The terror and agony faced by four-year old Jessica Mast as her parents and another couple beat her every day for two weeks in the name of “godly discipline” is unimaginable to most people – except for survivors of religions that embed submission and obedience to the “will of the father” into daily practices for women and girls, reinforced with bodily terrorism if necessary. Jessica will never be one of those survivors because in the end, after yet another beating with her father’s belt, her little head was held beneath the icy water of a pond. She was dragged to the bank and left there to freeze.
You might be tempted to write this off as mental illness of the murderers, or to a horrific and unexplainable anomaly. Please don’t. While mental illness may be in play here and most cases of child abuse do not end in death – what happened here was years in the making, as the adults who killed her, while also beating her two-year-old sister and at times, her mother – were products of a conservative Plain culture where physical abuse of children to break their will is broadly accepted. The church all four adults attended, unsurprisingly, has distanced itself from any responsibility for this child’s death. According to the Sheriff, the actions leading to her death are “not condoned” by the church.
They do not call it abuse, of course, but use terms like spanking and discipline. Let us be clear: removing a little girl’s clothing and beating her bare buttocks with a belt, wooden spoon, or some other implement is a form of sexual terrorism. What else does one call it when a private and sexual part of the body is exposed and subjected to humiliating and severe pain?
The social media world of conservative Plain survivors of child sexual abuse exploded with anguished cries and an outpouring of stories from those who suffered assaults like Jessica’s as news of her murder became known a few days before Christmas. Stories of being stripped and beaten by their fathers poured forth as women (and some men) recounted being assaulted by the same fathers who then asserted their patriarchal privilege to sexually abuse them. (See A Better Way Facebook page for several examples; see also Splash4Ripples for some backstory. Both are run by Plain survivors.)
Little Jessica was also punished by being sexually violated by adults as others watched. Convinced that she had her mother’s evil within her, these adults were determined to save her soul by breaking her will through terrorizing her body. Despite two weeks of torture, this small child still must have had some spark of life in her eyes, and her will was not sufficiently broken. One of the adults recounted how she ran around the table, trying to escape her father’s belt. For this, they killed her.
Our work to end child sexual abuse has multiple intersections. One of the most critical is changing a patriarchal culture that elevates male leadership and normalizes using power and severe abusive processes to maintain a hierarchy of supremacy and control. Ground zero for maintaining this culture through generations is asserting dominance over children by subjecting them to severe physical pain, thereby teaching them that obedience and submission to power is valued over any semblance of consent and bodily integrity.
When a small girl is divested of her clothes and beaten by a powerful adult in her life – and this is condoned by her culture as normal - is it much of a stretch to imagine she would have even an inkling that rape is also not condoned?
Consider this: A small girl is ordered to remove her clothes and expose herself to be beaten on what we teach children is a “private part” (the area covered by your bathing suit) by a powerful adult. Everyone within the family or church can hear her screams (and yes, some conservative churches have rooms for “disciplining” children, and unless they are sound proofed, everyone knows what is happening). When it is over, everyone acts like nothing has happened. So, when that same influential adult (or another person in charge) pulls that girl into a room and uses her for sexual gratification, do you really think she is going to believe it is not condoned by everyone around her?
She will likely keep quiet, and suffer in the coming years with depression, anxiety, thoughts of suicide, perhaps PTSD. She may become so emotionally numb by the time she is a mother; she will be unable to comfort her own daughter who one day comes back from the barn claiming her brother or uncle touched her. She will probably tell her child to dry her tears and advise “that’s just how things are”.
If we refuse to protect the integrity of children’s bodies legally and socially, there will be tens of thousands more survivors of childhood trauma, many of whom will go on to reenact their own experiences with their children. Inevitably, a good number of them will vigorously defend all forms of corporal punishments to children to force obedience, even when discussing stories like little Jessica’s. Their claims of being “just fine” despite having been subjected to bodily harm in the name of discipline are (sadly) refuted by their lack of capacity for empathy with the beaten children.
As a survivor of sexual and physical abuse in a religious family which I recount in my book “The Deepest Wound” (2001, Writers’ Showcase) I have some idea of the pure terror Jessica must have felt as she desperately and futilely tried to protect her small body from the mind-crushing pain. Anguish like that is so huge it swallows you up, takes you into a different world, and if the gods are merciful, removes you from your body for a time.
I can only pray the gods were benevolent to Jessica and before her last breath, she was swept up into that other world and at the end - she felt no pain.
Various news sources have reported on this story; few links are noted below:
As a woman survivor of childhood sexual and other violence, and the founder of Safe Communities, I am committed to changing the cultural conditions that allow the sexual violation of children to continue, and survivors to be disbelieved and shamed. But as heavy and challenging as that work is, it is not enough. As a white leader of a nonprofit, its critical I also work to change the cultural norms that allow racism to continue, the most extreme and heart wrenching examples being the killing of unarmed Black people, including children, at the hands of police and extrajudicial groups of white men. And that means living more fully into the complicated intersection of ending sexual violence and racism.
While legislative changes are necessary, and police reform is critical, we simply can’t criminal justice our way out of this. We can’t just get rid of the “bad apples” in policing or the “predators” in churches, schools, organizations and communities. No amount of police reform or mandated reporter or diversity or anti-sexual harassment training will change the fundamental problem. To stop sexual and racial violence, we must change the cultural historical norms that allow them to operate. Problems that are systemic cannot be fixed using the same systems and mindsets that created them.
I have spent decades working with congregations and other organizations trying to change what many call “rape culture” which persists despite some good legislative changes. The sexual violation of children and women (and some men) is embedded in systems of patriarchy where men hold power and privilege. Which is the case across most sectors in this country. A church or workplace culture that makes men – especially white men - most comfortable is normed and their abuse of power over more vulnerable people is routine. What makes it hideous is that people who benefit from patriarchal and white dominant systems inflict death by a thousand cuts on a daily basis to people of color and women who try to assert their own power, and seem oblivious about the harm they do.
