Christians and the struggle to report child abuse

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Police Tape - photo courtesy of Ian Britton via Flickr

Police Tape - photo courtesy of Ian Britton via Flickr

I recently came across a legal alert from a Christian organization that directs pastors who learn of suspected child abuse to first conduct their own internal investigation “to decide whether the situation requires reporting to the authorities.”  Yikes!

As I work with churches and other Christian institutions, I often encounter professing Christians who struggle with whether they should first report suspected child abuse to the civil authorities.   As above, they are often directed to report abuse suspicions to leadership who then decide whether or not to involve the authorities. Double yikes!!

A church elder once told me that if he received a disclosure of child sexual abuse, his first response would be to interview the alleged victim. His rationale was that he wanted to “be sure that the allegations are legitimate before reporting to the police and ruining the man’s reputation”.  When asked what training he had to conduct a child forensic interview, the man was silent.  When asked whether he wanted the responsibility to determine the validity of a very serious felony, he started to shrink back in his chair.  I then asked whether he was prepared to violate mandated reporting laws.  Fortunately, the elder got my point, changed his opinion, and acknowledged his need to learn more about child sexual abuse.  An issue often at the heart of this critical struggle is whether the Church is obligated to subject itself to the laws of man when it believes that it is capable to address the sin “in-house”.

Police Tape - photo courtesy of Ian Britton via Flickr

Police Tape – photo courtesy of Ian Britton via Flickr

Let’s make sure we all understand one important truth, child sexual abuse is both a sin AND a serious crime.  In order to effectively carry out its responsibility of protecting children and punishing perpetrators, all 50 states have laws that mandate certain citizens to report suspected neglect or abuse of children. Violation of mandated reporting laws not only fails to protect children, but also enables the perpetrator to avoid criminal prosecution.  Scripture says, For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good (Romans 13:4).  This clearly indicates that a central purpose of civil government is to do good. If that is the case, can there be any greater good carried out by civil government than to punish citizens who violate laws designed to protect society’s most vulnerable members?  In order to carry out this good, the authorities must be notified of the alleged offense.   [tweetable]Governments are incapable of protecting little ones and punishing offenders if its citizens remain silent in the face of such evil.[/tweetable]

Besides biblical and legal grounds for reporting suspected abuse to authorities, there are also practical reasons to do so.  The government has the exclusive authority to unilaterally remove children from guardians who are inflicting physical and/or emotionally harm.   However, this can’t happen if the authorities are not notified of the suspected maltreatment. Oftentimes, a child’s very survival is dependent upon whether we take the initiative and report.   There should be little debate within the Christian community that the protection and survival of children is a God ordained responsibility that we cannot neglect or excuse.

Why do some churches and Christian organizations seem to struggle with encouraging members to report the suspected abuse of a child?   At the heart of the struggle is a fear that is rooted in the need to self-protect. It is a fear of losing the “good reputation” of a ministry, it is a fear of losing ministry donors, it is the fear of losing congregation members, it is a fear of losing a ministry altogether.  All such “fears” are usually masked by a rationale that the reporting of such abuse may “damage the reputation of Christ”.  Do you see the great tragedy?  It is a fear fueled by protecting self. This has nothing to do with Jesus.

The Gospel tells Christians that our identity is in Christ alone, and that our reputation and all that we possess belongs to Him.  Another way of putting it is that apart from Christ’s accomplishment, we have no reputation and we possess nothing.    This Gospel-centered perspective gives us great freedom to confess, confront and expose sin without fear of earthly consequences.   This Gospel-centered perspective liberates us to sacrifice personal and institutional reputations if doing so protects and preserves the lives of His little ones. Isn’t that what God did for us?  He sacrificed His reputation, His supporters, His ministry, and even His very own life in order to protect and redeem.  This Gospel centered perspective should drive us to expend ourselves in protecting children, regardless of the consequences to our church, ministry, or our very own lives.

The next time someone tells you that reporting suspected abuse of children may “hurt the reputation of Christ”, tell them to stop protecting themselves. Tell them that the reputation of Jesus is reflected in how we love and protect children.  Tell them that the reputation of Jesus is only damaged when we turn away and leave grievous sin alone in the darkness of silence.



  • Shary Hauber

    Thank you Boz. Teaching each of us to accept our responsibility to children. We need obey the laws that protect children.

