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EPISODE 13 — THU, NOV 16, 2017

Preventing Child Abuse with Deepak Reju

Deepak Reju talks about preventing and responding to child abuse at church.

Show Notes

Q. Why did you write this book? 

Deepak: There are a few reasons why I studied the subject and wrote this book.

First, as a pastor who supervises our children’s ministry and youth staff, I was surprised at how little information was available to help us think about preventing abuse in church settings. And what little was available was out of print. I read and studied in order to help our local church think about how to build a better firewall to prevent child abuse.

Second, as a pastor of counseling, I once had a chance to talk to Dr. Anna Salter, who is one of the nation’s leading experts on sexual offenders. I asked her about her thoughts on how churches handle sexual abuse…and well, let’s just say she was very clear on how churches do a poor job in preventing and responding to child abuse. That put an idea in my head that something needed to be written.

Third, and finally, I was at a conference geared at helping churches prevent child abuse, and I was surprised that the only people speaking were psychologists and lawyers, none of whom had ever worked at a church before. They said a lot of helpful things, but they were some things I felt like they didn’t “get” because they were not coming from the perspective of working on the inside of a church. Somebody needed to say something from the perspective of a pastor who spends his days laboring inside of a church.

All of these reason conspired together to make me write the book.

Q. Is child abuse in the church really a problem? Why is it such a pressing need today?

Deepak: To get a greater sense of the problem, a quick statistical overview of child abuse is helpful:

  • There are approximately 747,000 registered sex offenders in the U.S. alone.1
  • There are more than 100,000 sexual offenders who fail to report every year.2
  • As many as one in three girls and one in four boys will be sexually abused at some point in their childhood.3 
  • Approximately thirty percent of all cases are reported to authorities—meaning that seventy percent never get proper attention or prosecution.4
  • Over 63,000 cases of child sexual abuse were reported in 2010.5
  • Offenders typically prey on children they know, not strangers. Most perpetrators are acquaintances, but as many as forty-seven percent are family or extended family.6
  • Almost half (forty-seven percent) of the offenders who sexually assaulted victims under age six were family members, compared with forty-two percent of who assaulted youth ages six through eleven, and twenty-four percent who assaulted juveniles ages twelve through seventeen.7
  • The Department of Justice reports that children under age twelve make up half of all victims of forced sodomy, forced fondling, or sexual assault with an object.8
  • Numerous experts have made it clear that sexual predators often have not just one or two victims, but dozens. The Abel and Harlow Child Molestation Prevention Study found that each child molester averages twelve child victims and seventy-one acts of molestation. An earlier study by Dr. Gene Abel found that out of 561 sexual offenders interviewed there were more than 291,000 incidents involving more than 195,000 total victims. This same study found that only three percent of these sexual offenders have a chance of getting caught.9
  • A 2007 FBI report states the following:
    • One out of five girls will be sexually molested before her eighteenth birthday;
    • One out of six boys will be sexually molested before his eighteenth birthday;
    • One out of every seven victims of sexual assault reported to law enforcement agencies was under age six; and
    • Forty percent of the offenders who victimized children under age six were juveniles (under eighteen).10

Appalling, isn’t it? A quick glance at the numbers shows how pervasive the problem is. This fills out the Bible’s picture of sin with more specifics, helping us to see how common sexual and physical abuse is in our society.

Q. What does Scripture teach us about preventing abuse and protecting children?

There is plenty in Scripture, where the Bible shows evil nature of abusing someone else – one example, the rape of Tamar by her brother, Amnon, in 1 Sam. 13.

Churches have a responsibility to steward the gift of children entrusted to them. The disciples shoed them away, but Jesus received them and blessed them (Mark 10:13-16). The culture of first-century Jerusalem didn’t value children, but Jesus saw them as immensely valuable, and so should we. He said whoever welcomes children in his name shows they also welcome Christ and God the Father (Mark 9:36-37).

Scripture teaches us that God has a special burden for the young, weak, oppressed, and the feeble. So, as stewards of all that he has given us and made, we also should be like God. Deut 10:18, Isai. 1:17; James 1:27.

