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.