  • mike

    This is what happens when institutions police themselves. It doesn’t get reported and people are harmed.

    The following letter was sent to Rita Flaherty of the Pittsburgh Diocese. She responded that it was passed on to the appropriate people.

    Hello Rita Flaherty,
    Can you review this information with the appropriate people at the diocese. I believe the attempted murder of my son could have been avoided if the Pittsburgh Diocese had properly reacted to the many warnings received about Father John Wellinger, a credibly accused sexual predator.

    I also want this letter passed on to Bishop David Zubik, can you advise how I can best do this.
    Please respond that you did receive this message. I can be reached at 412-233-5491

    Mike Ference

    An open letter to Bishop David Zubik, Pittsburgh Diocese

    Could the attempted murder of my son, Adam Ference been averted if diocesan hierarchy had properly supervised former Catholic priest Father John Wellinger.

    Please review my allegations, noting which ones are true or false. If you need additional information, I would gladly provide it.

    Question 1. Allegedly, in the first quarter of 1987 Fr. John Wellinger, a priest of the Pittsburgh diocese and pastor of Holy Spirit Parish in West Mifflin, PA, drugged a University of Pittsburgh student in an apartment that the victim shared with his older brother, also a Pitt student.

    According to the victim, he was knocked out for hours. When he awoke, he intuitively called 911. After rushing downstairs, against the wishes of Fr Wellinger,
    the teenage victim flag down meet the ambulance and the attending EMTs in the street.

    The allegation of the rest of the event goes as follows:

    The ambulance whisked away to Presbyterian University Hospital emergency room (now University of Pittsburgh Medical Center; UPMC). Fr. Wellinger allegedly followed the young victim to the hospital. Upon finding him in the emergency room, the victim requested that Wellinger find his nurse. When the nurse returned the victim would explain that Wellinger was the man who had drugged him.

    Wellinger was ushered out by the nurse. To the best of my knowledge police were not notified; not even a security guard from the hospital. The victim was not examined by a doctor. In other words, the entire event was covered-up.

    The parents of the victim came to the hospital and took their son home. Furthermore, I was told by then Clairton Public Safety Director William Scully, in January of 1990, that a hospital worker, possibly a social worker, warned the parents to not take on the Pittsburgh diocese, because they are too powerful and wealthy.

    I can provide the victim’s name and contact information to verify my story.

    Bishop David Zubik is this event TRUE or FALSE. If it’s true, the attempted murder of my son could have been averted.

    Question 2. Allegedly, a few days after the above event, the victim’s father searched out Wellinger at the parish house. At the time, Wellinger was holding a parish council meeting. So, there were plenty of witnesses present, including the victim’s mother. The victim’s father was angry, because Andreas Wellinger had allegedly drugged his son and possibly raped and sodomized him. The man was also angry over an outing that lasted all night long between Wellinger and his wife. According to an eyewitness Wellinger was ushered out a back door and the West Mifflin Police were called.
    Concerned for the safety of Fr. Wellinger, parish council members ushered the priest out the back door and called the West Mifflin Police. Parish councils were logically concerned, because the victim’s father may have been intoxicated and carrying a weapon.

    Is there evidence of any police report? Did the father would receive notification from attorneys for the Diocese of Pittsburgh to stay away from Father John Wellinger and to stay off Holy Spirit property in West Mifflin, PA.

    Bishop David Zubik is this event TRUE or FALSE. If it’s true, the attempted murder of my son could have been averted.

    Question 3. An allegation was brought to my attention within the past year or two, by a Catholic priest who stated to me via telephone that a person by the last name of Volmer went to Father Charles Bober in 1987 and warned Bober about Fr Wellinger’s deviant behavior. To the best of my knowledge, nothing was done.

    Bishop David Zubik is this event TRUE or FALSE. If it’s true, the attempted murder of my son could have been averted.

    Question 4. Sometime in 1988, the personal secretary of Father Wellinger allegedly went to the Pittsburgh diocese and spoke to Father Ronald Lengwin about Wellinger’s deviant behavior. She also reported that a teenage boy used the rectory as his home for the longest time and enjoyed making 900 calls to porn sites, while costing the parish hundreds, if not thousands of dollars.

