December 13, 2017

What We Are Learning (Part 2)

The following article is excerpted from the Jan/Feb 2012 issue of FrontLine.

What We Are Learning

David Shumate

In Part 1, two common misconceptions of child abuse are discussed:

Misconception 1: It can’t happen here.

Misconception 2: Acts that do not involve actual intercourse are not “so-bad.”

Part 2 follows:


Misconception 3: Child sexual abusers have a certain look about them—they’re “weirdoes.”

What may come as a surprise to many is the fact that, as some authorities have put it, child molesters “look just like us.” Apart from their being predominantly (although not exclusively) male, child molesters as a group reflect many of the demographic characteristics of the rest of the population. They come from all socioeconomic backgrounds. They may be married and have families. They are also as likely as the general population to express a religious preference. In other words, there are not recognizable characteristics that can be discerned by the casual observer. Sexual abusers of children, therefore, often are able to gain access to potential victims by gaining the trust of parents and others who control that access. This leads to the consideration of another serious misconception.

Misconception 4: A professing believer who commits this kind of abuse must have just fallen in a moment of weakness.

The teacher in our opening illustration represented to his pastor that he had been saved from an earlier life of sexual sin but that since his conversion he had lived in victory until recent pressures caused a momentary partial relapse. The pastor must treat this claim with a great deal of skepticism. Although it is impossible to say that such a situation could never occur, those who deal regularly with abusers say that they are often very skilled in manipulation and deceit. Rather than just falling into it, many abusers plan out how they will gain access to potential victims. In the vast majority of cases, the victim knows the offender before the abuse occurs. Child molesters also typically offend multiple times over an extended period. In order to gain access to children and to keep from getting caught, child molesters typically manipulate and deceive both their victims and the adults who watch over them. In addition, there are many cases in which child sexual abusers use religion to gain access to potential victims and to shield themselves from accountability.

Misconception 5: The requirement to report abuse interferes with the ministry of the church, and things are best handled internally, at least in the beginning.

Many churches and other institutions alike have made the mistake of investigating suspected abuse internally before deciding whether to call the authorities. This response at first may seem to make sense as a way of preventing a false report. Nevertheless, there are several things seriously wrong with approach.

First, it does not take into account the manipulative character of the average child sexual abuser and the vulnerability of the victim. Many abusers use shame, bribery, threats, and deceit to keep their victims from telling. The abuser may be a respected adult and may even be in authority in the church or other institution. On the other hand, victims are usually very reluctant to tell. They are often cowed by the offender and embarrassed to talk about what happened. Given these facts it is not realistic to expect that an untrained investigator will be able to get the entire truth.

Second, while for the purpose of church discipline the church should seek to discern the facts, abusive acts are not just sins; they are also crimes. God has delegated to the government the responsibility to bring evildoers to justice (Rom. 13:3, 4). Therefore believers must cooperate with law enforcement efforts.

The government has determined that suspected abuse should be investigated by trained law enforcement personnel or other state officials rather than private persons or institutions. This should actually come as a relief to churches, which have neither the mandate nor the tools to mete out justice. The church and the state have different roles in the situation. The church’s job is to represent Jesus Christ by acting righteously and speaking the truth. It represents the forgiveness that is available in Christ, but it also must accurately represent the true nature of repentance, restitution, and restoration. The state’s job is to determine guilt and to punish criminals. An internal investigation can interfere with proper justice. If the accused is warned of a potential criminal investigation, he or she may destroy evidence, intimidate witnesses, or even flee. Our desire to keep the initial investigation private may also reflect a serious misunderstanding concerning the testimony of the church. This is the next misconception.

Misconception 6: The testimony of the church will be destroyed if we acknowledge that abuse can occur or has occurred in our church.

This is both a spiritual and a practical error. It is a crucial spiritual error in that it confuses testimony with reputation. Our testimony is how we publicly represent Jesus Christ and His truth. Our reputation is what people think about us. We are responsible only for the former; the latter is beyond our control. Jesus Christ suffered as an evildoer even though He never sinned and always properly represented the Father. The desire to protect our reputations can lead first to the denial of the potential for abuse in our ministry. This denial is fatal because we close our eyes to the danger and fail to prepare for it. A second consequence of this testimony/reputation inversion is that it can create a temptation to minimize, keep quiet about, or even actively cover up suspected or actual abuse.

There is also a very serious practical misunderstanding here. It has become increasingly well established that child sexual predators have been able to get into many different kinds of institutions. Although it is possible to reduce the risk, a case of abuse within a church does not necessarily mean that the church did anything wrong or that it “fostered a climate of abuse.” Where institutions typically get into trouble is when they fail to act properly on what they know or reasonably suspect. Therefore, ignoring the potential problem and doing nothing to develop a prevention system is justly subject to censure. And failing to deal appropriately with suspected and known cases of abuse causes the very harm to a ministry’s testimony that the leaders tried to avoid.


Part 2 of “What We Are Learning” – Part 1 | Part 3.


David-Shumate_thumb2Dr. 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.


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