Editor’s note: This article came out of an email correspondence about the Mandatory Reporting for Churches ebook and what more could be discussed. If you want to start educating and equipping your church to protect your congregation, go get the ebook here.
My years at work in the domestic violence field prepared me for my work as a Victim Assistance Coordinator (VAC). Many adult survivors of incest or current victims came through our area domestic violence shelter and we were mandated reporters. As a VAC, I met with victims of child sexual abuse (past or current, clergy-related or not), did referrals, provided the required safe environment training for church staff/volunteers about child sexual abuse prevention, and supplied data for our yearly audits on this training.
Adults must recall how they perceived the world when they were dependent children and had inherent trust that adults always know best before safe environment training can be meaningful. This trust is what is most corrupted when a minor experiences sexual abuse and is magnified when the abuser is a faith leader. The shame that lingers because they went along with the experience requires lifelong healing. If the source of trauma was a beloved parent or relative, the wound is deeper. If the abuse involved penetration, or was long-standing, it will be more traumatic. Keeping the secret is the most toxic of all. Most victims develop mental health disorders or journey into alcohol/substance abuse due to this trauma if no post-trauma therapy occurs. Shame, confusion, guilt with self-blame, inability to trust, depression, anxiety, poor self-esteem, adult relationship problems, and disassociation until a triggering event brings the event back, are common responses. Many of those who are abused as a minor will, as an adult, become an abuser.
It is the responsibility of the faith community to face unpleasant facts: 1 in 5 girls and 1 in 20 boys experience sexual abuse as a minor. Not all child sexual offenders are pedophiles (only sexually attracted to those under age 13). Some are psychopaths without a conscience who abuse indiscriminately. But most offenses are situational and opportunistic by those related to minors or by trusted adults. Sex offenders use their power to violate boundaries by grooming and gaining the trust of parents. Grooming prepares a minor for the abuse. Be aware of: gift-giving to children without permission; overboard touching, tickling, or wrestling; wanting to be alone with the child; more excited to be with this child than with adults; allowing the child to engage in activities forbidden by parents; telling dirty jokes or uses bad language with kids; gives children alcohol; shows minors pornography; discourages other adults from participating or monitoring activity. Another minor abusing a smaller child accounts for 30% of all child sexual abuse. Parents are responsible for controlling access to their children and knowing who their children’s friends and friend’s parents are. Because of the Internet and smartphones, it is easy for grooming to take place remotely and for trust to be established with strangers who become “friends.” Monitor your child’s use of technology and implement rules and safeguards around its use. Talk often about family values and why physical, emotional, and behavioral boundaries are important.
Child sexual abuse includes non-touching and touching behaviors: showing pornography; exposing genitals to the child; photographing a child in sexual poses; encouraging a child to watch or hear sexual acts in person or on video; watching a child undress or use the bathroom without the child’s knowledge; touching a child’s genitals using a hand or other body part; making a child touch another’s genitals; putting body parts inside a child’s genitals, mouth or anus for sexual pleasure. None of us want to imagine these and that is why educating all adults to be protectors of minors is so important. Our tendency to deny that a trusted adult could use trust to harm a child in these ways is powerful.
Because secrets are so toxic and may prolong abuse, parents must build a “no secrets” rule around safe and unsafe touch beginning when a child is young. Teach that when we swim, we cover the private parts of our body to keep them safe and healthy. Only parents and doctors touch those body parts to keep the child clean and healthy. Teach your child to tell you if an older child or adult wants to see or touch their private parts because it’s your job to keep them safe and healthy. Use the proper terms for body parts instead of slang, since slang words indicate shame about genitals and complicate testimony if harm occurs. Often safe touches can hurt-like getting a shot at the doctor’s office but this is for health and safety. Teach that not all touches are safe, even if they feel good. Permit children to say “no” and to leave any situation involving touch or behavior that makes them uncomfortable. Identify other safe adults who have permission to help your child with hygiene. Stress your willingness to listen without judgment whenever they encounter a confusing or scary situation involving touch and need your help to understand. If they don’t want to be hugged by a relative, pay attention and ask questions later. Never blame or get angry if a child discloses sexual abuse. Reassure them that telling is always the right thing to do and you will believe and protect them.
Conversations about safe touch and boundaries should be casual and done often: riding in a car; when you’re at a zoo, beach, or museum, enjoying nature; before sleepovers or school/sports events when you aren’t present, or when stories on the news fit. Most minors keep silent when abuse happens because their abuser has groomed them to feel responsible; they fear not being believed or being punished by parents; the abuser might have threatened them or their family if abuse is revealed; their attachment or loyalty to the abuser and desire to protect a loved one from consequences. If older, they may just be embarrassed and want to bury the event. Minors with greater risk are the disabled; in foster care; being raised in a single-parent home; or having a distant relationship with parents.
Teach your children pride and respect for who they are. Remind them that God loves them unconditionally and so do you. Be confident, clear and loving and most of all, a protector.