On-the-job training isn’t working

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Learning time - photo courtesy of Temari 09 via Flickr

Learning time - photo courtesy of Temari 09 via Flickr

The on-the-job training of pastors and other faith leaders in preventing and responding to child sexual abuse isn’t working – it is dangerous and all too often has devastating consequences. A problem with on-the-job training is that it allows for mistakes. That is okay when you are cooking hamburgers, but not when it involves the safety of children. It is not okay when it involves an abuse survivor who quietly suffers in the pew. It is not okay when it involves a perpetrator who exploits ignorance in order to victimize children and avoid getting caught.

Inadequately trained leaders are simply not equipped to protect the children under their care from offenders who spend a lifetime perfecting their ability to gain the trust of adults in order to access children. According to a national survey conducted by Christianity Today, 20% of Christian church leaders said they knew of at least one convicted sex offender who was attending or was a member of their church. This doesn’t include the sex offenders in their midst who have never been caught! Without pastors receiving substantive training about the dynamics of child sexual abuse and those who abuse, churches will never be safe places. On-the-job training all too often results in greater harm to the very individuals who are most in need of protection and help.

When it comes to responding to abuse, the Christian community has been shackled by inadequate preparation and training. For example, most pastors don’t know how to recognize abuse, report abuse, or to work with families impacted by abuse. I once read about a study of 143 clergy of various faiths in which 29% believed that actual evidence of abuse, as opposed to suspicion was necessary before a report could be made. Such a mistaken belief naturally results in the under-reporting of suspected abuse cases. This same study concluded that at some level, the 143 clergy participants impacted the lives of 23,841 children!

The issues related to the sexual abuse of children are many and complex. All the more reason that training must begin before-the-job, not on-the-job. Training must begin at the same time church leaders are being equipped to study scripture, preach, counsel, and administrate. What I am trying to say is that the equipping of pastors and church leaders on how to understand and address child sexual abuse must begin in our seminaries. And that’s exactly what we are going to do…

Learning time - photo courtesy of Temari 09 via Flickr

Learning time – photo courtesy of Temari 09 via Flickr

GRACE recently convened a team of Christian theologians, pastors, counselors, educators, and child protection professionals who have each demonstrated a commitment to protecting children and serving survivors. This historic committee has embraced the task of developing the first substantive seminary curriculum designed to educate and train Christian leaders on effective prevention and ministry responses to child sexual abuse. Our objective is to develop this curriculum in such a way that it can be easily adapted into virtually any seminary curriculum. Here is just a sampling of topics that this curriculum must cover if we are going to equip the next generation to help transform our churches into safe communities for children and survivors:

  • Characteristics of child sexual abuse and its many permutations
  • The profile and common behavioral characteristics of sexual offenders
  • Common spiritual impacts of child sexual abuse
  • A child’s perception of sexual abuse
  • Biblical and theological foundations for child protection
  • Best practices in child protection policies
  • Mandated reporting laws
  • Best practices in responding to active sexual abuse allegations in a Christian environment
  • Basic understanding of the current techniques clinicians use when working with abuse victims
  • Understanding of the purpose and value of professional mental health care for victims and perpetrators
  • Characteristics of the abusing families
  • Confronting past abuse within a church

I’ve never encountered an abuse victim who was grateful that their pastor had no training on how to prevent abuse. I’ve never encountered a parent who was relieved to learn that their pastor had no idea how to address the many spiritual questions associated with the sexual abuse of their child. I’ve never encountered a survivor who preferred that their pastor not understand the hell they have been stuck in for years as a result of being violated as a child.

Teaching - photo courtesy  of Barbara Krawcowicz via Flickr

Teaching – photo courtesy of Barbara Krawcowicz via Flickr

What I have encountered are children who were victimized in churches that refused to acknowledge the importance of taking proactive steps to protect. What I have encountered are survivors and their families who struggle to find a pastor who is equipped or even interested in working through their deep spiritual questions associated with this horrific offense. What I have encountered are scores of survivors who spend years searching for someone inside the church who understands their dark journey and is willing to walk with them. Most of these aching souls eventually lose hope, stop searching, and walk away.

I realize that not all pastors and church leaders attend seminary. However, this curriculum is a major step in the right direction. A direction that will lead to a Christian community that better protects children and is able to connect with survivors and walk alongside them.

There is no reason any of us should accept the status quo of on-the-job training when it comes to the protection and care of God’s children. We can do better. We must do better. The invaluable lives of those made in God’s image deserve nothing less.

Stay tuned…

  • April 1st

    When we found out our daughter and 3 other girls were sexually abused by our youth pastor and his brother, the first thing out of our pastors mouth was ” we are all lawyered up and this is going to cost us a bundle.” The very next Sunday he preached that woman who get together and have coffee gossip! He did not really care what happened to the girls, he was just worried what this would do to the church if anyone found out! So seminary would be a good place to start, but training for ALL staff, volunteers, parents and students must be part of the solution. Knowlege is prevention!

