night (i.e., a child has become ill), the exception should be well documented and, if at all possible, two adults should be entering the sleeping area. When requiring separate sleeping accommodations, make it clear this means truly separate. In one case, an offender arranged an overnight with youth during which he had an adjoining room door he could easily open and otherwise gain access to the children he molested.
- Limit, if not prohibit, events at a worker’s home. In one case, a youth minister had the children he was working with over to his house for a party in which all the children joined him in a hot tub where he instructed some of the children how to masturbate with the jets. Again, sex offenders seek private access to children and allowing a worker to be alone with children at his or her house increases the risk. If there is a legitimate reason for hosting an event at the worker’s home, have some rules around such activities—such as an additional worker present. In the same vein, there should be regulations on workers visiting the homes of children. In more than one case, church or other workers have visited children at their homes and have molested them there.
- Appropriate attire. Adult workers and volunteers should wear appropriate clothing at all times. Activities such as skinny dipping should always be prohibited. Again, offenders look for opportunities to initiate inappropriate sexual conversations with their potential victims. Accordingly, sexually suggestive or otherwise inappropriate apparel or behaviors should be prohibited.
- Sexual jokes, comments, or behaviors around children should be strictly prohibited. In one case, a “Christian” teacher told the boys in his care about the frequency he had sex with his wife on his honeymoon. The same teacher would slam on the brakes when driving the school van and comment to the boys this was merely a “ball busting exercise.” A worker at a church boarding school hosted a pizza party where the invited adolescent girls were “accidently exposed” to his pornography collection.
- Open windows and open doors. There may be times when a teacher or other adult will need to be alone with a child, such as a teacher giving a child a music lesson. In such a scenario, it is important to have an open-door policy where fellow teachers or others can enter unexpectedly and to have windows on doors so others can see what is happening in a particular room. Again, sex offenders look for opportunities to abuse children and it is the responsibility of a youth-serving organization to limit these opportunities.
- Prohibiting corporal punishment. Corporal punishment of children is prohibited in most schools, day cares, and other settings. There is a large body of medical and mental health research documenting that corporal punishment does very little good and is often harmful to children. In settings where corporal punishment is allowed, children get mixed messages about telling. A child telling when someone hurts them is then discounted and told to ignore that feeling if the behavior is allowed. As an additional concern, sex offenders may view corporal punishment as a socially permissible means to touch a child’s buttocks or other intimate parts of the body.
How do I speak with my child about personal safety?
There are number of books and materials that parents can use in speaking with their children. about personal safety. Some parents worry that personal safety is frightening or involves sex education. This is not the case. You are simply telling children that the parts of their body covered by bathing suits are not supposed to be touched by others and, when they are, they should tell someone. If the person they tell doesn’t believe them, they should keep on telling until they are believed.
Children should be encouraged to tell the person taking care of them if anyone is acting in a way that makes them feel confused or scared. Parents and caregivers can stress that even if the person giving them the “uh-oh feeling” or trying to get them to break their safety rules is someone that they know, they can still tell and it isn’t their fault. The greater risk to children is people that they already know, but that relationship often makes it harder to tell.
Some professionals are opposed to personal safety classes because they believe the classes put the burden on the child to protect themselves. If this logic is carried to the extreme, we would stop teaching children not to play with matches. We want a child to know what to do if they see a matchbook without assuming they would know what steps to take to fireproof a home. Children who have been sexually abused have often been led by their perpetrators to believe there is nothing they can do to stop the abuse. A personal safety program may give them a way out. The responsibility for personal safety should not rest solely on the shoulders of a child, but giving children good information can help start important conversations and keep them safer.
How will I know when my child is trying to tell me about child sexual abuse?
Recognize that a child making a disclosure of abuse may do it piece-meal or in a manner that distances him or herself from the abuse. For example, a child may approach a parent after a personal safety lesson and ask him/her “if something like that happened to my friend, who should she tell?” The child may have a friend who has been victimized or she may be seeking more information before deciding if she wants to disclose her own abuse. An appropriate response may be to reiterate the importance of telling and then ask the child directly if anything has happened to them. Many children will not disclose unless directly asked. This is particularly true given that most child sexual abuse is at the hands of someone the child is close to and may love.
