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.
By Linda Crockett
In the new social-political landscape that is emerging in 2017, one thing seems clear: those of us who care deeply about protecting the most vulnerable have much work to do. And survivors of sexual abuse are among those who are uniquely equipped to resist injustice and stand as bulwarks against power that is used to harm “the least of these”. Unfortunately, doing this is just as likely to anger people today as it did the disciples when the crowds brought children to Jesus. Happily, this earned the disciples a rebuke, while the children received his protection and praise.
When I was at the Women’s March in Washington, DC in January, I was deeply moved not only by the massive crowd but the broad array of issues and concerns expressed by participants. I was glad to see so many church groups represented! From environmental advocacy to keeping immigrant families together to ensuring Muslims are not discriminated against to affordable health care to sending a loud message that bragging about the crime of sexual assault is not acceptable – even if you are rich and famous – the overarching theme seemed to be protection of the some of the most vulnerable among us. Even though it was reported that the March organizers declined sponsorship by pro-life women’s groups, many of these women are also moved to action by the desire to protect.
Our work with Samaritan SafeChurch/SafePlaces is focused on ending child sexual abuse and empowering adult survivors. In the near chaotic pace of executive orders, proposed legislation, inexperienced leaders suddenly catapulted to some of the highest offices in the land – and the resulting anxiety in the general public, our work in prioritizing protection of vulnerable children from sexual harm, and empowerment for survivors, is even more critical.
For many years, child sexual abuse has lived between and within the “cracks” of other social justice movements and initiatives. It has been part of efforts to prevent sexual assault, domestic violence, child abuse, human rights violations, and more recently, trafficking. Yet it occupies only a small space within these much bigger movements and has never been consistently centered. It receives a tiny portion of all philanthropic support in the United States. And yet it can totally change the trajectory of a child’s life and impact adult physical and emotional health, safety, economic security and even the ability to stay alive, as sexual violation in childhood significantly increases the risk of suicide. It is up to us to ensure that the cries of the one in four girls and one in six boys who are sexually abused do not go unheard and untended in the cacophony of alarm being raised about so many justice issues ushered in after the 2016 presidential election.
SafeChurch is part of a national cohort formed by the Just Beginnings Collaborative (JBC) focused on ending child sexual abuse. Most leaders in the cohort are public survivors and represent the marginalized communities that are endangered by actions that target Muslims, people of color, refugees and immigrants, those with disabilities, and LGBTQ folks. These survivors live at the intersections of multiple forms of oppression, including child sexual abuse.
To take the trauma of sexual violation in childhood into the transformative fire that shapes survivors who often bear other forms of oppression into leaders determined to protect others from similar suffering is a challenging and risky endeavor. Those who have managed to do this bear scars – but also deep wisdom about resistance, and the courage it takes to practice it. I am privileged to walk with these leaders in the JBC cohort, and committed to helping raise up other survivors – and allies – into the kind of leadership we need during the times ahead.
As a woman who experienced sexual and other abuse as a child growing up in a poor, uneducated, rural family with lots of Old Testament religion but little Gospel, I know all too well the agony of the struggle to simply survive. Protecting your spirit, that small God-spark, when it is not possible to protect your body, is an imperative if you don’t want to lose your mind. It is also an act of resistance – a word many people are claiming these days without fully calculating the price to be paid. However, the skills forged by necessity in childhood in order to survive can be valuable when consciously repurposed in order to resist injustice.
For example, survivors are not easily “gaslighted” into believing a reality constructed with alternative facts. Many of us survived that in our childhood when we were told what we experienced did not happen, that we are crazy, and that we are simply imagining the most intimate parts of our small bodies are being regularly violated. We recognize attempts to manipulate people into questioning their perceptions and sanity. This skill helps us to raise the alarm early when we see manipulation happening.
Many of us also learned how to dissociate from overwhelming inescapable trauma, our very neurobiology altered as our bodies perceived that fight or flight were not options. As such, our physiology adapted and prepared a very different kind of neuro-cocktail to be disbursed at the first sign of danger, a cocktail that helped us to numb the pain, to mentally check out, to allow our spirits to float above our bodies until the deed was finished. Although dissociation can be problematic when carried through to adulthood and changing it as an automatic response to stress is part of healing, many of us retain the ability to withstand pain by willfully numbing ourselves, do controlled brief mental “check outs” to avoid being overwhelmed, and stay attached to our spirits even when they take flight.
Finally, we are also acutely attuned to the abuse of power, as the sexual violation of a child is one of the most egregious abuses of power an adult can commit. When we see those in power abuse their authority, we are quick to name it.
Let me be clear: No survivor has an obligation to be public with their story, or be a leader in church, community, organization or social justice movement. Their responsibility is to heal, and to NOT become like those who hurt them. That alone is a huge accomplishment.
But rest assured: Those who journeyed through the “belly of hell” as children and have risen with fierce determination to speak their truth and protect the vulnerable will be among those leading the resistance to the abuse of power, wherever it is found. And these days – it’s not hard to spot.
By Linda Crockett
Most people have heard that being sexually abused in childhood can lead to lifelong struggles with depression, anxiety, addictions, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and suicide. Less well known is that we also have strong evidence that it has a significant effect on the physical health of survivors in mid-life. It’s long past time we took this into consideration when we think about the imperative to protect children from sexual harm.
In my work with faith communities engaging in the SafeChurch process, we affirm across denominations that our bodies are created by God and are to serve as sacred temples for the indwelling spirit. Yet these very temples are not only violated when children are sexually abused, they are left far more vulnerable to disease and ill health extending for decades beyond childhood.
CSA (child sexual abuse) is one of the 9 preventable adverse childhood experiences defined in the landmark ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences) study by the CDC and Kaiser of about 17,000 midlife, middle class adults. The study was designed to see if there was a connection between ACEs such as sexual abuse or witnessing domestic violence, and physical health later in life. The study results gave us a resounding YES to that question. ACEs often set off a spiral of attempts to cope with unbearable emotional pain and precipitate unhealthy coping mechanisms such as early age smoking, use of drugs and alcohol, promiscuity and risk taking behaviors.
As the spiral of negative impact continues, survivors suffer poor physical health in mid-life and are more likely than people without ACEs to develop COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease), IHD (Ischemic Heart Disease) and Liver Disease. It is as though the sanctuary has been vandalized, and the doors and windows are left standing open to the ravages of wind, rain and bitter cold.
This desecration of the body by sexual abuse should be completely unacceptable to anyone. People of faith who further believe that the body is God’s Temple should be especially outraged. And yes, I said outraged…wasn’t it Jesus himself who, upon seeing the money changers commercializing the temple, flew into an uncharacteristic rage that included shouting and overturned furniture?
SafeChurch is working with other organizations on building a national social movement to end CSA. Our role is to call people of faith to action, asking them to step up and become leaders in their communities to stop the destruction of bodies – and spirits – represented by child sexual abuse.
If you participate in a church where leaders assert that a child protection policy written by a denomination or insurance company, and background checks, are sufficient to protect children, I invite you to be outraged. Because while these are important, they do little to protect children, within and beyond the walls of the church or temple. With one in four girls and one in six boys sexually abused before age 18, Jesus himself is probably ready to start overturning some furniture to get his people to wake up. SafeChurch amplifies that wakeup call to people of faith at this moment in history. We are standing with Jesus on this one.