  • richard

    I wish we’d just blast all sex offenders and enablers off into space

  • Lori

    This is wonderful news, very encouraging to hear!

  • cnner

    please let us know how we can contribute (financially) to make this happen as fast as possible

  • Bob

    You say “I realize that not all pastors and church leaders attend seminary.” It seems to me that an even bigger problem is that many pastors have already completed seminary, and therefore won’t be helped by additions that are made now to the seminary curriculum. I don’t think we want to delay addressing the problem for a decade or two until people who are currently in seminary are pastoring churches.

    I’d also hope that something will be said about how to keep Christian youth workers safe from false accusation. There was an incident in my area a number of years ago in which a hearing was held to remove a youth pastor because two teenage girls under his care said that he had propositioned them for sex. A friend of mine was at the hearing, and said the only thing that saved the youth pastor was that, unbeknownst to the girls, he had secretly made a tape recording of the conversation, in which they had propositioned him for sex and had threatened to falsely accuse him if he didn’t agree. What I find particularly troubling about this incident is that I’m not at all sure I approve of a pastor secretly tape recording what was supposed to be a private counseling session. Yet if he hadn’t, he would have been out of a job and quite possibly permanently out of the ministry and any kind of youth work.

  • Dan Keller

    As a ministry professional, I know how inadequately prepared many church workers are regarding abuse issues. And, seminary, which is essential, doesn’t prepare pastors and teachers for many things that happen in ministry. Skills have to be practiced and learned. Mainline denominations have programs in place to address these issues. It is imperative our evangelical brothers and sisters get up to speed. It is important to learn both the legal aspects of an effective child/youth/vulnerable adult abuse policy, and the signs of abuse. Call your local police or sheriff’s office – they may have trained professional who can train ministry professionals and volunteers. Find out what resources are available in your area and develop relationships with them. You may need these resource people some day and they’ll be happy to talk with you and become a well-trained ministry worker. God’s Kingdom needs vigilant people to care for the young and vulnerable.

  • Beth Wilson

    To be honest the church does a piss poor job with all forms of abuse. I know of pastors asking abused wives to over-look the abuse. The church has failed abuse victims over & over again because they don’t want to deal with the perpetrator or hold them accountable. it’s an epidemic in the church & has been for years.
    If Jesus is our standard, He was certainly bold about sin & didn’t let the sinner deny their sin. Sadly these men (church leaders) of God come across as weak & cowardly. How hard is it to grow a spine?

  • Jenn Riedy

    This is all good…BUT…you do realize that children are also abused physically and emotionally as well, right? And that clergy also have a mandated duty to report physical and emotional abuse? I know this is a very tricky area to cover, what with some more conservative sects thinking it is okay and even Biblical to beat a child until the child has bruises. But the physical and emotional abuse needs to stop too!

    And as Beth mentioned, there is also the issue of spousal abuse, though recently I’ve seen claims that 40% of spousal abuse victims are MALE.

    I understand that as an organization GRACE wants to focus on sexual abuse of children. But it seems like if a curriculum is being developed for an entire seminary course, there should be focus on ALL of these types of abuse, and how to handle them.

  • Bob

    I’d actually recommend, instead, contacting the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Unlike your local police force, the NCMEC deals with this sort of thing all the time and consequently has a lot more expertise on it.

  • Bob

    You really can’t address the issue of sexual abuse of children without also addressing their physical and emotional abuse, since a sexual abuser will often employ physical and emotional abuse to coerce a child into complying with sexual abuse.

  • Agreed! Good point.

  • Jenn – I completely agree with you. Child sexual abuse is seldom perpetrated apart from emotional, spiritual, and other forms of physical abuse. This curriculum will have to address that tragic reality. However, the focus of this particular curriculum will be child sexual abuse with the hope that this may just be the first of many curriculums developed that address abuse within the Church. Much work to do…

  • Dan – Great points, thank you. Many of the mainline denominations are taking the issue of prevention very seriously and have created some extremely solid resources. Much of the evangelical world is still coming to the realization that this is an issue that it must address. The good news is that this realization is happening. The bad news is that it all too often happens at the expense of little human lives. Thanks for sharing your wisdom on this issue.

  • Thank you. Since GRACE is funding this historical endeavor with its own monies, we are more than happy to accept donations to help offset the costs. You can give by going to http://www.netgrace.org and clicking the “Give” tab on the homepage. When you give, please designate that the gift is for the seminary curriculum development. Again, thank you!