Starting “What if” games with a child when the child is young is a good way to begin these important conversations about safety. Allowing your child a chance to problem solve with a “What if” can increase their confidence on these subjects. Thinking through a “What if” scenario and coming up with good solutions can make it easier to make those same choices if the actual scenario presents itself. It also allows the caregiver to reinforce important messages.
Parent : “What if an older child asked you to play a secret touching game with them for $5?”
Child: “I know that we talk about touches in our family. I would not take the money and would come and tell you about it.”
“Great answer! You know that your safety is worth more than any amount of money, right?”
What should I know about how sexual predators select children?
Many predators put a great deal of thought into selecting, grooming, and abusing their victims. They often look for children whom they believe will fall into their attention/affection trap. Consider this report from a predator targeting church children:
First of all, you start the grooming process from day one…the children that you’re interested in…. You find a child you might be attracted to…. For me, it might be nobody fat. It had to be a you know, a nice-looking child…. You maybe look at a kid that doesn’t have a father image at home. You know, you start deducting. Well, this kid may not have a father, or a father that cares about him. Some kids have fathers but they’re not there with them…. Say if you’ve got a group of twenty-five kids, you might find nine that are appealing…. Then you start looking at their family backgrounds…. Then you find out which ones are most accessible. Then eventually you get it down to the one you think is the easiest target, and that’s the one you do.
Since predators seek vulnerable children, it is wise to pay attention to children at greatest risk. Children and adults who are physically or mentally disabled, children engaging in delinquent behavior or who are having trouble with drugs or alcohol, or simply children of a single parent may be an easy target for predators.
Will being engaged in my child’s life and proactive in monitoring my child’s activities deter a potential predator?
Parents who understand that a predator may look for the one child at basketball games, band concerts, or other school events that never has a parent attend or otherwise demonstrate interest in their son or daughter may choose to take a greater interest in their child’s life. Parents must also understand the dangers of the Internet. A University of New Hampshire study found that 20% of children between the ages of 10-17 have been solicited for sexual purposes.If a parent would not allow an unsupervised adult to enter the child’s bedroom, then a parent should not allow Internet accessible computers in a child’s room or even allow the child to enter chat rooms where predators abound. Tell your child to save their questions about their bodies and sex to ask you or another approved adult in person and not to seek out those answers from people wanting to chat online.
What sort of therapy should I refer my child to if he or she has been victimized?
It is essential that the counselor, psychologist, or psychiatrist be experienced in working with victims of sexual abuse and be well versed in the abundant research on treating children suffering from trauma. Keep in mind that most psychologists received little, if any training at the undergraduate or graduate level on child sexual abuse.Accordingly, if a given therapist has not taken the initiative to master the literature in this area and is not experienced in working with this issue, he or she is simply not competent to work these cases. If your community has a child advocacy center certified by the National Children’s Alliance, contact that center for a referral.
Where can I acquire additional information?
The Jacob Wetterling Resource Center (JWRC) is a program of the National Child Protection Training Center. JWRC has numerous resources for parents on speaking with their children about safety and keeping children safe when out of a parent’s care, including a class on how to talk to children about body safety in a positive and empowering way. To learn more, visit JWRC at www.jwrc.org.
JWRC employees and volunteers train parents, children, caregivers, and professionals about personal safety. Recently, one of our speakers was working with children on writing out individual lists of each child’s five trusted adults. Children were offering plenty of examples of the people in their lives they can go to if they have a problem. Children were taught that we have five adults in case the first adult doesn’t know what to do, isn’t around at the time of the question, and that sometimes it is the adult on their list that is trying to get them to break a rule or is giving them the “uh-oh” feeling. The children were told if the first person on the list can’t help, move on to one of the other 4 adults. The room was full of positive energy as children were making lists of 5, 10, and even 15 adults in their lives that they could approach for help. One little girl looked up with wide eyes and said, “Isn’t it great that there are so many good guys in the world!” That is the good news. There are so many people in the world who want to do their part to create safe childhoods for children. How would our world be different if people protested in the streets anytime a child was hurt? Our best protest is prevention.