    Sadly, the women whom I interviewed would be labeled as a rumor-monger, and once again, Bishop Bevilacqua and would err on the side of dysfunctional sex freak, Fr John Wellinger, rather than erring on the side of caution.

    Bishop David Zubik is this event TRUE or FALSE. If it’s true, the attempted murder of my son could have been averted.

    Question 5. A suicide occurred in Father John Wellinger’s parish in 1989. According to then Clairton Public Safety Director William Scully, the suicide allegedly was linked to Wellinger. Scully said that he just didn’t have the needed proof. The boy was a 16 year old who took a gun to his head and pulled the trigger.

    According to Scully, the boy had an interest in the occult and Satanism. Wellinger would hold a seminar on occult practice and Satanism months later.

    Bishop David Zubik is this event TRUE or FALSE. If it’s true, the attempted murder of my son could have been averted.

    Here’s her response:
    I did receive your email and will share it with the appropriate people here. If you want to send a letter to Bishop Zubik, you can send it to him at:

    Bishop David Zubik
    Diocese of Pittsburgh
    111 Blvd. of the Allies
    Pittsburgh, PA 15222

    Have a good afternoon!
    Rita Flaherty

  • Shawn Ferrie

    The issue of the young University of Pittsburgh student not receiving a S.A. kit in hospital, police intervention or sexual assault counselling while in the emergency has more to do with the fact that we refuse to acknowledge men as victims of Sexual Assault.
    Do you truly believe this would have occurred if the victim was a female student? No it would not have happened and should not happen. The gender of the victim or the gender of the offender does not alter the fact that a crime was possibly committed and should be investigated as such.
    We have to remove gender from the equation if we are ever going to make a difference in the stats of sexual violence

  • Oh Boz,
    THANK YOU! SIMPLY.. Thankyou

  • mike ference


    Thanks for your response. I have tried for years to bring this case to the attention of the University of Pittsburgh, UPMC (University of Pittsburgh Medical Center) the city of Pittsburgh, district Attorneys office, Pittsburgh Diocese, FBI, US Attorney for western PA, PA Attorney General, etc. Sadly, there is simply enough corruption and enough Roman Cowards in PA that anything can be covered up.

    To learn more about the system-wide corruption in PA visit my blog at

  • Monique

    The people that I know who are afraid to report these kinds of allegations to civil authorities feel that way because of false accusations that have ruined the lives of friends and coworkers in the past. In modern American society, merely an accusation of this nature shows up on a background check, even if no charges are filed because the police determine that the child was never harmed or threatened. A groundless accusation made by a child mad at his teacher ruined the career of that teacher. How does such a practice help protect our children?

  • Elisabeth Grace

    I knew a woman who turned to her pastor because she discovered something happened to her youngest child (my guess is that the abuse was between siblings). She had no one else to turn to as her husband was overseas, serving in the military. The pastor told the woman that if she said one more word that he would have to call the police – that he was required by law to report abuse disclosed to him. So he told her to stop speaking and to leave his office immediately. That was the end of it – for him. There is so much work to be done.

  • Lynn Adams

    Thank you, Boz. “He sacrificed His reputation, His supporters, His ministry, and even His very own life in order to protect and redeem.” Yes. Report. Yes.

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  • Jenn

    And “founded” abuse allegations against my parents did not ruin their careers, and my step-mother continued to provide private babysitting services even when the parents were directly notified of her records…because she was “such a sweet woman at church.” So it does go both ways. The system is not perfect, but I’d say we should err on the side of protecting the children.

  • Britain doesn’t have mandatory reporting laws. In Britain, a head teacher (school principal) can know that a member of staff has raped a student on school premises, and the head has no legal obligation to report nything to anybody.

    A few years ago, I learned that the school my son attended, St Benedict’s School Ealing (attached to Ealing Abbey, had a long history of abuse (fortunately my son was not among the victims). I campaigned to get the school to change its safeguarding policies and automatically report all incidents and suspicions to the authorities.

    They fought me all the way, and it took four years of solid campaigning to get them to make the change.