Until they kill somebody, and maybe not even then.
I have heard the pain and held healing space to the best of my capacity for Black clergy leaders serving in white dominant culture congregations or judicatories who suffer a near daily stream of racially biased comments, opinions and directives from white people who pride themselves on being “inclusive” because they called a person of color to leadership. That person is fine until they begin to actually assert some leadership and then suddenly, he or she is not “one of us”.
I have heard the pain of young Black leaders in social justice nonprofits that have anti-racism and anti-sexual violence programs who are marginalized and disrespected within these very organizations. For example, a brilliant younger Black man I am trying my best to mentor as he navigates out of a rape crisis center and create his own nonprofit to end sexual violence describes the staff meetings he attends as “sitting at the table with Donald Trump”. As a survivor of childhood sexual abuse himself and as a Black man, he is deemed too sensitive and too passionate about the need to change the racist culture of the organization, whose leaders don’t think they have a problem. They think HE is the problem. Listening to his pain hurts my heart, and I am inspired and amazed at his tenacity and faith as he tries to navigate the dangerous waters and found a new organization based on real justice and liberation.
And I have heard countless women leaders of many colors who have been traumatized by gaslighting, bullying, withdrawal of resources, sexual harassment and more, primarily from white male leaders. I include myself among these women. Often these men are supported by women who align themselves with male power within patriarchal systems as a mean of gaining or holding onto their own. I find this especially heartbreaking and infuriating in equal measure.
One of the problems is that most organizations, agencies and churches silo issues such as ending child sexual abuse and the gendered inequities that are the fruit of patriarchal structures turn these issues into programs, rather than integrate them into the social norms of their cultures.
This is also a core problem we face in ending racism. Nonprofits, including the faith-based sector, are notorious for claiming they are not racially biased because they tokenize hiring people of color while maintaining a culture that is normative for white people. If people of color or survivors of sexual violence get too noisy or have strong opinions about what needs to change, they are viewed as “not a good cultural fit” and invited or forced to leave. Safety and belonging are conditioned upon not confronting the usually indirect but very painful sexist and racist comments or actions at the staff meeting or the water cooler. This is an endemic cultural problem that will not be solved with new laws or training.
Many of the institutions and organizations I have worked in or with consider themselves progressive or even liberal. Most are led by white, privileged heteronormative men. It is rare to find one who truly understands their privilege and shares their power with women and people of color to actively deconstruct sexist and racist norms. Most of them resist the real cultural change that is demanded if they are to truly be safe spaces for people of color, for women, for children, for survivors.
These leaders will tell you, with a straight and earnest face, that they simply can’t find any qualified people of color for their boards. Nor can they seem to find any strong women who recognize abuse of power when they see it and hold the leaders who harm accountable. Since board members are often recruited from white dominant and business class cultures, they are inclined to believe in hierarchical and power-over systems rooted in a 1950s model of governance.
They will claim to be colorblind and have Black friends - which by itself demonstrates they have no clue about systemic racism. They will raise their voices in public disgust at a Harvey Weinstein but will remain silent about a Brent Cavanagh. Now, many are issuing public statements that “Black Lives Matter”. I’ve got some serious déjà vu as I consider the many public statements about “believing woman” when the roar of the #MeToo movement swept through places of power – until the protests died down, the stories slowed, and the systems began to reset, to go back to the status quo of requiring there be three or ten or twenty women who say they were sexually abused or harassed or assaulted by a powerful man before they become credible.
And maybe not even then.
We need to listen to the youth that have a moral code that drives them to the streets to demand justice on so many fronts where we have failed them.
We need to listen to our children, who have truth to tell us we may not want to hear, given that one in four girls and one in six boys are sexually violated before they are 18 years old.
We need to listen to Black leaders. We need to listen to women survivors of sexual and gendered violence. We need to listen to people of color. These are the people we need to lead our organizations, our boards, our communities. It means we have to be willing to shift power to people of color, to survivors of sexual and gendered violence, to youth.
This is a call to all leaders, especially those in the nonprofit, philanthropic, and public service sectors. It does not matter what your mission is. If it is not big enough to include racial justice, gender equity, and stopping sexual violence, you are on the wrong side of history.
I expect most of you will instead stay exactly where you are and, at best, try to program or tokenize your way out of this rather than face into the deep transformative change that is needed. Please prove me wrong!
by Linda Crockett
As a survivor, I am leading Safe Communities. Working with friends, partners and allies, we exist to end child sexual abuse and to create healing spaces for survivors – and that will not stop even as we live in this time of a global pandemic, which is scary for everyone.
The virus is an invisible enemy that we can’t control, even as we try frantically to reduce risk through various tactics. No one is immune. Low-wage or hourly/contracted employees are particularly vulnerable economically. Older adults and those with underlying medical conditions are more vulnerable to severe illness, based on what we know right now. Less discussed has been the psychological vulnerability of survivors of sexual violence.
Many survivors of sexual abuse and assault do their best every single day to live with the long-term impacts of trauma - such as PTSD, acute anxiety, and depression. It is not uncommon for survivors to have a high need for control, given that our bodies were broken into. For many who were violated repeatedly as children, the break-ins were a continual theft, leaving our spirits in a state of homelessness when our bodies became occupied territory.
Although human beings have a basic and healthy need for a degree of control over their lives, the need by survivors often slides to an extreme version on the spectrum, in order to manage their trauma sensitized nervous systems. Some of us are extreme planners, making sure we not only have a Plan B, but also a C and D for any possible contingency. Those who have been lucky enough to acquire a tool box for healing have healthy self-care practices we can call upon that work at least some of the time so we don’t turn to unhealthy methods, which includes too much alcohol, over-medicating, risky behavior, isolating and self-harm.