A Lutheran Approach to Ministering Victims and Perpetrators of Child Abuse
“It is to the little children we must preach, it is for them that the entire ministry exists.” – Martin Luther
Theologians often struggle with ministering to the needs of both victims and perpetrators of child abuse. Pastoral ignorance of the dynamics inherent in these cases often results in applying the law to victims and the gospel to perpetrators.This takes place when pastors fail to understand that childhood trauma often results in significant medical and mental health conditions including drug and alcohol abuse, violent tendencies, anger, promiscuity or early pregnancy.
Accordingly, pastors are tempted to apply the law without realizing they are only treating the smoke and not the fire itself. In contrast, most sex offenders are religiousand highly skilled at mouthing the words of repentance and in otherwise convincing clergy not to take strong actions against them. As a result, many pastors pronounce the gospel to offenders fully intent on continuing in their sin.
When this happens, abused children suffer profound spiritual damageand often flee the church while their offenders are empowered to remain snug in the pews emboldened to strike again. In unwittingly harming the child’s faith, pastors are also harming the primary coping mechanism of many abused children. Research consistently shows that child abuse victims “who maintained some connection to their personal faith (even if it was damaged as a result of abuse) experienced better mental health outcomes compared to adult survivors of abuse who did not.”
Although clergy need better training in responding to all aspects of child abuse,10 Lutheran theologians should also utilize their rich religious traditions in properly responding to these cases. In the lives and writings of Martin Luther and C.F.W. Walther, we find sound theological principles for godly responses to child abuse.
To this end, this article includes a discussion of child abuse in the lives of Luther and Walther, some insight as to how abuse may have influenced each man, and an analysis of how each of these pillars of our Lutheran faith viewed children and responded to instances of maltreatment and sexual exploitation.
Abuse in Luther and Walther’s Childhoods
Although little is known about C.F.W. Walther’s mother, there is evidence his father was physically abusive. As one example, the young boy Walther was whipped for the seemingly mild infraction of accidentally sitting on a family sofa reserved for guests.In reference to his father, Walther said “A young man must endure much pain, ere he becomes a gentleman.”
Child abuse in Martin Luther’s life is even clearer. The reformer himself spoke of physical abuse at the hands of his mother, father and school masters. Luther claimed his mother “caned me for stealing a nut until the blood came.”He said his father “once whipped me so that I ran away and felt ugly toward him until he was at pains to win me back.”] He said his father “once whipped me so that I ran away and felt ugly toward him until he was at pains to win me back.” As for his schooling, Luther recalls “I was caned in a single morning fifteen times for nothing at all.” Emotional abuse, in the form of public humiliation, was practiced daily in Luther’s schooling when the poorest student was required to wear a donkey mask until the child could catch someone speaking German—and then the mask and its accompanying humiliation was passed on.
The Influence of Child Abuse in the lives of Luther and Walther
Luther and Walther bore some of the traits often resulting from child abuse—including bouts with depression and other forms of mental illness.Apart from feelings of intense sorrow, abusive childhoods may have influenced these men in other ways. Luther claimed the abuse he endured as a child is what “drove me to the monastery.” Whether or not that is true, both men demonstrated a remarkable sensitivity to the needs of children and displayed in their writings and conduct extraordinary compassion for victims of abuse.
Our obligations to children: the writings of Luther and Walther
Perhaps cognizant of the blows he received, Luther expressed reservations about the effectiveness of hitting children as a means of discipline. Specifically, Luther said “children that can be forced only with rods and blows will not develop into a good sort; they will at best remain godly no longer than the rod lies on their back. But under Christian training godliness is rooted in their hearts so that they fear God more than they do rods and clubs.”
Luther said there was “no purpose for a father and mother” other than to care for children and rear them in the “fear and knowledge of God above all things.”When confronted with the unseemliness of changing a diaper, Luther tenderly said a father should respond:
O God…I confess to Thee that I am not worthy to rock the little babe or wash its diapers, or to be entrusted with the care of the child and its mother… Neither frost nor heat, neither drudgery nor labor will distress or dissuade me, for I am certain that it is pleasing in Thy sight.
Walther called children “far more precious than gold or silver, than house and home” and prayed:
O Lord God, we tremble when we recall that You have placed us over our children as Your representatives to lead and guide them on earth, and that You will someday say to us: ‘Where are the children whom I have given you? Have any of them been lost?’ For again and again we have been guilty of neglecting them, due either to a lack of love or to misguided love, to a lack of earnestness or to sinful zeal, to a lack of wisdom or to the deceptive wisdom of this world.