Q. Why are churches particularly vulnerable?

Deepak: Consider a few reasons…

Christians are naïve. Because Christians are generally trusting folks, and sexual abusers know this fact, an offender will take advantage of a churchgoer’s trust.

Christians are ignorant. Because Christians don’t know the extent of the problem, they often don’t guard against it. And this makes children vulnerable.

Abuse of authority. Child abusers will use positions of authority to gain access to children and abuse them. In the case of one child abuser, he would show up at churches and volunteer to be the children’s choir director after the church got to know him. Sadly, he was not just able to do this once, but several times.

Easy access to children. Sexual offenders take advantage of the fact that churches are always looking for help with children’s ministry and are often facing shortages of volunteers. They know the children’s ministry staff are over-worked and desperate for help.

These are just a few reasons. There are several others I list in the book.

Q. How does an incorrect view of grace help put churches at risk?

Deepak: If a sexual offender is actually caught, he or she counts on what Dietrich Bonhoeffer referred to as cheap grace—grace that comes freely and with very little cost. Abusers are not dumb. They know that if they cry, offer words of contrition, and promise never to do it again, they are very likely not to have to face significant consequences. Pastors and churches are very forgiving. They are quick to apply the gospel—and very, very slow to apply the consequences that come from the law.11

The typical offender will say something like, “I’m soooo sorry (tears rolling down his face). This was wrong; and I promise I will never do this again.” He is very emotional and, from the look of it, appears to be broken over his sin. What would you do? I’d venture to say many of us would remind him of God’s love for him, let the whole thing go, and put the incident(s) behind us. But sadly, when we do that, we embolden the offender to hurt children again because he got away with it.

Q. What are some misconceptions about child abusers in the church? 

Deepak: One of the most common myths about sexual offenders is that they will be strangers who take away your child. Power predators do exist. They scope out playgrounds or other places with kids to abduct children and steal their lives. Jaycee Dugaard knows this reality all too well.

But in church and family settings, our problem is much less often with a stranger than it is with those whose lives regularly intersect with ours: fellow church attenders, childcare workers in the nursery, family members, and neighbors—the people we know, not the people we don’t know. Boz Tchividjian, executive director of Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment (G.R.A.C.E.), makes this point: “It is common knowledge that most children are not sexually victimized by strangers. In fact, one study found that only 10 percent of child molesters molest children that they don’t know.”12

Many children are taught from an early age not to talk to strangers. But strangers are not as much of a problem as some who live among us every day. Teaching our children to be wary of strangers can give us a false sense of security. What parents often ignore is the familiar adult who is too friendly with our kids. Consider the following:

  • More than eighty percent of the time, victims of child abuse know their abusers.
  • Most abuse takes place within the context of an ongoing relationship.
  • Some child abusers are married and abuse their own children.13

Most children know how to respond to an unwelcome stranger, but they’re uncertain what to do when a “safe” adult makes them uncomfortable. Consequently, we will spend much of our time considering how to protect against the “safe” adult who is a persuasion predator.

Q. What Is the Typical Profile for a Sexual Predator?

Pretend you’re taking a multiple choice test. Take a look at the list below and make your best guess at who you think might fit the profile for a sexual offender.

A. A young, single male architect B. A “soccer mom” with four children D. A pediatrician E. A Catholic priest F. A public school teacher G. None of the above H. A and D only I. All of the above

The correct answer is “H.” While single males are the most likely, we can’t assume this to be the only type of predator. There are some instances when women get trapped in this perverse sin. Most commonly, one would think of a school teacher who is leading teenage boys astray with inappropriate sexual encounters. But there are other categories of female offenders, including some with sadistic tendencies, and those who are coerced by a male partner to abuse children.14

In fact, predators come in all types—single and married; blue and white collar; educated and uneducated; rich, middle class, and poor. In examining a range of sexual offender cases, I’ve found examples in almost every category of work—college professor, athletic director of a private school, Catholic priest, doctor, lawyer, pastor, and many other professionals. We can’t limit sexual offenders to just one generic profile.

