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Child sex abuse - it can't happen here, can it?

As a Christian, I would like to think that abuse cannot occur in Christian families.

John Steley

The sad fact is that after many years of counselling both Christians and non-Christians, I have to conclude that Christian parents can sexually abuse their children - even when they are respected members of the best evangelical churches.

Statements about sexual abuse are shocking when they occur in the community, but when we are told it can happen in a church, we are tempted simply not to believe it. The uncomfortable reality is that it can. Both research and clinical experience show that Christian parents can, and sometimes do, sexually abuse their children. In a survey of 643 adult members of the Christian Reformed Church in the United States, 3% admitted to committing some form of sexual abuse of either adults or children.(1) While no statistics so far exist for British churches, the clinical evidence indicates that sexual abuse is no less a problem in this country. Patrick Parkinson, author of the book Child Sexual Abuse and the Churches states: 'From all the evidence, it is clear that sex offenders are found in all denominations . . .' (2)

In fact, children who are abused by someone who is an active church member may be less likely to be recognised as needing help precisely because the parent is seen as respectable and therefore above suspicion. As in the rest of the community, the victims can be of either sex, pre- or post-puberty. The perpetrator may be acting alone or with others, male or female, of any profession, ethnic group or social class.

Warning signs

So what can Christians do to address this problem? The first thing is probably to accept that it can occur. The second is to be aware of the behaviour of the children we come into contact with. Possible warning signs may include unusually withdrawn behaviour, engaging in inappropriate sexual activity or a knowledge of sex which is inappropriate for the child's age. It is advisable for anyone with serious concerns about a child's welfare to seek professional advice. A call to the local social services department or the NSPCC Helpline can be a good start. Contacting a group such as the Churches' Child Protection Advisory Service or the Christian Child Care Network can also be useful. Some Christians make the mistake of expecting their church leaders to investigate cases of possible abuse. This is unfair both to the child, whose situation may need professional skills in understanding, and to the church leaders who are not usually trained in this area.

Of course, some children who are being abused do not display easily identifiable symptoms. They suffer in silence. Often the family where the abuse is occurring can appear happy and loving. Again, we must ask what the church can do. In many churches, it would help if there were a more balanced teaching about the nature of parental authority. Churches must affirm parental rights and responsibilities but it is also helpful if they acknowledge that parents are not perfect. They sin like anyone else and should not be followed blindly. We should not be afraid of saying this both to each other and to our children. Churches have often been content simply to tell children that their parents love them and are there to be obeyed. Tragically, in cases of abuse, the child can then assume that what the parent is doing is right and raise no protest. The church has thus unwittingly colluded with the abuser. Church-based lessons on what is appropriate touching and what is not can be helpful. If abuse is occurring, this can allow the victim to begin to talk about it. Encouraging men to play an active role in their children's early development may also help. There is some evidence to suggest that fathers who assist in parenting tasks during a child's infancy are more likely to have a healthy relationship with the child later.

Those in authority

If serious abuse is uncovered in a church setting, it should be recognised that the sexual abuse of children is a violation both of the law of God and of the state. Both the church authorities and the statutory authorities should therefore be informed. Churches have sometimes tried to deal with cases of abuse themselves without informing the police or social services department. This can be due to a misinterpretation of 1 Corinthians 6. (It is worth remembering that here Paul is referring to civil suits among believers, not breaches of the criminal law.)

Victims and forgiveness

The thought of a Christian parent being brought before a court to answer charges may not be a pleasant one but it may be necessary if the victim is to have a sense of justice having been done and for the church to maintain its integrity. Of course, the Bible does teach us to forgive but this is the role of the victim, not the church. Rather than forgiving the offender (which is not the church's role but which does sometimes happen), we would do better to repent of the sin which has occurred in our midst, see that the offender faces justice and try to care for those who have been hurt. This can be a long and very painful process.

Sexual sin among the people of God is not a pleasant subject. It is painful for all concerned. But if we find it surprising, we should perhaps turn to our Bibles. 2 Samuel 13 or 1 Corinthians 5 might be a good start.

Useful telephone numbers:

Churches Child Protection Advisory Service: 01322 660 011; Christian Child Care Network: 0181 559 1133; NSPCC Helpline: 0800 800 500; PCCA: Christian Child Care: 01322 667207.

Some useful books:

The Wounded Heart by Dan Allender (CWR);

Child Sexual Abuse: A Hope for Healing by Maxine Hancock and Karen Burton Mains (Highland Books);

A Silence Broken by Earl Wilson (IVP);

Child Sexual Abuse and the Churches by Patrick Parkinson (Hodder & Stoughton);

When Ministers Sin by Neil and Thea Ormerod (Millennium Books).

1) Calvin College Social Research Centre, A Survey of Abuse in the Christian Reformed Church (Calvin College, Michigan, 1992).

2) Child Sexual Abuse and the Churches by Patrick Parkinson (Hodder & Stoughton, 1997).

John Steley is a psychologist and member of St. Helen's, Bishopsgate, London.