Tag Archives: Child Abuse

SAFE SPACES FOR CHILDREN CONVOCATION by Kirsten Lee, Second-year M. Div.

The Wartburg Seminary community recently met for a convocation entitled “Creating and Maintaining Safe Spaces for Children” in our congregations, communities, and homes. Victor Vieth, Senior Director & Founder of the National Child Protection Training Center at Gundersen Health System lead the convocation. Victor is also a current Wartburg Seminary student expecting to graduate with a Master of Arts this spring.

The convocation addressed the impact abuse can have on a survivor’s spirituality during and after the childhood abuse. A study of 527 child abuse victims reported having “significant spiritual injury”, but also reported praying more frequently and having a “spiritual experience” (Lawson, et al, Child Abuse & Neglect (1998)).  Every child is impacted spiritually; questions of faith, love, and forgiveness remain long after abuse ends. Questions, such as, “How is God present in my abuse,” or “What does this say about God or me” remain long after the abuse occurs.  As church leaders, we are encouraged to find similar questions in scripture as we help survivors find their own words through scripture. Religious and spiritual forms of coping “contribute to decreased symptoms, greater self-esteem, and overall greater life satisfaction.” (Bryant-Davis 2012).

Tragically, clergy may sometimes use a “religious cover” to justify the abuse (i.e. their “good works” overshadow the abuse; God gave this child to me).  Clergy often communicate this cover to the victims, which leads to a greater impact on spirituality. Offenders often seek churches because of weak policies, unconditional love and forgiveness, and as a safe place to have access to children.  This demands a need for churches to create and regularly update policies to protect children from abuse (click here for more information) and provide educational opportunities for both clergy and parishioners.

Vieth also shared insight on how church leaders might address the spiritual needs of both survivors and offenders. He offered practical tips for providing pastoral care to both groups of people based on their unique needs, including the need to stay within the pastoral field of expertise and coordinate with law professionals, mental health therapists, and community leaders.

The following are quotes from students who attended this convocation. Students were asked to reflect further on how they were impacted as church leaders by this convocation. Several students responded with comments on how their own experience with child abuse has impacted their spiritual growth and their growth as a church leader.

“It is a great tragedy that these abuses happen not only at home but also in churches, as the media has been opening our eyes to in recent years. I feel all church leaders should be aware of this and for their own sake take courses on boundaries. Once leaders know their boundaries, it is crucial to become informed on how to spot abuses happening and how to respond. The church should never have and can never again ignore abuse or use Scripture to keep people in abusive situations. In my opinion, the worst thing to happen is for leaders to say to themselves in retrospect, ‘How did I not see this? All the clues were right in front of me and I missed it.’ The Church’s business IS the well-being of the lives of humans.”

“Aside from leaders being educated on the signs of abuse and what to do, churches need to also educate others. We need to offer educational events that are free and open to all to come and learn. Churches can also make it a part of their constitution/mission to safeguard children and all who are abused. In cases of caring for the abused, it takes a village. Churches and their members can offer safe spaces, food, basic needs, resources in the community, and someone to talk to. The worst thing the church can do in any situation of such grief is to ignore or deny the problem/situation. If the cross is truly part of the Church’s identity, we must be ready and willing to enter into the death and darkness of this world.”

“I have attended two ‘Safe-guarding God’s Children’ workshops through the ELCA.  I highly encourage that we students attend one of these training sessions.  After having done so, I saw that my home congregation was very negligent in having safety policies and screenings of volunteers working with children.  We immediately worked on implementing policies and guidelines, as well as background checking all volunteers. This convocation affirmed the necessity for continual reevaluation of policies and training.  I had not previously thought of the abuse that occurs with religion used as part of the abuse.  This was very eye opening to me.”

“My heart is broken, and also uplifted. I was hurt as a child, so it hit particularly close to home. The convocation shows a stark reality of the church’s failure, yet it offers hope because a room full of church leaders were similarly heartbroken. We will go into the church shaped by what we learned, protecting children, and perhaps leading predators to get the help they need. I also see the enormity of the work we have to do. There is no excuse for the church to have let itself become a place where predators go because it’s easy. The church has failed in this. And I hope we can make it succeed.”