Q. Can you tell us about the type of Predators?

Deepak: There are two types of sexual predators—the power predator and the persuasion predator.15 Both wreak great havoc in the lives of their victims. Both are problematic for police, parents, and the societies in which they live, and they have very different ways of accomplishing their evil ends.

The power predator takes a child by sheer force. He overtakes his victim by overpowering her and forcing her into captivity. You can think in terms of a child grabbed in a park or a schoolyard, dragged into a car, and driven off without the strength or ability to stop the sexual offender.

Bestselling author and risk-assessment expert Gavin de Beker describes it this way: “The power predator charges like a bear, unmistakably committing to his attack. Because of this, he cannot easily retreat and say there was merely a misunderstanding. Accordingly, he strikes only when he feels certain he’ll prevail.”16

Almost twenty years ago, Jaycee Dugaard was a young girl on her way to the school bus when Philip Craig and his wife Nancy Garrido abducted her. Nancy had scouted out Jaycee’s path to school, and then one morning, just as Jaycee started walking down the road, the couple drove alongside her. Philip pulled out a stun gun, shocked the girl, and then Nancy pulled her into the back of the car. Philip would later say to his wife, “I can’t believe we got away with this.”17 For many years after her abduction, Jaycee was a sex slave, locked up in a shed in the backyard of Philip and Nancy’s home. In just one fleeting moment, Jaycee was robbed of her life and childhood innocence. Enduring several years of rape is a nightmare scenario, but Jaycee stayed alive and eventually escaped.18 Unlike Jaycee, many victims of a power predator are never heard from again.

The persuasion predator uses his personality, charm, and influence to convince others that he is trustworthy, and then at the right time strikes to abuse children. You might think about the illustration of a wolf in sheep’s clothing: The wolf intends to harm others but doesn’t want them to discover his plans and so puts on the appearance of an innocent sheep.

In church settings we are often less focused on power predators. If you have a good structural set-up in your children’s ministry wing (check-in desk, half-doors on classrooms, hall monitors, etc.) and some type of security check-in system, that does a lot to keep the power predator at bay. The persuasion predator is far more likely to infiltrate your church setting.

Q. How do we train volunteers to prevent abuse? 

You need to talk about it, teaching them what it is, teach them how to respond when it happens, and teach them how to care for victims. The following are some basic questions that staff and volunteers need to consider in regards to abuse and neglect:

  • What do I do if I suspect or observe that a child has been physically, emotionally, or sexually abused?
  • Who is the point of contact at church if I suspect or witness abuse?
  • What responsibility do I have to report child abuse and neglect to the police or Child Protective Services (CPS)?
  • Are there common characteristics of sexual offenders for which I can be on the alert?
  • What happens if a child touches me inappropriately?
  • How will the church respond to allegations or admission of child abuse?
  • How can I best minister to a child who has been abused or neglected?
  • What additional care is required for a child who is in foster care?
  • How can I guard myself from accusations?
  • What happens if a sexual offender starts attending our church?

An important goal of this training is to develop a healthy level of skepticism among the staff and volunteers. You don’t want your staff or volunteers to make false assumptions about child abusers but to be vigilant about protecting kids at all times.

What kind of skepticism is healthy? You don’t want to make your workers paranoid that there’s a sexual predator lurking behind every corner, but you don’t want to carelessly assume that just because someone is a self-professing Christian, it is safe to give him or her responsibility for your church’s kids.

Take, for example, a situation that might not phase you the first time, or may not even bother your volunteers if it is repeated. Jonathan is a nice, single guy, and he has been around the church for several years. He comes to church regularly and has a few friendships in the church. Last week, when a child needed to be taken to the restroom, Jonathan volunteered to help. Now, that might not set off any alarm bells for you. It doesn’t necessarily have to because Jonathan might be standing in front of a kid screaming at the top of his lungs that he has to go potty or he’s going to have an accident. Most adults will rush a kid to the bathroom in that situation. Nothing to worry about, right?

