The following article is excerpted from the Jan/Feb 2012 issue of FrontLine. Due to the importance of the issue of child protection, we are publishing these articles in their entirety, albeit in a serialized format. The articles on Protecting Our Children will be made available in pdf format as soon as our serialization is complete. This article may be shared in its entirety as long as no alteration is made to the text and full acknowledgement is made as to the author and source.
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What We Are Learning
Fred is the senior pastor of small church in the Midwest. One Sunday between Sunday school and church a teen Sunday school helper comes to Fred and says that she just walked into a classroom and saw a teacher alone with an eleven-year-old girl and that the teacher was fondling the girl’s buttocks.
Fred’s first reaction is incredulity—how could something like this happen here, in a Bible-believing church that encourages high standards of personal moral conduct and genuine love for the Lord? Moreover, the teacher in question has been an upstanding member of the church for several years. He’s a family man and has an excellent reputation in the community. He isn’t weird. You couldn’t imagine this man hanging around playgrounds in a trench coat looking for child victims. Surely this must be just a misunderstanding.
With his stomach churning, Fred decides to talk to the teacher. In the interview the teacher at first says that they were “just playing” and that he is sorry for any embarrassment it might have caused. When Fred confronts him with more details about what the teen witness reported, the teacher begins to break down. He confesses that he had a “rough background,” that as a boy he had been introduced to different kinds of sexual “experimentation” by an adult relative. Nevertheless he assures Fred that after he was saved and got married he had experienced real victory. Recently, though, he had become discouraged through some problems at work, and it just so happened that he was that very morning tempted when he found the girl alone in the room. He said that he touched her once, but that was all. He had been under conviction about what he was doing and was just about to stop when the teenager came in. He says that he would be glad to apologize to the girl and her family. He seems contrite.
Fred is vaguely aware that he may have a duty to report this to the authorities, but he wishes that he didn’t have to. After all, the teacher hadn’t “gone very far” with the child. It wasn’t as serious as it could have been. Fred imagines the police showing up at the teacher’s house and leading him away in handcuffs while his wife and children watch in horror and the local TV station films the whole thing. This is a conservative community, and the thought that there might be a pedophile in the church would destroy its ministry. Since the teacher is really sorry, perhaps it is something that could best be handled internally. . . .
In this hypothetical scenario Fred is laboring under some extremely grave misconceptions that virtually guarantee an improper response to a very serious situation.
Misconception 1: It can’t happen here.
Fred knows that child sexual abuse happens, but he is ignorant of how widespread it is. Credible evidence indicates that perhaps as many as one in four girls and one in five boys have suffered some form of sexual abuse.[i]This is an evil of epidemic proportions. Not only that, but it has taken place in all kinds of institutions, public and private, including churches of every stripe. Many people have the idea that this is something that happens “somewhere else,” in another socioeconomic demographic or in other kinds of belief systems but certainly not in Bible-believing churches. This false sense of security is very dangerous because it causes churches and leaders to drop their guard and fail to put commonsense policies in place that can help deter abuse. Even though the many news stories about child sexual abuse show that it can happen anywhere, we still do not quite believe it can happen here.
Misconception 2: Acts that do not involve actual intercourse are not “so bad.”
Although the legal definition of child molestation varies from state to state, it is fair to say that in general a good definition of child sexual abuse is any act directed toward a child that is sexual in nature or has sexual intent. It is certainly true that some violations are more egregious than others. Nevertheless, child sexual abuse does not necessarily require touching but can involve exposing oneself to a child, showing pornography to a child, or other similar practices. Related to this misconception is the tendency to underestimate the harm done to victims of sexual abuse. Nevertheless, just because the emotional and spiritual scars that sexual abuse leaves are not visible, that does not mean that they are not long-lasting and deeply painful to the victim, who feels betrayed, unloved, and helpless. It is a profound evil and injustice that is done by those who have a responsibility to protect the weak and dependent ones but who instead perversely abuse them. The sense of injustice is magnified if those with the opportunity to take preventive and corrective action fail to so.
Dr. David Shumate holds advanced degrees in law and theology. He has served as an associate pastor and seminary professor. He is currently the director of a mission agency located in Phoenix, Arizona.