Our Obligations to Children: Luther’s Catechism
Luther’s childhood was violent and influenced him in early writings to use the word “Father” primarily as a judge.However, Luther’s catechisms contain much gentler prose as he writes of “dear children coming to their dear father.” According to one scholar, the reason for the change in Luther’s writing is simple:
Luther had discovered what it meant to be a Father! ‘Father-like’ was not a simile for Luther’s father but the experience of Luther himself as a father, especially with the death of his second child, Elizabeth, as an infant.
As one biographer notes, Luther “played and prayed with his children. He listened to them laugh—and cry. Sometimes when they cried he would take them in his arms until the last sob had come and gone.”Although not a perfect parent, Luther’s tender interaction with his children is reflected in his view of God’s relationship to us. In his explanation to the second article of the Creed, Luther said simply “(Y)ou may believe in Jesus, that he has become your Lord…and set you on his lap.”
In his explanation to the fourth commandment, Luther saw not simply an obligation of the children toward their parents but also a responsibility of the parents toward their children. In Luther’s Large Catechism he admonishes parents this way:
Everyone acts as if God gave us children for our pleasure and amusement, gave us servants merely to put them to work like cows or donkeys, gave us subjects to treat as we please…We really must spare no effort, time, and expense in teaching and educating our children to serve God and the world.
Luther and Walther’s Response to Sexual Exploitation
One scholar finds that “one of the most surprising things about Luther’s explanation of the sixth commandment is the equality that Luther implied throughout.”This same scholar notes that “whatever sexual relations were to” Luther “they were not an invitation to exploitation.” On a visit to Rome, Luther had seen priests sexually exploit women and may have had this in mind when he directed his pen against “the whole swarm of clerics in our time who stand by day after day in the church, singing and ringing bells, but without keeping a single day holy, because they neither preach nor practice God’s Word, but rather live contrary to it.”
As a young minister, Walther guided the emerging Missouri Synod through a scandal in which at least four women were sexually exploited by Lutheran Bishop Martin Stephan. The conduct of Stephan would be deemed a felony crime under modern criminal codes. In response to this conduct, Walther and his colleagues applied the law to the unrepentant Stephan by exiling him from the colony while they poured out the gospel to his victims.
Luther and Walther’s response to domestic violence
Luther and Walther both faced instances of a parishioner enduring beatings from a spouse and both men chose to protect the victim over the objections of the authorities. Luther “fought for a woman’s right to divorce an abusive husband, despite the Wittenberg City Council’s fear that if that became grounds for divorce, no one would be left married in Wittenberg.”Similarly, Walther supported a woman beaten to the point of being unconscious by defending her right for separation. When admonished by the church, Walther defended his theology and may have gone so far as to lie to the authorities as a means of protecting both the woman and her child.
Applying law and gospel to victims of child abuse: lessons from Luther and Walther
Victims of abuse have often turned to drugs, alcohol, sex or other behaviors in search of relief from abuse.In one case, a victim of physical and sexual abuse developed an addiction to meth and while high on the drug drove a car and accidentally killed a man. When released from prison, the man was deeply remorseful but unsure if God would still accept him. In such a scenario, the obligation of a pastor is to offer the release of the gospel.
According to Walther, the only contrition necessary to receive the gospel is the realization you “can no longer find consolation in yourself; if everything is dark and depressing” and you cry out “Where can I find consolation?”For many survivors, the world is indeed “dark and depressing” and their cry for consolation is a plea rooted in enormous pain.
The gospel has much to which victims can relate. Christ was the descendant of a sexually exploited womanand was often seen in the company of other sexually exploited women. Victims often see understanding in a God who was himself beaten, neglected, and nailed naked to a cross. Indeed, many survivors have told me their favorite Bible verse is: “He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:3 ESV).
This is not to say a pastor should ignore a victim’s abuse of drugs or other harmful behavior but rather that the theologian must first recognize the hole in the victim’s heart. When properly applied, the gospel will assist in moving a victim away from sinful conduct.The victim may then be more amenable as a pastor assists in helping him or her access medical and mental health care, chemical dependency treatment, or other services.
