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.
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.
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.
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.