“The subject of child abuse of all kinds is often taboo. This convocation brought the language to light. Child abuse must be talked about. The stigma towards admitting the church has a problem must be overcome. The Church can host community forums and offer training, or at least, a location for another organization to do trainings for their volunteers. Churches need a policy with an annual review. Volunteers must be trained. For the sake of children, complacency isn’t good enough. The topic needs to be brought out into the open.”

WHO GIVES VOICE TO ABUSED CHILDREN? By Victor I. Vieth, 2nd Year MA DL, Sr. Director and Founder, National Child Protection Training Center, Gundersen Health System, La Crosse, WI

In the 28 years I have worked with and for abused children, I have learned three things.

First, I learned that love and courage is often found in the midst of great sorrow. I know children who wrapped their bodies around a sibling to absorb the blows meant for a brother or sister. I know children who risked their lives by sneaking food or toys into the room of a sibling being tortured. I know children who bravely testified about sexual abuse even though their entire church had condemned them for speaking the truth. In many of these instances, the children expressed forgiveness, even compassion for those who hurt them.

Second, I have learned to see Jesus through the eyes of children. A survivor of abuse once told me she loves Jesus because he is a descendant of a sexually exploited woman (Heb 11:31; Mt 1:5; Josh 2). A boy told me he knew it was OK to flee his abusive parents because Jesus fled those who tried to kill him (Mt 2:16). Many survivors have told me they found the courage to stand up to their churches because Jesus challenged religious leaders who failed to practice “justice and mercy” (Mt. 23:23). Many survivors have found understanding in a God who was also a victim of abuse. To the survivors I’ve known, the radical words of Christ concerning children (e.g. Mt. 18:6; 18:10; 21:15-16; Luke 10:21), take on a much deeper meaning than for most of us.

Third, children have taught me to look for the “faithful remnant” (1 Ki 19:1-18). With the possible exception of the earliest days of Christianity, the church has seldom been a friend of abused children and, in many instances, has directly contributed to the abuse of children (e.g. Michael D’Antonio, Mortal Sins). Nonetheless, maltreated children have helped me see that although the church has largely abandoned them, there are often individual Christians who will extend a hand or go the extra mile even when doing so jeopardizes their career. This is the invisible church known only to God and those who are suffering.

 

TEN THINGS THE CHURCH CAN DO TO HELP ABUSED CHILDREN By Victor I. Vieth, 1st Year MA DL, Sr. Director and Founder, National Child Protection Training Center, Gundersen Health System, La Crosse, WI

 

“It is to the little children we must preach,
it is for them that the entire ministry exists.”
–Martin Luther

The academy awarding winning movie Spotlight has again focused attention on the relatively recent and widespread failure of the church to protect children from abuse or to respond with compassion when abuse is discovered. Although the church has made important strides in the past twenty-five years, church policies and training continue to lag behind research and what many national experts consider best practice. Although this article includes a checklist for improving church responses to the needs of maltreated children, it begins where it should–with the teachings of our Lord and an exploration of early church views on the maltreatment of children.

Jesus, child abuse and early church history

Jesus scolded the disciples for keeping children away from him and warned that it would be better to be drowned in the sea with a millstone around our neck than to hurt a child (Matthew 18:6). Jesus also had strong words for those who preached in His name but failed to care for those who were suffering—promising to one day tell these false Christians “I never knew you” (Matthew 7:23; Matthew 25:41-45).

The early Christians took seriously the words of Jesus and distinguished themselves by opposing the abuse and neglect of children that was common in the Greco-Roman world. In his book Bad Faith, Dr. Paul Offit writes:

Jesus’s message of love for children was embraced by his followers…the church was the first institution to provide refuge for abandoned children [and] the church put pressure on the state to legislate against practices that endangered children.

Ten things the church can to do help abused and neglected children:

  1. Make sure church child protection policies meet minimal standards 

The Centers for Disease Control has promulgated guidelines to assist churches and other youth serving organizations in developing and implementing child protection policies. The CDC guidelines, published under the heading Preventing Child Sexual Abuse within Youth Serving Organizations, are free and online. All churches should review and adhere to these guidelines.

  1. Make sure child protection policies address all forms of abuse

Most child protection policies, including those promulgated by the CDC, focus only on preventing child sexual abuse within a church or another organization. Although commendable, these policies exclude from protection children who are physically abused, emotionally abused or neglected. These policies also fail to protect most sexually abused children since the vast majority of these children are violated in their own homes. Since it is inconceivable that Jesus wanted his followers to protect only a fraction of the abused children in our pews, churches must expand their policies to include all the children in their care.

