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