  • Jenna

    My church was outwardly very supportive of mandatory notification laws, even telling congregants that the church policy was that one shouldn’t even ask the pastor before reporting abuse. However, the reality was different when abuse actually occurred. The pastor told me and my friends not to report a case. It was however reported independently of us. Then the pastor validated the perpetrator by bemoaning the laws that he claimed could potentially damage innocent men’s reputations. The perpetrator found this attitude quite common and has since attended many different churches to get support. The victims no longer go to church, finding it harder and harder to get protection there. Oh and by the way, the perpetrator was successfully prosecuted but his church supporters dismiss this as the secular world system, congratulating themselves on doing a better job of reaching out and changing the life of a perpetrator who they don’t realize has played them like a well-tuned violin.

  • Thank you for this article. I have experienced two churches and three pastors who kept silent while one of their staff molested young boys. Each time he was accused, they fired him but kept quiet about the reason why. He repeated his abuse in other churches and schools because of the cowardly silence of others. Their excuse was that they didn’t want to stir up division in the church, or ruin his reputation, or affect his marriage (his wife didn’t know). Each of those who kept quiet are in part responsible for horrific trauma (and an alleged suicide) in the lives of his victims.

  • Susan

    Hey Jim Berg…you might wanna read this.

  • Oscar

    Churches and Missions are in the business of expanding, protecting their assets and doing whatever it takes to grow. Children do not generate an income, but members do.
    This is why there are so many excuses for protecting the suspect or guilty (if it is proven) and little initiative to protect children.

    An example from my past:

    I grew up in a missionary boarding school. Our neighbour was turned in by his victim, prosecuted and jailed. The victim sort assistance from the mission and asked that the case be made public. The mission denied both requests and covered up the incarceration of the offender, never inquiring if he had further victims.
    However when the mission found out the offender may have been embezzled mission finances, they flew two high level members across international borders to confront him about it.

    The point being, money was the only concern they had!

  • Michael Skiendzielewski

    As they say, this isn’t rocket science……….The Roman Catholic Church did next to nothing to stop certain sexual abusing clergy who were preying on the most innocent of our faithful other than to move them from one location to another and put other children and young adults at risk, some of whom became additional victims of the most evil, criminal and life-destroying conduct and behavior that man is capable of on this earth. This occurred in towns, neighborhoods, cities, states, and countries around the globe and to this day, not a single religious leader, cardinal or bishop, has been held accountable for his failure to stop the physical and psychological carnage that was perpetrated on the victims and their families.

    Michael Skiendzielewski
    Captain (Retired)
    Philadelphia Police Dept.

  • Mary Spaulding

    It’s the age old story that the child wouldn’t know whether the touch was okay or not. My uncle touched me in a not okay way and I told no one until I was an adult and then it was because my mother was going to take my nieces up to see this aunt and uncle. When I told my father his first question was ‘how old were you.’ I was 4 years old and I new it was wrong. But somehow it seemed to be my fault. I didn’t tell because I was ashamed. Please believe the children.

  • Korrine Britton

    Not only Jim Berg, but also the entirety of “leadership” at BJU need to read this with some degree of comprehension!

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  • Joy

    I’m afraid that most at BJUers can’t get beyond their loyalty to the institution (no matter how obvious the credibility issues are) to be able to think at this level.

    One at BJUNews said: “I was happier to hear that BJU had broken the relationship with GRACE than that they had entered into it in the first place. It was in GRACE’s power to damage BJU by publishing that confidential letter–and they did. But GRACE has also wounded itself. If it doesn’t reach a deal with BJU, GRACE will find it more difficult to attract paying customers in the future. GRACE can fend off something like an ABWE or a Prairie Bible Institute if they’re one of a kind, but adding BJU to the list indicates a trend; and another institution (even one with precious little love for BJU) won’t be doing due diligence unless they look hard before leaping into GRACE’s embrace. On the other hand, if GRACE should reach an accommodation with BJU, you folks will bemoan the sell out. So, in my opinion, GRACE has shot its wad.”

    BJU Facebook about GRACE termination (one of many similar):
    “Hurray! Very good news.”

    Feb 7 Relieved and Thankful I have never seen Dr. Jones more persuasive and forceful. I saw the power of his great-grandfather this morning. Thank you, Dr. Stephen. Thank you for taking a stand and doing the right thing.

  • Andrew

    Don’t forget that all those applauding the termination are made without BJU giving any definitive reasons for the termination. So far all they have said are leadership changes, concerns about how GRACE was pursuing BJU’s objectives, and reasons they have not shared with GRACE or “anybody else”. Blind loyalty.