Some of us are able to manage our chronic PTSD or anxiety fairly well for years until we are hit with an unexpected triggering event that destabilizes our physical and emotional selves. Basic bodily functions such as eating, elimination, sleep and more are all heavily impacted when PTSD is your dance partner. Psychological disruption runs the room with everything from emotional meltdowns to immobilization to your thinking brain suddenly going off-line. The trigger often has to do with a loss of control - a sudden job loss, severe injury or illness, divorce, moving and a multitude of other curves life throws at us. While these are anxiety producing events for non-traumatized people, for survivors it may mean a plunge into a reactivated trauma mode.
As though all this was not enough, many survivors of sexual abuse are exquisitely attuned to social, cultural, or political changes that may adversely affect them and the people they love. That attunement was often developed out of necessity in childhood. The powerful people in our lives - those that controlled our households, schools, churches and other places where we were supposed to be safe but were not - betrayed our trust in the systems around us either through active perpetration of harm or failure to protect. Just as we were once attuned to the micro-movements in a perpetrators face that could signal danger was coming, we are attuned to even the faintest whisper of approaching harm. We feel it in our bodies, and with survivor super-powers – we brace or numb ourselves.
A pandemic is no longer a distant threat, but a real and present danger for everyone. Fear is a rational response, even as we try to remain calm and manage our anxiety.
For survivors, however, the psychological impact is exponential and may be a major trigger. We are faced with loss of control over our daily lives as powerful people who did not do nearly enough to protect us at the first warning signs now issue orders that close our schools and workplaces, tell us to isolate ourselves as much as possible, and close recreational and social gathering venues that were part of our trauma-management toolboxes.
So, this is hard. But survivors can DO hard. It’s why we are still here. Kind of like dandelions.
Some people get really annoyed at our existence – especially when we insist on truth-telling, accountability, and justice. They mow us down, again and again. But the wind keeps spreading our seed, and we pop up in new places. Some of the survivors we work with are incredible leaders in their communities and organizations - resilient, strong warriors for justice on small and large scales.
We may need to practice social isolation in real time; but we can find alternative pathways to come together and create circles of wisdom and healing in virtual space.
We need each other.
Our communities need survivor wisdom on how to get through these scary times. We are grateful for the community we have, and we look forward to how this community will grow and support each other during the current pandemic.
Love and Light,
Reposted from the blog of Humanitarian Social Innovations on 1/2/2020, written by Carina Bonasera.
Humanitarian Social Innovations is excited to welcome Safe Communities to our network of social entrepreneurs.
As a new year — and decade — begins, Humanitarian Social Innovations is excited to introduce Safe Communities to our network. The group works to prevent and address child sexual abuse (CSA), educate churches and youth-serving organizations about keeping children safe, and provide resources for survivors of abuse to heal.
The statistics on child sexual abuse are jarring. Studies indicate that up to 25 percent of girls and 20 percent of boys may be sexually assaulted before the age of 18, and most of the time, the abuser is someone that they know and trust. While institutions like churches and youth groups are supposed to be safe places, oftentimes, they can actually enable abuse.
Safe Communities’ mission is to end child sexual abuse and support survivors through the healing process.
The organization started out as Samaritan Safe Church in 2011, founded by Linda Crockett, a nationally recognized leader in CSA prevention. It rapidly grew from a small community group in Lancaster, PA, into a movement with multiple partner groups and satellite “hubs” functioning across states and regions. As the group expanded, it also launched the program Safe Places to help youth-serving organizations outside of faith groups tackle child abuse prevention through workshops and staff and volunteer training.
Now, looking forward into a new decade, the nonprofit is growing its reach even further by partnering with HSI and working toward becoming an independent entity with greater power to end child sexual abuse.
“Since its inception, Safe Church/Safe Places has continued to expand its presence at the forefront of the emerging social justice movement to end child sex abuse,” Crockett said. “We realized that it was time to transition to an independent entity. The demand for our services grows daily and an autonomous structure will allow us to maximize our capacity to respond to this tremendous need in the most efficient way possible.”
A Multifaceted Approach to Ending Abuse
“Sexual violence, particularly at a young age, derails the trajectory of a promising young life from that of one who believes they can do anything to one who believes they can do nothing — and in fact, believes they are worth nothing,” said Lizz Durbin, Creative Director and Program Administrator at Safe Communities. She noted that survivors often struggle emotionally and with unhealthy behaviors later in life as a result of childhood abuse.
The group is passionate about putting a stop to this tragic pattern, and developed a variety of programs and resources to achieve that goal. They work with youth organizations to develop policies and models that keep children safe; offer consultation services; and provide education and workshops that teach institutions, staff, volunteers, parents and children how to prevent abuse.
“Safe Communities is focused on the institutions that surround children and families — camps, youth programs, schools, churches and other faith groups — and how they can become sites of safety and protection for children, rather than falling into the far-too-common patterns of avoiding the issue, pretending the only risk is strangers, silencing victims, prioritizing the reputation of powerful adults or the institution itself, and other ways that institutions enable abuse,” Durbin said.
The work of Safe Communities has not only been instrumental in helping churches and communities prevent abuse; it has also opened the door for survivors to tell their stories and begin the process of healing through support groups for survivors and their allies. The groups include Circle of Hope, a group for adult survivors; Resilience Cohort, a monthly gathering for survivors; and Rising Together, for parents of abused children.
“Circle of Hope gave me an opportunity to slowly tell my story — the one I had been told to forget — to a group of survivors who understood the shame, fear, self-destruction and anger that had held me in captivity for years,” one anonymous survivor shared with Safe Communities. “The safety I experienced in the circle allowed me to release both the story and the stress created by holding my suffering in silence. I am very grateful for the way this has changed my life.”