But what if the childcare training made very clear that only women are to take children to the bathroom? More suspicious now, right? If it only happened once, then it doesn’t seem like a big deal. Jonathan might have reacted quickly out of sheer fear of a screaming four-year-old who is about to wet his pants. But if Jonathan repeatedly takes young kids to the restroom and ignores the rules … well, then your alarm bells should go off. You shouldn’t pass this off and say, “He must have just forgotten about the rule.” Your healthy skepticism should lead you to say something.

If a volunteer senses something might be wrong, the last thing he should do is dismiss it or ignore it. He should be wise and sensitive to the Holy Spirit’s direction, as he thinks about what happened and how he should respond.

Q. How do we train parents to prevent abuse?

Parents need to understand the problem of abuse. Ignorance is tantamount to saying, “We don’t care” or “We’re too busy to think about this.” Child abusers are a public hazard, and too many parents assume they are safe.

Children’s and youth ministry staff can equip parents by offering classes and reading materials. The first step in helping parents is to make sure they know how to teach and instruct their children. Parents are the primary disciplers of their kids (Deuteronomy 6:4–9; Ephesians 6:1). While sex-education classes can be mandated at public schools, it is a bit more difficult to do this in a church. So, the best strategy in equipping the children about sex is to educate and encourage parents in their primary role as disciplers of their children. Help parents to understand what to say to their kids.

Church staff should help parents to understand the dreadful nature of child abuse and how to fight against it. Teach basic things like answers to the following questions: What are child abusers like? How do they operate? Which children are most vulnerable? What kind of safety skills should your children have? Who should babysit your kids—and who shouldn’t? What incorrect assumptions do parents typically make about our children’s safety?

By answering these questions, we are equipping our parents to understand the problem of abuse. Our goal is to create a congregation full of parents who are ready when abuse happens. They won’t be ignorant or reactive or caught off-guard; they’ll be prepared. This preparation will extend to the church’s children, who will be educated about the problem. Appendix C of this book contains advice about what parents can say to their kids about the problem of sexual abuse.

Another step can be to help parents know how to talk to their kids about sex. In order to understand what is wrong (child abuse), children (especially the youngest of kids) need to know what is right (a healthy, God-glorifying biblical sexuality). Too many kids grow up in the church hearing the message that sex is wrong but don’t understand anything about God’s beautiful gift of sex to a man and woman in a covenant marriage. Why don’t kids understand? Because too many parents are scared to talk about sex or be open about it at home, so kids are left to figure things out on their own.

Overall, what are pastors, church staff and children’s ministry workers expecting from parents? We are asking parents to:

  • be more open with their kids about sex;
  • teach a positive, redemptive picture about the beauty of sexuality in marriage and the need to stay pure until marriage;
  • communicate with their children—again, in a developmentally appropriate way—what abuse is, how to prevent abuse, and what to do if someone hurts or takes advantage of them;
  • teach kids not to allow anyone to touch them in areas of their body that are covered by a bathing suit;
  • teach children that if they are abused they should keep telling adults until someone takes them seriously.19
  • teach kids modesty and decorum with one another and with adults;
  • teach their kids basic safety skills at home.

Q. When do we report to the civil authority?

Deepak: What standard do we use to decide if we are going to report or not? Many might think you need to have concrete proof, or at least be certain about the abuse before you report. But that sets the standard too high. Rather than waiting until you have reasonable cause to report, you should report as soon as there is reasonable suspicion.

To help define the latter term, child safety expert Beth Swagman says that a person has reasonable suspicion when “a reasonable person seeing a similar bruise or hearing a similar story would come to a similar understanding about the probable cause of the bruise or assault. Reasonable suspicion does not imply actual knowledge or certainty, as in, ‘I know what happened!’ Instead, reasonable suspicion suggests that reasonable people have sufficient general knowledge of appropriate and inappropriate interactions to be suspicious about a particular incident.”20

Q. What are basic principles for caring for abuse victims?

Deepak: No matter how much work is involved in sorting through an abusive situation, the church needs to be continually mindful of caring for the victim. As soon as the allegations are revealed and the authorities contacted, care for the child or teenager needs to begin immediately. Don’t let victims and their families struggle with the ongoing effects of abuse on their own.