  • Mike – So true, so tragic. Thanks for sharing a real life illustration.

  • Monique – You have demonstrated the heart of the problem…greater concern for the reputation of an adult than the life and soul of a child. Consistent research has found that between 1%-5% of child sexual abuse reports are false. In a vast majority of those cases, the truth eventually surfaces during the investigation/prosecution process. One false allegation is too much – however, why is it that so many Christians focus 95% of their concerns on 5% of the problem?

    Regardless, thanks for your comment.

  • Hard to believe that a pastor would stop a person from disclosing the abuse of a child out of fear of having to report such to the authorities! God help us. You are right, so much work to be done. Thanks for your note.

  • Jenna – You are correct. There is a major difference between having a child protection policy and following it. It is up to church members to insure that leadership has adopted a policy AND is following it. Thanks!

  • Mary – I am so very sorry. Abuse undoubtedly flourishes when we value adults over children. Thank you for being a light and for sharing this painful truth.

  • Boz –

    “Real life illustration”?

    With all due respect … What do we actually know about Mike Ference, who has posted on the Internet before, and the claims he is making here?

    Yes, allegations *must* be reported to the police right away, but that does not mean we wholeheartedly swallow and trumpet each and every allegation from decades ago as undeniably true or “real life.”

    Thanks for reading.

    Dave Pierre

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  • Larry

    Not for nothing Dave, but you are hardly an objective voice on the subject of clergy child abuse. Your website is one big apologia for the Catholic Church.

    Your stance is repugnant. An automatic dismissal of claims without personal knowledge. Although you state that allegations must be reported right away, it comes off as a CYA. You do not appear to be interested in the actions of churches to confound and obstruct such investigations.

  • Gloria Montgomery

    This was such a good article that I feel makes it quite clear the responsibility of congreatations in cases of child abuse. I am looking to make a presentation about this very topic for my church and I would like to know if you know of a guide or other materials I can use to make sure my presentation is comprehensive to cover all aspects the congregation should be aware of when dealing with cases of child abuse in the church.

    I will certainly appreciate any more information you can provide.

    Gloria Montgomery

  • Michael Skiendzielewski

    Yes, allegations *must* be reported to the police right away, but that does not mean we wholeheartedly swallow and trumpet each and every allegation from decades ago as undeniably true or “real life.” -.

    Wow, are you sure this is David Pierre? Sure sounds like William Donohue.

  • There is *ABSOLUTELY NOTHING* in my comment that indicates “an automatic dismissal of claims without personal knowledge.”

    Your false attack on me highlights another very important factor of this topic: Many people are simply unable to discuss and debate this issue *honestly*.

    Dave Pierre

  • Larry

    You started off casting aspersions on the speaker rather than discussing the claims made. That is pretty damn close to an automatic dismissal of claims. It does nothing for appearances of objectivity or credibility on your part.

    Your website discusses the abuse scandals from a POV of incredulity. You are coming from a view that the allegations are bogus on their face.

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  • Andrew

    Elder at North Hills Community Church in SC (church home of several BJU students) responds to BJU/GRACE:

  • Andrew
  • Thank you, once again, Boz, for hitting the nail on the head of the reporting process. Thank you for clearly speaking the truth as to how abuse should be handles. Thank you, even more, for speaking the words that no one really wants to hear, even when they are correct and right.

    It is because of your courage, along with the courage of all my “sisters and brothers” who have been hurt that I was able to speak my truth without fear.

  • Andrew
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  • Cindi

    How can someone who has no association with a particular church or organization step in and tell those leaders how to handle these things?

    I have a family member who’s causing a lot of trouble for quite a few pastors because after many years she’s choosing to make allegations about abuse that are now decades old.

    How come everyone seems to assume that even if a “victim” is telling the truth she doesn’t have ulterior motives, namely, bitterness, anger, spite and revenge, when she decides to bring it all back up after decades?

    I know my family members story, and sure, it’s true, it’s horrific and the things done –terrible,…

    But since the statute of limitations was extended why is it okay that a “victim” gets to decide she can overturn the lives of elderly men (grandfathers) and their families because as my selfish family member says, “I want justice….they’re guilty?”

    How is such selfish motives Christlike?

    Mr. Tchvidjian, as a Christian are you okay with that?

  • Jonathan West

    If they are guilty, is there any reason why she should be denied justice?