Safe Communities is dedicated to helping more and more survivors heal, but is challenged to procure the funding to run its programs and keep resources free for survivors and youth organizations. With help from donors, the nonprofit hopes to continue to grow and see a world where child sexual abuse no longer exists.
by Victoria Gehman, Safe Communities Social Work Intern
With the holidays quickly approaching, a vast variety of emotions can surface. For some, this time of year evokes excitement. For others, it may be mostly happiness mixed with some stress - stress because of trying to prepare a meal and get the house clean on time. Or maybe it's stress due to the struggle to be kind to that one in-law. For still others, the holidays can be one of the most lonely and difficult times of the year. Maybe it's the husband whose wife died a couple years ago, and, without her, he has no family left and just can't seem to get in the holiday spirit anymore. Maybe it's the sick woman who is bedridden in a hospital and neglected by family. Perhaps it's the foster child who has aged out of the foster care system and isn't sure if she has a place to call home where she could go for the holidays. Or perhaps it's the survivor of child sexual abuse who dreads the holidays for a myriad of reasons.
These are all people whom we should be considerate of during the holidays, but today I'd like to take a few moment to focus specifically on the survivor. The holiday season can be very triggering for many survivors. Often, the abuser was someone close to the survivor - many times a family member. The survivor may dread holiday gatherings as it forces her to see her abuser, yet she may feel as if she is compelled to attend. Or maybe she has chosen to avoid the unhealthy relationships, but then where would she go? Who would she spend the holidays with? Even if one does not have to see his abuser, he could still be triggered by certain smells, songs, or activities that occur around the holidays. Maybe a certain song played in the background during a particularly traumatic encounter. Maybe the survivor has even come to hate a particular food because it's what she was eating on the day she was first molested. Perhaps making gingerbread houses causes anxiety because he remembers what happened after the gingerbread houses were made and he was alone with his uncle while everyone else was admiring the cousins' gingerbread creations.
Many survivors will experience some kind of trigger or increased anxiety at some point during the holiday season. Even if the abuse occurred years ago, don't assume they are okay. Often, these triggers will occur at unexpected times, and they may be different from year to year. Just because they appear okay on the outside and just because they haven't said anything to you doesn't meant they're doing fine. They could be very lonely inside - but are just too afraid to tell you. Or they don't want to bother you, as they feel they would be interrupting your festivities with your family. They truly are happy that you are having a good time. But sometimes that increases their loneliness - especially throughout the holiday season as their friends may become busier and preoccupied with their own family celebrations.
Often, the holidays are the time of year when survivors most need support, yet it is also the time of year when they are often the most lacking in support. Trusted friends travel to another state, the friends that do stay in the area are too busy to meet up or even call, counselors and therapists go on vacation... At times, this causes survivors to feel forgotten.
So, what can you do to help?
Here are a few practical suggestions:
1) Check in on them from time to time. Even just a simple text saying, "Hey, I know this time of year can be really tough for you, and I just wanted to let you know that I haven't forgotten about you. I love you" can go a long way.
2) If you're baking cookies and wouldn't mind some extra company, invite them. They may or may not take you up on the offer, but either way they will likely appreciate that you thought of them and cared enough to ask.
3) Even if you're just cleaning the house or preparing for a meal, but could use some help, ask them if they want to come help you clean or play with your kids while you clean. Depending on the person, this can be a welcome invitation as it helps them to forget the loneliness and memories for a time and allows them to instead do something meaningful for someone else, while also benefiting from time spent with safe people.
4) Even if you are away or don't have much time to talk with them, ask them how they are doing. Remind them that they are safe, but that their pain is valid. Allow them to share it with you when they need to, and be honored that they have chosen to trust you with some of their deepest hurts.
Throughout this holiday season - whether you're at a family gathering, a work party, a friend's house, or getting your shopping done at the mall - just be sensitive. Remember that there may be a lot more going on underneath the surface than what someone presents on the outside. Just a little bit of kindness goes a long way and could even make someone's unhappy holiday just a tad bit happier.
By Linda Crockett, Director of Safe Communities
In the state of Pennsylvania, some adults are considered mandated reporters of suspected child abuse.
These include individuals holding some specific roles (such as doctors, clergy, school employees and others) but also any adult (age 18+) who comes into contact with children in the course of their work or professional practice, or an individual, paid or unpaid, who, on the basis of their role as an integral part of a regularly scheduled program, activity or service, is a person responsible for the care, guidance, supervision or control of children.
Many adult volunteers in churches and youth serving organizations are mandated reporters. Although this inclusion of volunteers as mandated reporters took place in 2014, our Safe Communities organization continues to work with many churches and youth serving organizations that have not caught up with major change.
A point of confusion for some mandated, and non-mandated reporters, is that one does not need to be certain or have evidence that abuse has occurred in order to make a report. Like many other states, Pennsylvania uses the term “reasonable cause to suspect” that a child has been abused as one of the thresholds that trigger a mandated report. This does not mean a reporter is to investigate or be certain abuse has occurred. Determination of that is the job of case workers from Child Protective Services that investigate suspected child abuse, in conjunction with law enforcement.
“Reasonable cause to suspect” is not precisely defined under the law. A general rule of thumb is that it is more than a “gut feeling” but less than a certainty. It takes into consideration things like what you know about the situation and context, behavioral red flags that are possible indicators of various types of abuse, what the child or others have told you, and additional factors.
Pennsylvania’s standard for reporting suspected abuse is that the reporter shall make an “immediate” report. Like “reasonable cause to suspect,” immediate is not precisely defined under the law but a rule of thumb is 24 hours at the latest, or much sooner if the child is at imminent risk of suffering more abuse if you delay reporting.
When the reporter knows and respects the alleged offender, which is not uncommon in churches and organizations, it can cloud judgement of whether abuse could be possible. Using a reasonable cause standard when this is the case is to think about whether a neutral person who had the same information you did about the child would find it reasonable to suspect abuse may have occurred. If in doubt - report it.
There is a world of difference between making a “false” report (which is a crime) and making a report in good faith when you suspect abuse (in which the reporter is protected under the law). False reports are rare, and they typically are an attempt by one individual to ‘retaliate’ against another for some reason.