Abuse can have a host of aftereffects on the victims. Victims can act controlling in relationships because they need to feel safe. Others might feel powerless to deal with life because they couldn’t stop abuse. Perceptions of body image and identity will be distorted. Victims may talk about themselves in derogatory terms, saying things like, “I am worthless,” or, “I am trash.” There can be self-destructive acting out with drugs, sex, alcohol, food, or spending, as the victims try to find ways to self-soothe or escape the pain. Self-injury, even mutilation or suicidal ideation, can also be a struggle.

The victims’ understanding of God’s will and their relationship with God will probably also be severely skewed. When a person who was supposed to protect you betrays you, it makes it very difficult to accept God’s love and grace. God will likely be seen as punitive and judgmental rather than accepting or loving. Relationships can be very unstable, with a consistent push-and-pull—sometimes wanting intimacy, other times feeling scared to be close. Trusting others, especially those in authority, is often difficult. It is not uncharacteristic for victims to have a series of very short relationships, not really letting anyone into their life with any depth but continuing to move from relationship to relationship. Therefore, it is your duty as a church to provide whatever spiritual, medical, and emotional support is necessary to bring healing and redemption to these situations.21

Churches can often be at a loss in how to help, especially if they have not encountered abuse before. Over the long term, victims need to feel the church’s support in many ways; but in the short term, the best thing that a pastor, staff, or members can do is simply to listen.22 The wounds of abuse are deep, so it will take lots of love to deal honestly with the harm done by the abuser. Let the victims tell their stories and be patient with them, as the healing process can often take a long time.23

Apply the gospel very liberally to this child’s or teenager’s life. When he or she acts out as a result of the abuse, do not apply a regimented law, but give the gospel generously.24 So says Victor Vieth: “The gospel may be the only tonic the abused child has never experienced.”25 Help the victim to see that Christ empathizes with his or her sorrow because he too was striped and beaten. He suffered and was hated. Remind him or her of Christ’s love for children (Mark 10:13–16) and his warnings for those who do harm to children (Matthew 18:6).

In addition to patiently listening and applying the gospel liberally, there are a variety of other things the pastor, members or church staff can do to help. Even if the child or teenager goes to a counselor, one concrete way fellow Christians can help the victim is to untangle the distorted ways that abusers use religious language to confuse children and teenagers. Abusers often use a distorted theology in order to justify their actions.

Pastors, staff and church members should also be careful and thoughtful in how they speak to victims. They should not give the child or teenager religious platitudes or a quick, superficial application of Scripture.26 At some point, in speaking to victims, they should make a clear moral declaration that the abuse was wrong and also encourage the victim that speaking up was scary but the right thing to do.

Pastors, staff and members should remind the victims of the need for forgiveness. Forgiveness is important, especially because it can free an abused child or teenager from bitterness or anger. But be careful: some Christians will recklessly press on victims the need for forgiveness. Forgiveness can’t be forced. It has to come from a heart rooted in the gospel and ready to forgive as a response to what God has done for us in Christ.

The pastor and church members should also regularly pray for the victim, offer practical assistance, like providing meals, and stay in frequent contact.

The church also needs to be mindful of the victim’s family. One of the most overlooked parts of the healing process is the church’s need to shepherd the parents and the siblings, not just the victims.

In an age of fast food and quick fixes, leaders or fellow church members might wonder why counseling and dealing with these issues takes so long. The church needs to recognize that in dealing with the trauma of abuse, healing will take time. No one can rush the process. The pastor and church need to be committed to care for the victim for the long haul.

Two roles that are important in facilitating the church’s care for victims are a church advocate and a counselor. Both can help the church in doing a better job in caring for victims.