  • I am so sorry and disgusted at the response of your church to this horrific offense. Would they have responded in the same way had 4 children been murdered? I highly doubt it. The double standard when it comes to sexual offenses is incredibly evil and so destructive. My prayer is that this curriculum will be a major step forward to making sure other families never experience what you all went through at the hands of an ignorant and self-centered church. Again, thank you for sharing and for your encouragement.

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  • gingoro

    Leaders of para Church organizations and Christian teachers need the same kind of training. Evangelical missions like SIM Canada are still in denial that anything bad happened under their ministries. Diamond Fractal by Keegan and Kayser is a book that just came out this year.  It tells the story of a missionary child who was abused both by nationals and by foreign missionaries.  The story is gripping, terrible and hard to believe.  Many of the events occur at a boarding school in Addis Ababa run by a large interdenominational mission others occur down country where Minna Kayser’s parents were stationed.  I attended the same boarding school and lived at the same station at an earlier point in history but I find the events very believable as they correspond to events that I saw and the abuse I and others experienced. 

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  • Dee

    Just read this today.. hopefully this curriculum will be helpful, and I appreciate all that you are doing on behalf of abuse survivors and their families.
    I would like to suggest another area that needs to be considered for pastors and leaders to be made aware of. With the trend in some churches to encourage public sharing of abuses and painful events that have occurred in the lives of their members, some leaders can be insensitive to the fact that even hearing stories of abuse can create triggers for those who have been abused (in the audience), yet have not worked through the trauma, or maybe don’t even remember it.
    My personal experience was so traumatic that it took me months to recover after hearing a woman share at a ladies’ meeting about her sexual abuse experience. At the time, I had no idea what was going on with me. I thought I was loosing my mind. While I value the woman who felt she might be helping others by sharing her story, I feel it was ignorance on the part of the leadership (who knew the whole story), and encouraged her to share without giving a “trigger alert” warning to the audience.
    There must be wisdom and sensitivity for all when it comes to public sharing. I am especially concerned about leaders who may exploit abuse victims’ by encouraging them to share too much in public for the furthering of their own system’s agenda.

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  • This has been my heart cry for over 25 years. As a pastor and Biblical counselor who works primarily with abuse survivors, the severe lack of understanding and education – even, dare I see, intentional ignorance? – has compounded the trauma and shame survivors have carried. I trust Steven Tracey and the Mending the Soul team are part of this.

  • Dee, your comment and cautionary reminder is one I think we all need to hear and keep hearing over and over again. Thank you for sharing.

  • Yes Warren, I understand Steve Tracy is on the team developing the curriculum.

    You may also like to know about our blog A Cry For Justice, where we focus on domestic (spousal) abuse. Of course, there is a fair bit of overlap between spouse abuse and child abuse. Those who abuse their spouses also often abuse their kids. . . and moreso after the victim spouse separates / divorces the abuser. And the Family Court sometimes sends the kids back into harms way . . . the injustice and damage is unbelievable.

  • NuttShell

    It would be great to take this curriculum to Christian universities/colleges as well, because many graduate from these institutions and go directly into ministry. I know the training/curriculum has to start someplace and seminaries are a great place, but I hope it expands to undergraduate Christian universities. Keep up the great work which is sorely needed!

  • So glad to hear of this resource for seminaries about sexual abuse. As director of Safe Church Ministry (abuse awareness, prevention and response) for the Christian Reformed Church in North America – I am invited to Calvin Seminary each year to teach one class session. I guess one class session is better than none, but it certainly doesn’t prepare students for what they will face in ministry. Blessings to you in your work.

  • I’m very thankful for the effort that is being put into this. I would love to see this available to churches as well. We went through a lot at our church and in our lives. Because of that, I developed a seminar to share with other churches concerning the subject of child sexual abuse. We need this. Many churches & leaders (like myself) know a few things, but really are clueless of what to do if abuse happens or what they can do to hinder it. Sadly, to search for answers after the fact is not a timely help. In your material, please cover what a church and their leaders should do when a minor sexually abuses a younger minor. This is become more and more of a problem.
    Please get this into the hands to the churches, they need it. May the Lord bless you and give you wisdom.

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  • Bruce

    Several things come to mind. Priests and brothers who sexually abused minors have a psychological issue. Instead of simply cutting them loose why are they not given psychological treatment? They’d get medical care for a physical issue. Why not for a psychological issue? I am not saying they should again be in contact with minors but there must be office type work available in the various dioceses.
    The focus is on these accused men. It should be. However their acts have been and may still be covered up by “church leadership.” Where’s the accountability for bishops and heads of orders. I do not see and of these men removed or arrested. Their crimes in covering crimes and in quietly transferring priests must rise to the level of aiding and abetting criminal activity. Yes they go free with no accountability. The Pope talks about the sex issue. He meets with victims. It’s time to hold “church leadership” accountable.

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