The basis to report in Pennsylvania is that a mandated reporter shall make a report of suspected child abuse (in accordance with Section 6313) if the mandated reporter has reasonable cause to suspect that a child is a victim of child abuse under any of the following circumstances:
The child is not required to come before the mandated reporter for the reporter to make a report of suspected child abuse. This was also a major change enacted in 2014.
Of course, keeping children safe from harm is the responsibility of all caring adults in a community. You don’t have to be a mandated reporter to make a report of suspected or disclosed child abuse. Anyone concerned about possible abuse can make a confidential report by calling Childline at 1-800-932-0313.
Learn more at Pennsylvania’s KeepKidsSafe website: http://keepkidssafe.pa.gov/
In July of 2011, just two years into my new role as minister, a victim disclosed to me that she had been sexually abused by my father, the former preacher at my congregation. Within seconds, my life began to unravel. My childhood hero was now a villain who had dozens of victims–all of whom were humiliated and violated in the worst possible way,” said Pastor Jimmy Hinton who blogs at www.jimmyhinton.org.
Jimmy Hinton’s dad is serving a 30-60-year sentence for sex crimes against dozens of children. A recent blog post he wrote titled “Why Chaperoning Abusers at Church is Unwise” got my attention, because our Safe Church program does include policy making around safely integrating sexual offenders into a congregation. In his post, Pastor Hinton critiques common “covenant” agreements churches make when including sex offenders in their congregation.
I don’t know Pastor Hinton, but I will say that he knows what he is talking about. The kind of “chaperoning” he describes is dangerous and naïve and does little to protect vulnerable children.
Studies have also shown that nearly 90% of convicted child sex offenders describe themselves as “very religious” and thought churches were easy to operate within. Many of them marry and some have children of their own. It is easy to prey on kids if you appear respectable, are a volunteer or church leader, and “speak Christianese.”
I will not argue with those who say that the greatest risk are the offenders who have not ever been caught. This is most definitely true, as child sexual abuse is a vastly underreported crime and prosecution is difficult, especially when the victims are very young. Many children do not disclose sexual violation until mid-life adulthood, if ever.
Safe Communities works with religious and non-religious institutions to protect kids from sexual harm. We have engaged thousands of people in congregations in our core Safe Church curriculum since creating it in 2011. (And NO, we are not one of “safe church” programs written by insurance companies or offered by some denominations). We are a third generation, social movement building, and culture shifting prevention program focused on preventing sexual abuse before it happens.
Our recommended practices and training on integrating “known” sexual offenders into a congregation have gotten more robust over the years, based on our experiences in the field. By “known”, I mean those who have been adjudicated by a court to have committed a sexual offense against a child under age 18. Integrating some offenders can be done safely and well, but it takes a considerable amount of time and resource. We have worked with churches that have successfully done this, but it cannot happen before the congregation, not just a few leaders, are educated about how to keep children safe from sexual harm – within and outside of the church.
The type of offender “covenant” Hinton described in his blog, and the laissez-faire prevention practices used by many churches, would in all probability not stop an offender like his father. Nor would it stop the offenders we have encountered in our Safe Church program who refuse to sign covenants we design because they are “too restrictive.” Big clue here: If a sex offender refuses to accept severe restrictions around interactions with kids, that’s a RED FLAG. Child sexual abuse at its core is about abuse of power and violation of boundaries.
For many congregations, offering hospitality to known sex offenders is based on their interpretations of biblical passages about forgiveness, restoration and grace. I cannot count the times I have heard leaders, when asked to establish very strict boundaries for participation of known sex offenders and be fully transparent with the congregation that an offender is worshipping among them, say something like “But he is a new man in Jesus! He has been washed clean of his sin, and we can’t shame him by disclosing his identity. We’ll just have the elders keep an eye on him and not let him lead in any children’s programs.”
This. Does. Not. Work.
Filled with the language of grace but very few actual restrictions and consequences for breaking the rules, these types of covenants put children and teens at risk – not only within the congregation but in the local community. Children are apt to believe this person is “safe” when they are groomed by him (or her) at church, the library, the park, or their sports team. After all, if he attends their church and no one has warned them he is NOT safe around kids, why wouldn’t a child believe the person to be “safe”?
For those not familiar with the term, ‘grooming’ is a strategic process many offenders use to gain a child’s trust and establish a non-sexual relationship in preparation for molestation. It may include grooming the target’s parents as well. Tragically, it usually works. 90% of children who are molested are not violated by strangers, but someone their family knows and trusts.
Parents who are not educated about offenders and how they operate will easily include these folks in their social circles beyond the church setting. We have healing groups for parents of kids who were sexually abused, many of them by someone the parents trusted at church. The impact on these parents is enormous and they often blame themselves.
A busy senior pastor in a large congregation with many children and teens said to me once “can’t you just give me something I can do in a few hours?”
The answer to that is no…not if you are serious about keeping kids safe. I wanted to ask him if the parents of the hundreds of kids entrusted to his programs understood that he had things more important to concern himself with than keeping their kids safe from sexual abuse. I wish I had.
Here are a few points for safety for including known child sexual offenders into a church congregation. This is not a “how to” guide or a comprehensive list.
We also have some inspiring stories to tell you about churches who have done the hard work of creating safe environments for children as well as empowering spaces for adult survivors.
We agree with you, Jimmy Hinton, and applaud the work you are doing to advocate against child sexual abuse and raise awareness about the tactics used by child molesters.
By Linda Crockett
Institutional Failure to Protect: Within and Beyond the Catholic Church
From churches, to schools, to sports organizations – we are in a time of massive failure of institutions to protect children and youth. The most recent evidence was the report released by the PA grand jury that documents the sexual abuse of over 1,000 children by 300 Catholic priests in six of the state’s eight dioceses. The other two diocese were the subject of prior grand jury reports with similar findings. The findings overall show predator clergy victimizing children, while bishops and cardinals protected them and often shamed and silenced any victim brave enough to come forward. This is acknowledged in the sobering introduction to the report which reads:
“We, members of this grand jury, need you to hear this. We know some of you have heard some of it before. But never on this scale.”