  • Dan Keller

    Why should justice be denied to any victim at any time?

  • roy


    I share the following comments based partly from my experience of being the father, brother, and uncle of sexual assault victims. In addition, my best friend’s older brother attempted to sexually assault me when I was young and I did not share this for decades out of embarrassment and the fear of losing the relationship with my friend.

    The victim’s motives are between her and the Lord. Victims are not excused from obeying the Lord, but we need to be very careful about judging another’s motives.

    You state, “why is it okay that a “victim” gets to decide she can overturn the lives of elderly men (grandfathers)…” These “grandfathers” made decisions to perpetrate evil on your family member. The moment they made that decision they are the ones that took the risk that their lives would be overturned! It certainly sounds like they “overturned” the life of your relative.

    Regarding the timing of a when a victim speaks up, there are many reasons a victim may not speak up at the time of the abuse… many victims are threatened and manipulated in a variety of ways to discourage them from ever telling what happened. When they finally gain the strength to speak up they experience a variety of emotions. Many times they worry about being believed, or are made to believe the assault was somehow their fault and it might be decades before it becomes clear enough to fully comprehend that the fault lies completely at the feet of the abuser(s). Frankly, your response exemplifies one of the reasons many victims don’t come forward.

    Many perpetrators have a reputation of respect, kindness, and godliness… such a well-established reputation that people do not want to believe that the abuser is capable of the evil acts they commit – even after they admit to them. Please do not assume that just because someone is old and a grandfather that they are no longer potentially dangerous perpetrators. I personally know of two men that were extremely well respected church-going, ministry-leading Christian men that sexually assaulted their daughters when they were young men and later sexually assaulted their own granddaughters as elderly men.

    Cindi, you say family member’s story is “true” and “horrific”. I believe your family member is a hero and might just save someone else from being a victim because she is speaking up. I encourage you to choose to love and actively support your family member even if her emotions seem a bit raw to you right now. I say “actively” support because many people will express support but quickly fade to a passive silence around the victim (which is not support) while actively being around the perpetrator(s) supporting them as if they are victims because someone exposed their shameful, sinful, illegal actions.

    I pray that our gracious God will give you a heart of compassion for your family member.

    In Christ,


  • Cindi

    I realize my family member may well be in a lot of pain. As it so happens, the grandfathers are real people and so are their families and members of their churches–they’re having a painful time also.

    She refuses to discuss it with the church as ordered in Matthew 18 and to consider as a professing Christian to bear wrong for sake of Christ and the church rather than demand it be decided before unbelievers (I Corinthians 6:1-10).

    Furthermore, I’m not referring to the things that may have happened when she was a small girl, I’m referring to allegations from when she was 13, 14, 15, 16-year-old. It depends on whether it was forcible rape or statutory “rape” — the consensual type between a minor and adults. If it were consensual she’s guilty too.

  • Shary Hauber

    Cindi it does not matter how old the abuse was. No teenage is allowed to give consent. Yes Grandfathers are real people and can also be real rapist. Guilty is guilty. Crimes are not to be handles by the church but by government by God. A church that does not take abuse to the civil authorities is not following the Bible.

    My question why do you trust children to be with him? You are part of the problem of why this grandfather was not caught years ago. Your attitude of cover up is why now there are thousands of adults trying to deal with the damage done to them as children. How many of the children in his family have been abused. If your attitude is the family attitude you will not hear about the children who have been abused for years.

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  • Lori

    There are more reasons not to report than just the ones you’ve named. Although the case I wonder about is not in our church, I am also very familiar with the corruption in the foster case system, which is legion (see the book The Franklin Scandal and a recent news report about how many foster homes in a Florida city have a registered sex offender residing there, for example). The relative who would be willing to take in the victims, in our case, invited abusers to their home and repeatedly exposed known victims to their abusers, though they did not perpetrate the sexual abuse themselves. So, the question in my case is, which is worse? I’ve questioned adult victims of abuse (which occurred in childhood) about what they would have wanted, and so far, none of them have been able to answer anything beyond “I don’t know.”

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  • Elaine

    How do you deal with a person who is aggressive towards your child like taking them down by hooking their arm around your child’s neck and tickling them in a hurtful way. This is a man against my daughter. He has other offenses and is not dealt with. We left the church but I am seriously concerned for others.

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