Pastors must also be cautious in urging a victim to forgive their offenders. Forgiveness is a difficult concept for many victims and requiring this act is to place the victim under the law. In commenting on the obligation in the Lord’s Prayer to forgive others, Luther noted that man cannot forgive in the way God can and that forgiveness is never a work we must complete in order to be saved but is instead a work of the Spirit.Specifically, Luther said the devil lies to us when he says “You must forgive or you will not be forgiven; you have not forgiven; therefore despair.” Luther simply retorted that through faith we will want to forgive but may not forgive fully this side of heaven.
Applying the law and gospel to perpetrators of abuse: lessons from Luther and Walther
Child abusers, particularly those who sexually molest children, are extremely skilled at mouthing words of repentance.Indeed, molesters often purposely seek out congregations in which to operate because they are confident in the gullibility of clergy.
In the words of one convicted child molester:
I consider church people easy to fool…they have a trust that comes from being Christians…They tend to be better folks all around. And they seem to want to believe in the good that exists in all people…I think they want to believe in people. And because of that, you can easily convince, with or without convincing words.
In recognition of this deception and the cognitive distortions to which many offenders cling, a pastor may wish to explore the sincerity of the parishioner’s repentance. To this end, the pastor may want to explore three subjects with the offender.
First, ask about the offender’s willingness to address the needs of his family. This may include moving out of the house if his spouse or children desire, obtaining medical and mental health care for the children or spouse he has violated, and giving the pastor enough information about the use of religion in the abuse so that he or she can assist the victim in responding to any spiritual damage.
Second, determine the extent of the offender’s cognitive distortions. This can be done by asking the offender if he holds himself fully accountable for his crimes or whether he believes his wife or children are in any way to blame. In one case, a Lutheran pastor convicted of molesting children in his congregation blamed his offenses on his wife because she withheld herself sexually.
Third, remind the offender of our obligation to abide by the laws of the land (Romans 13:1-2) and inquire whether or not he will be turning himself into the police and accepting earthly consequences. You may wish to remind the offender of the thief on the cross who accepted governmental punishments for his crimes but simply implored the mercy of God for his soul. In response, Christ offered the kingdom of God.
A child abuser unwilling to address the needs of his victims or to accept full responsibility for his conduct is likely a poor candidate for the gospel. Indeed, C.F.W. Walther said that a “child molester” unwilling to turn away from his sin does not have “genuine faith” because a person who “has obtained a living confidence in Christ cannot live in sin. His faith changes and purifies the heart.”
Even if a Lutheran pastor pronounces God’s forgiveness, he must work with the offender to address the needs of his victims and otherwise repair the damage he has inflicted. Indeed, many Lutheran hymnals contain Luther’s questions in preparation for Holy Communion. In response to the question how we will respond to Christ’s forgiveness of our sins, Luther writes:
I will daily thank and praise him for his love to me. With his help I will fight temptation, do my best to correct whatever wrongs I have done, and serve him and those around me with love and good works (emphasis added).
In the case of child abuse, an offender seeking to correct the wrongs inflicted will seek sex offender or other treatment, will turn him or herself into the police and accept governmental punishments, and will work to address the victim’s medical and mental health needs.
If a child abuser is unwilling to act, the pastor is nonetheless compelled to protect the victims. In a report on the pastor-penitent privilege, the Missouri Synod notes that if a parishioner is not truly penitent but is simply using the pastoral office to his own advantage, the pastor has no obligation to keep the parishioner’s confidence.If, for example, the parishioner is not genuinely remorseful for sexually abusing a child but is hoping the pastor will keep the offender’s wife from calling the police, there is no penitent privilege. Even if the penitent is sincerely confessing his sins, a Lutheran pastor must “exercise his judgment in protecting the interests of those in danger.” In acting to protect existing and future victims, a pastor should, at a minimum, call the police.
Martin Luther believed “Children’s faith and lives are the best, because they hold fast to the Word and simply know God, and they believe in God for certain, just as He said and promised.”In responding to the sin of child abuse, Lutheran pastors and teachers must be careful not to damage the simple faith of the little ones in our midst. In fulfilling this obligation, the writings and conduct of Luther and C.F.W. Walther provide a treasure of sound theological practice. Let us mine these riches to the glory of God and the benefit of children.