Yes. The scale is larger than the horrifying abuse and cover up within the Boston Archdiocese, the subject of the award winning movie “Spotlight.” As in Boston, the PA diocesan leaders prioritized avoiding “scandal” at all cost. That is not the grand jury’s word, by the way. That was the word used time and again in the church documents entered into evidence. These documents, locked away in the “secret archives” (again, a church word) were only given to the grand jury under subpoena.
Parents, with little understanding of how child sexual abuse occurs, entrust their children to religious and non-religious organizations in which sexual abuse has flourished for years, often at the hands of leaders vetted with little more than a background check and given trust because of their credentials or spiritual authority.
The #MeToo movement, and its multiple streams including #ChurchToo, have made it clear that the time of maintaining the status quo and prioritizing institutional and professional reputation over victims is ending. #MetooK12 calls attention to the shocking number of sexual assaults in primary and secondary schools. An AP investigation of school records over a 4 year period revealed an outrageous 17,000 child-on-child sexual assaults in grades K – 12. Failure to protect at Michigan State, USA Gymnastics, the U.S. Olympic Committee and other sports related organizations resulted in the sexual abuse of hundreds of young athletes.
The Evangelical world has been rocked with high profile sexual abuse cases, among them is the news that the influential mega-church Willow Creek in Chicago had settled a $3 million lawsuit earlier this year when children with disabilities were sexually abused by a volunteer in their “buddy” program. This came on the heels of the disclosures by multiple female staff of sexual misconduct by their legendary founder Bill Hybels. Church leadership dismissed the reports and protected Hybels until the public pressure forced him to step aside and the elders to resign.
Power, control, and privileging the reputation of offenders and enablers has been valued over protecting children. Justice for survivors is lacking and these dynamics have continued to play out in the legal maneuvers to delay this latest PA grand jury report scheduled release at the end of June. Survivors, waiting decades for their story to be told with their perpetrators named, were once again experiencing trauma – with the timing and agenda being controlled by those who abused their power in the first place. A last minute filing by unnamed individuals objecting to their names being included in the report on August 7 resulted in further delays. Finally, on August 14, the last day the court permitted the report to be released, an interim, redacted report was released. Many enablers and perpetrators were named; others were not. But survivors finally had some measure of justice, however incomplete.
Ahead of the inevitable release, some Bishops scrambled to release the names of offenders. We should all remember that these lists were under lock and key in these dioceses for years and likely never would have seen the light of day had they not been subpoenaed as part of the two-year investigation. Father Thomas Doyle, who has testified before numerous legal bodies about the way the Church handles allegations of child sexual abuse, noted to the grand jury that meaningful change on child abuse has largely been generated by forces external to the church – primarily the media and grand juries.
I have listened to countless survivor accounts of horrific child sexual abuse and I’ve been in the field of prevention for more than a decade. Yet, after reading the first 100 or so pages of the massive document, I felt physically ill. Many of the victims were boys, but there were girls, too – including five from one family.
What we call this matters: The Details
The grand jury made the right decision to include some detailed accounts, because euphemisms are part of the play book used to protect the reputations of offenders and to avoid upsetting congregants. Let’s be very clear: when a priest forces oral sex on a young child and then washes out his mouth with holy water to purify him; or when children are groomed for oral sex by a priest, teaching them that “Mary had to bite off the cord” and “lick” Jesus clean after he was born; when a priest rapes a girl and arranges an abortion when she becomes pregnant; when a boy is forced to stand naked on a bed in a position imitating Jesus on the cross and a group of priests photograph him to add to their child porn collection – this is not a “boundary violation” or “inappropriate conduct.” This is child sexual assault. This is child rape. This is a crime, and a mockery of the God that religious leaders are supposed to represent. We need to say it. And parishioners need to hear it, no matter how uncomfortable it makes them.
While the new PA hotline to take reports from other survivors is flooded with calls, Bishops are scrambling to assure the faithful that the past is not reflective of the present, citing current policies and practices. Since child protection policy and practice is an area of specialty in the Samaritan Safe Church program that I founded and direct, I have taken the time to read policies posted on websites, and I’ve had conversations with parishioners about the training contents. They would not meet the standards we use in our program. Lay leaders tell us their Diocese controls child protection policy and training, and they are not permitted to use models other than those provided by their Bishop.
The past is still with us.
That kind of insularity is precisely what landed the church in its current sad state of affairs. Use of church-run psychological facilities relying on the “self-reports” of offenders are another example. However, unless there is fundamental change of the social norms around child sexual abuse that allow it to take place, even the best policies won’t fix what is broken within the many institutions failing to protect our children.
The grand jury report notes that based on the evidence it reviewed, it is likely there are thousands more victims.
While Bishops are busy trying to reassure everyone with something akin to “a long time ago, and in a faraway land, bad things happened – but it’s all over now!” Today’s statement made by the Pope speaks of the suffering of the victims, and rightly names the acts committed against them as “atrocities”. Yet Pope Francis also largely places the sexual abuse as happening in the past, with spokesperson Gregg Burke stating the grand jury found “almost no cases after 2002”. While the report notes that almost all of the cases it investigated are barred from prosecution by the PA Statue of Limitations, charges in two more recent cases in different dioceses have already been filed. One involves a priest who ejaculated in the mouth of a 7 year old. The other assaulted two different boys on a monthly basis for a period of year that only ended in 2010 — and the hotline continues to ring.
Denial of Justice for all
Survivors beyond those violated in these dioceses are also impacted. Many express heartfelt gratitude for the work of this grand Jury, and the courage of the survivors who gave testimony. However, the report’s contents are highly triggering and re-traumatizing to read. The vast majority of survivors have not been abused within the Catholic Church. However, they suffer denial of justice due to the fierce opposition by the Catholic Church to elimination of the PA Criminal Statute of Limitations. The Church also opposes the two year window in which any survivor would have the right to file a civil action.