  1. Require pastors and other called workers, as well as all staff working with children, to be rigorously trained in recognizing and responding to child abuse and neglect

According to numerous studies, the vast majority of clergy and other mandated reporters fail to report even obvious signs of child abuse. When working with survivors, clergy often fail to make appropriate referrals or to coordinate pastoral care with medical and mental health care. In these and other failures, a lack of training plays a significant role. Seminaries should work with child protection experts in addressing this issue before graduating clergy or other called workers and major denominations should require continuing education on these issues.

  1. Provide personal safety education to children participating in church programs 

According to several studies, children are more likely to disclose abuse if they have received personal safety education. This instruction is easily provided and numerous organizations, including the Jacob Wetterling Resource Center, have a wealth of information to help churches in providing this essential instruction.

  1. Develop effective child protection and faith collaborations 

The Office of Victims of Crime encourages churches to collaborate with child protection agencies. In Minnesota, for example, an organization called Care in Action helps churches connect with child protection agencies to meet the needs of abused and neglected children in their communities. When an abused child has a need the government can’t provide, such as the entry fee to little league baseball, faith communities share this need with their parishioners and, invariably, one or more Christians agree to help. It is a simple way for churches to share their faith—and to make at least a small difference in the lives of maltreated children.

  1. Have church resources for child abuse survivors 

Clergy and churches should have brochures and other information for families seeking counseling or other services in response to maltreatment. Church libraries should have books and other materials families can easily access. Church websites should include helpful links that will aid families seeking help discreetly.

  1. Address the spiritual impact of child abuse 

Dozens of studies, involving more than 19,000 abused children, document that many abused and neglected children are not only impacted physically and emotionally but also spiritually. This may happen when religion is used in the abuse of a child or simply because the child has spiritual questions such as unanswered prayers to stop the abuse. The American Psychological Association has noted the importance of addressing the spiritual impact of abuse and numerous experts have called for coordinated medical, mental health and pastoral care. The church should be front and center in meeting this critical need.

  1. Tell parents God allows them to discipline their children without hitting them

According to the CDC, as many as 28% of children in the United States are hit to the point of receiving an injury. Often-times, this is done by parents who were lead to believe the Bible requires corporal punishment. Numerous biblical scholars, conservative as well as liberal, have concluded the scriptures do not require parents to hit their children. Unfortunately, pastors are often afraid to make this clear to their parishioners because corporal punishment is deeply ingrained in our culture. Every major and medical health organization in the United States discourages hitting children as a means of discipline and it is time for the church to join this chorus.

  1. Deliver a sermon or conduct a Bible study on child abuse 

Over the years, numerous survivors of child abuse have told me they left the church not because clergy or other faith leaders abused them but because these leaders never spoke up about abuse. One survivor told me that during the years her father was sexually abusing her she desperately wanted to hear a sermon or a Sunday School lesson condemning the abuse of children. She never heard that message and, when she became an adult, she walked away from a church she deemed indifferent to the suffering of children. Still another survivor told me “I used to spend my Sunday evenings listening to the podcasts of all the area churches desperately hoping to find a message about child abuse. I never heard that message and I finally just gave up.”

  1. Listen to the needs of survivors 

Many survivors want the simplest things from their pastors and churches. A woman abused while her father hummed a certain hymn wanted to return to the church but was afraid of hearing that hymn and losing control of her emotions. Another survivor was abused on a church altar and needed to be ministered to in a facility without altars or the traditional symbols that comfort others but were used to violate her tiny frame. These and other survivors are not asking for much but, in order to meet their needs, we must first hear their voices. 

Conclusion 

Although millions of child abuse survivors have fled the church, many of them tell me they still cling to Christ. “I love Jesus,” one survivor told me, “because he knows what it is like to be abused.” Another survivor told me that when he feels abandoned by his church, he recalls that Jesus was also rejected by the religious leaders of his era. The fact that so many survivors align themselves with Christ, but not organized religion, is a stark reminder of how far the church has fallen away from the teachings and example of Jesus. It is also a reminder that if we truly desire to find Jesus, we will need to look among the children.