Churches should consider appointing an advocate in order to not loose sight of the victim’s needs. Initially, after the allegations of abuse emerge, there will be a lot of turmoil, conversations, and meetings in an effort to deal with the abuse. But six months or a year later, silence or lack of interest by the church can tempt the victim into thinking that he or she has been forgotten. To head this problem off, it is wise for church leaders to designate an advocate—someone in the church to keep tabs on the victim and be in the front lines of caring.27 This person can help harness the resources of the church to show support throughout the process. For example, this person can arrange rides to doctor’s appointments. He can arrange for meals or childcare for siblings when the parents need to be at important events, like court dates. He can pray regularly and check in regularly, giving the victim and family a consistent sense that the church has not forgotten them and still cares. He or she can also serve as a liaison between the victim and the church’s leaders, advocating for the needs of the victim and keeping the leadership updated.

Counselors can also be very helpful in caring for victims. The church’s leaders and the advocate can help by recruiting a competent counselor. At the outset, the church leaders or the advocate or the victim’s family should ask the potential counselor questions about how much experience he or she has in treating abuse. In picking a counselor, Vieth has warned, “An incompetent counselor may be worse than no counselor at all.”28

  1. “Sex Offender Statistics,” Statistic Brain, accessed February 11, 2014, http://www.statisticbrain.com/sex-offender-statistics. [return]
  2. Robin Sax, Predators and Child Molesters: What Every Parent Needs to Know to Keep Kids Safe (Amherst, NY: Prometheus, 2009), 24–25. [return]
  3. The U.S. Department of Justice NSOPW (National Sexual Offender Public Website), accessed February 11, 2014, http://www.nsopr.gov/en/Education/FactsMythsStatistics#reference. [return]
  4. Ibid [return]
  5. Ibid [return]
  6. Ibid [return]
  7. U.S. Department of Justice Bureau of Statistics, “Sexual Assault of Young Children as Reported to Law Enforcement: Victim, Incident, and Offender Characteristics,” 10, accessed February 11, 2014. [return]
  8. Ibid., 2, accessed February 11, 2014. [return]
  9. Boz Tchividjian, “Startling Statistics: Child sexual abuse and what the church can begin doing about it,” RNS: Religion News Service, accessed February 11, 2014. [return]
  10. Sax, Predators and Child Molesters, 24–25. [return]
  11. Vieth, “What Would Walther Do?” 270–71. [return]
  12. Boz Tchividjian, “5 Things You Should Know about Child Sexual Offenders,” Resurgence, accessed February 14, 2014. The study Tchividjian cites is the Abel and Harlow Child Molestation Prevention Study (2002), accessed December 1, 2013. This study further states, “Of the 3,952 men who admitted to being child molesters, 68 percent reported that they had molested a child in their family” (8). For a more in-depth look, see Gene Abel and Nora Harlow, The Stop Child Molestation Book (Bloomington, IN: Xlibris, 2001). [return]
  13. James Cobble, Richard Hammer, and Steven Klipowicz, Reducing the Risk II: Making Your Church Safe From Sexual Abuse (Carol Stream, IL: Church Law & Tax Report, 2003), 12. [return]
  14. Salter, Predators, 76–78. The Abel and Harlow Child Molestation Prevention Study gives a sense of how many men versus women are molesters: “Of a sample of 4,007 men and women who admit to molesting a child 13 years old or younger, 99 percent were male and 1 percent were female” (8). [return]
  15. Gavin de Becker, forward to Salter, Predators, xi. [return]
  16. Ibid. [return]
  17. Jaycee Dugard, A Stolen Life: A Memoir (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011), 9–11. See also Barbara Walters’ very sobering video interview of Jaycee: accessed February 5, 2014. [return]
  18. Ibid. [return]
  19. Ibid. [return]
  20. Swagman, Preventing Child Abuse, 62 [return]
  21. Diane Langberg, Counseling Survivors of Sexual Abuse (Maitland, FL: Xulon, 2003), 87–90. [return]
  22. Boz Tchividjian, “When Faith Hurts: How the Christian Community Can Serve Survivors of Sexual Abuse” (video), accessed February 24, 2014. [return]
  23. Vieth, “What Would Walther Do?” 267. [return]
  24. Ibid. [return]
  25. Ibid. [return]
  26. Ibid. [return]
  27. Tchividjian, “When Faith Hurts.” [return]
  28. Ibid. [return]
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