As we have read in other similar grand jury reports, this one notes that there have been times that police or prosecutors also turned a blind eye to victims, deferring to church officials. In our current context, those deferring are largely PA legislators influenced by the hard lobbying that the Catholic Church has engaged in to stop Statue of Limitation Reform in PA. These senators and representative turn a deaf ear to the pleas of survivors and hide behind protestation that such extension may be unconstitutional, disregarding opinions from experts who argue otherwise – such as Marci Hamilton, one of the country’s leading church-state scholars on constitutional law and reform to state statutes of limitations. One of their own, State Rep. Mark Rozzi, D-Berks, a victim of molestation by a priest, has worked heroically for years to make this change, only to be disregarded by colleagues more concerned with protecting institutions than justice for survivors.
Yet perhaps this time, change will come, and justice will prevail. The grand jury report makes several explicit recommendations, among them is the reform of PA’s Criminal and Civil Statutes, noting that under the current law most of the culprits can no longer be charged because of statutory prohibitions.
If the leaders in PA’s Catholic Dioceses want us to believe they are sincere in their prolific apologies and reassurances of real change, let each one come out with a public statement saying they will support all of the grand jury’s recommendations, including the two year window to allow survivors currently barred by the 12 year period to file civil charges for child sexual abuse. Legislation introduced previously to extend the Statues adds an exception for child sexual abuse to “sovereign immunity”, which protects state and local government entities such as school districts from civil liability.
Yet, Catholic officials continue to advance a false argument that reform of the Statutes of Limitations unfairly singles out the Church even when proposed legislation levels the playing field between public and private institutions. Rep. Mark Rozzi, in a March 16, 2016 memo to the PA House of Representatives about adding child sex abuse to the exceptions for sovereign immunity writes, “I have always taken the stance that if it can be proven that a person or entity, public or private, knowingly put a child in harm’s way, then they should be able to be prosecuted. After all, if animal abusers can be prosecuted, why not child sex abusers?”
Change is up to us.
Yes – it may well be some parishes and other entities will suffer financial distress from lawsuits having to do with systematic failure to protect. Yes, it may be that some of the good work churches do for their communities will suffer as a result. Yes, innocent people sometimes have to pay for the failure of leaders. However, financial repercussions might just be the only thing that motivates ordinary citizens, religious and secular, to demand real systemic change to hold enablers and perpetrators accountable.
As adults, we all have a responsibility to protect children from sexual harm. We can no longer rely on those in charge of institutions to do so.
Our PA legislators, just like leaders in the many other institutions that are failing to protect our children, are also enabling offenders to continue to abuse through their refusal to pass legislation on Statute of Limitation reform. Bills introduced over the past three years go to die in committees whose chairs are influenced by anti-reform lobbyists and who presume to take on the court’s role in deciding constitutionality of enacted law.
We can’t change the past. But, as the grand jury notes in its conclusion, “What we can do is tell our fellow citizens what happened, and try to get something done about it.”
It’s up to us.
By Linda Crockett
Something different is happening. The #Metoo movement has become a social tsunami and it’s not going to stop with holding individual perpetrators publicly accountable. Beginning in Hollywood, it is gaining momentum and rolling through previously imperturbable bastions of power in business, academia, hospitality, sports, medicine, the church and more. And as this survivor-led movement gains power, it is clear that holding accountable the individuals that sexually harmed them is not enough. Particularly not when the abuse occurs in an institutional setting such as church, school, or sports.
The 156 survivors who testified in court to being sexually abused during medical exams by Larry Nassar, former USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University doctor, want justice that goes beyond life in prison for Nassar: they want the people that enabled his abuse to be held accountable. Not only at Michigan State and USA Gymnastics, but also the U.S. Olympic Committee and Twistars Gymnastic Club (MI) where Nassar also admitted to sexually abusing young athletes.
Nassar could not have operated this way for decades without institutional enablers, including all the coaches and trainers who “looked the other way”, the faculty and staff that disregarded the victims reports, the colleagues who protected their own, the trustees, boards, and executives of the involved organizations that failed to ensure the safety of those entrusted to their care.
He was briefly suspended by MSU in 2014 during a Title IX investigation following a student compliant – but reinstated after a panel of “medical experts” (i.e. his colleagues) concluded there was nothing sexual about his treatments. His social status and professional standing allowed him to get away with it for a very long time. Or at least, until those little girls became strong women survivors and realized they had a collective voice.
New hashtags have been springing up to highlight abuse within institutions where we should be able to trust that the most vulnerable among us, especially children, are safe. The betrayal of that trust is enormous and not limited to the highly publicized Catholic Church or Penn State child sexual abuse scandals.
#MetooK12 calls attention to the shocking number of sexual assaults in schools, many of them peer-to-peer and not handled with anything even resembling Title IX compliance by school administrators. Stop Sexual Assault in Schools, (SSAIS) started a national campaign to educate and empower students and parents to hold schools accountable. SSAIS was founded by parents whose daughter was raped by another student on a field trip. “Not only have we been emotionally scarred as a family, we’ve endured endless frustration in holding the district accountable. For the district, it’s never been about holding anyone accountable. It’s always been about fear of potential liability from day one. The district has just wanted this event to go away.” Joel Levin, the victim’s father commented.
#ChurchToo is generating an outpouring of stories from survivors in religious settings. A girl revealed her rape during a youth group prayer session, only to be asked if she’d repented. A child was told to “cover up” after a male classmate had been caught masturbating while looking at her.
These survivors also don’t want accountability to stop with the offenders: they want church leaders and others who enable offenders to do such harm to be held accountable. They want clergy and congregants to stop disbelieving or minimizing the stories of survivors. They are tired of hearing they are not good Christians if they can’t just “let it go”. They want an end to the privileging of quick forgiveness of offenders over the pain and suffering of survivors.
Early in January, the video of Memphis pastor Andy Savage receiving a standing ovation from his congregation when he expressed remorse over having what he called a “sexual incident” with a high school senior went viral. The sexual abuse occurred when he served as youth pastor at another church years ago, and his victim was inspired by #MeToo to come forward publically.
The video generated massive outrage that the church would give Savage a platform on which the charismatic and popular pastor adeptly focused attention on how he has been “redeemed” instead of the real harm and life-long impact of that violation to a child. To many survivors, myself included, the clapping of the congregants literally felt like a slap in the face. It was a sound heard around the world, and gave new momentum to #ChurchToo.
#SilenceIsNotSpiritual quickly became a global steam of #ChurchToo, a movement calling upon the global faith community to stop standing by and start standing up for women and girls who experience violence. Within hours after 150 leaders published a signed statement demanding that religious institutions stop minimizing and disregarding the claims of female victims of sexual and other violence, thousands responded. The statement begins with a bold declaration:
“I did not know that at the same time Larry was penetrating me, USAG was systematically burying reports of sexual assault against member coaches in a file cabinet instead of reporting them, creating a culture where predators like Larry and so many others in the organization up to the highest-level coaches were able to sexually abuse children, including our Olympians, without any fear of being caught. Rachael Denhollander, victim-impact statement.
Survivors are demanding more than the usual status quo institutional responses of handling allegations internally and not reporting to law enforcement or child protective services.Other practices have included public statements condemning the abuse and pledging internal investigations; the hiring of an outside investigative firm that will not bite the hand that pays their consulting fee; the tolerance of technical legal arguments to disclaim culpability; boards that give in to public pressure and force a high level resignation or two; non-disclosure settlements with survivors to keep them quiet. These responses, along with the quick forgiveness and restoration of offenders to positions of power and authority, are no longer acceptable.
By Linda Crockett
I was honored to be invited by Princeton Theological Seminary’s Institute for Youth Ministry to write an article for their on-line platform ENGAGE on the topic of youth ministers and sexual abuse in youth ministries. ENGAGE has fostered dialogue on topics such as race and mass incarceration, the legalization of marijuana, and sexting among teenagers. As controversial as these topics may be in some church circles, it was an act of courage for the editors to devote an issue to a subject that makes most people even more uncomfortable – sexual abuse in youth ministries.
My article was one of six published by a diverse cadre of writers on this topic, and appears below. Please visit ENGAGE to read all six articles, and to download the study guide.
A Matter of Power and of Justice
He called it adultery. Sin. Infidelity. He admitted he was selfish and that he failed to repent when confronted about his inappropriate “relationship” with a student. He spoke of how his arrest and felony conviction hurt his marriage and ministry. Never once did the youth pastor name what he did as child sexual abuse in the lengthy apologia published in the online Leadership Journal of Christianity Today (6/14/14), “My Easy Trip from Youth Minister to Felon.” It was only at the end of the article laced with biblical references that he casually mentioned the student was a minor under his care as a pastor.
The self-serving, duplicitous nature of the article caused such an uproar on social media that the editors apologized and took it down, citing among other problems, their failure to recognize that the post implied mutuality and consent when in fact there can be no such thing when an adult sexually violates a child.
We can read this story as a parable about child sexual abuse in the Church and the response of those who hold power. A pastor holds power that would preclude a truly consensual relationship with an adult parishioner, let alone a child. The editors, like many Church leaders, did not recognize that the pastor’s language of sin and redemption, submitting to God, and focus on the harm done to himself and his loved ones is typical of offenders. Like Tamar, the daughter of King David raped by her half-brother Amnon (see 2 Samuel 13), victims are encouraged to hold their peace and “not take it to heart,” while offenders get a platform to claim redemption.
Oftentimes, forgiveness is prioritized over justice, and victims carry the burden of shame that rightfully belongs to the offender. By and large, the Church refuses to recognize child sexual abuse as a social justice issue that demands truth telling and accountability. A typical response these days is to dole out some money for counseling to the victim—a necessary act, but hardly the vindication they deserve. “We are taught,” one survivor observed to me, “to absorb the pain.”
Let us be clear about the pain carried by the victim. With one in four girls and one in six boys sexually abused before age 18, it is critical that we understand that abuse is not over when the molestation stops. PTSD is common, and yet these veterans of a hidden war are not recognized for the courage it took to survive. Survivors are often impacted for decades, suffering psychological, physical, social, spiritual, and economic damage. Sexual abuse can destroy a child’s faith in herself, in other people, and in God.
Youth ministries are particularly vulnerable because so many children grow up in churches and families that teach them little or nothing about how to stay safe from sexual harm. Healthy boundary curricula for children from pre-K to 12th grade are essential, as are establishing a number of safe and knowledgeable adults at each church that kids can go to with any concerns. We are rarely reluctant to teach young people about the dangers of drugs and alcohol, and yet we shy away from frank discussion about sexual offenders and how they operate: drawing their intended victim into a relationship to gain their trust. We don’t tell them most offenders are not strangers, but people in our families, churches, neighborhoods, schools, and sports clubs.
We incorporate all of these elements into our Safe Church program, working with groups of congregations in an intense one year process of shifting church culture to proactive engagement in protecting children. It is not merely the quick fix many leaders want—a boilerplate policy coupled with a little training.
And yet there is hope. It lies in the intergenerational nature of the faith-based social movement we are building to end child sexual abuse, a stream flowing into the broader river catalyzed by secular organizations. Young leaders are becoming engaged, stepping up to protect children and empower survivors to lead. They do not believe that silence protects anyone.
A young woman in college accompanied her grandfather to one of our Survivor Wisdom Circles. He was molested as a boy, and despite decades of ordained service in the Church and counseling, the trauma continues to affect him. His granddaughter was deeply moved by what she heard in the Circle, reflecting on her own experience as an advocate for rape survivors on her campus. As we closed the Circle, I expressed the hope I felt in young leaders like her. Her face lit up, and she said “I am not the only one. You have no idea of how many of us there are, just on my campus. We are ready. And we are coming.”
The power is shifting.