Startling Statistics: Child sexual abuse and what the church can begin doing about it

"I considered church people easy to fool...they have a trust that comes from being Christians. They tend to be better folks all around and seem to want to believe in the good that exists in people." - convicted sexual offender

As much of the nation was recently celebrating Christmas, a Memphis pastor was arrested for sexually abusing a 16-year-old family member. What makes this heartbreaking story even more repugnant is that church and family members had been informed about the abuse two years earlier, but failed to report the crime to the police. Instead, they decided that the best response was to simply pray for the offender and hope for the best. Tragically, this response to child sexual abuse by those within the church is not uncommon. Equally as tragic is that such responses fuel perpetrators to continue destroying the bodies and souls of untold numbers of children.

Worship - photo courtesy of Michael Mistretta via Flickr

Worship – photo courtesy of Michael Mistretta via Flickr

The statistics of child sexual abuse are startling to say the least. In her book, Predators, Pedophiles, Rapists, and other Sex Offenders, clinical psychologist Anna Salter outlines the results of numerous studies that clearly demonstrate the prevalence of this offense and the dangers of those who offend. Here are just a couple she mentions:

Abel Harlow Child Molestation Prevention Study:
This study found that pedophilia molesters average 12 child victims and 71 acts of molestation. An earlier study by Dr. Abel found that out of 561 sexual offenders there were over 291,000 incidents totaling over 195,000 total victims. These are enough victims to fill 2 ½ Superdomes! This same study found that only 3% of these sexual offenders have a chance of getting caught.

Russell Study:
This study revealed that up to 38% of women were molested before turning 18 years old. This same study found that up to 16% of boys are molested before they turn 18 years old. Dr. Russell also discovered that only 5% of child sexual abuse had been reported to law enforcement.

In her book, Dr. Salter revealed that her own interviews of sexual offenders found them admitting to having perpetrated between 10 and 1250 victims. She also writes that every offender she interviewed had been previously reported by children, and the reports were ignored.

It is critical to note that this abuse is no less prevalent within the faith community. In fact, there are studies that demonstrate that the faith community is even more vulnerable to abuse than secular environments. The Abel and Harlow study revealed that [tweetable]93% of sex offenders describe themselves as “religious” [/tweetable]and that this category of offender may be the most dangerous. Other studies have found that sexual abusers within faith communities have more victims and younger victims. This disturbing truth is perhaps best illustrated by the words of a convicted child molester who told Dr. Salter,

I considered church people easy to fool…they have a trust that comes from being Christians. They tend to be better folks all around and seem to want to believe in the good that exists in people.

Besides sending shockwaves down your spine, why is it critical for those within the faith community to be aware of these statistics? Though there are many reasons, here are just three to consider:

  1. If approximately 1 in 4 women and 1 in 6 men have been sexually abuse as children (an even a more conservative statistic than that provided by Dr. Russell), this means that our churches are filled with abuse survivors. For example, [tweetable]a church of 200 members (100 women and 100 men) will have at least 41 child sexual abuse survivors…20.5%![/tweetable] Yet, sexual abuse is still too seldom talked about inside our churches. How would your church respond if:
    • 20.5% of the congregation had cancer; or
    • 20.5% of the congregation had lost a child; or
    • 20.5% of the congregation had been fired from employment?

    Is it safe to predict that addressing this issue would become a primary focus of the church ministry? Is it safe to predict that pastors would preach sermons addressing the spiritual issues associated with trauma? Is it safe to predict that church members would expend themselves in love and service to those experiencing such deep hurt? Is it safe to predict that the church would not respond to this criminal offense in silence? As a faith community, we must learn to approach the horror of child sexual abuse no differently. Perhaps these statistics can help drive our faith communities to become places of refuge and healing for abuse survivors who are silently suffering in our midst.

  2. Those who sexually victimize children likely have victimized dozens of other children during their lifetime. Not only does this open our eyes to the prevalence of this tragic epidemic, but it should also help to equip us to respond to individuals within our faith community who get “caught” for engaging in criminal behavior against a child and beg for “grace”, claiming that this was the only child they have ever victimized. Based upon these statistics, the offender is most likely lying, which means they are continuing to deceive in order to reestablish trust and access of our children. Perhaps these statistics can help drive our faith communities to open their eyes to the dark truths about those who abuse.
  3. Most children never report sexual abuse, and when they do, it is often ignored. A young girl in Memphis can sadly attest to this appalling truth. Perhaps these statistics will prompt our faith communities to actively educate our members about this crime, and to dialogue openly about these issues with our children. Two key components of such education are prevention and response. Churches must seek the advice, counsel and training of child protection experts to assist in developing a ‘culture of protection’.  [tweetable]Responding with excellence to abuse disclosures should always involve reporting the alleged crime to law enforcement[/tweetable],as well as demonstrating affirmation and support to the child who has come forward.  Such an environment will make it much more likely that a victim will come forward, the abuse will stop, and the perpetrator will face justice. I will address the issues of prevention and response in much greater detail during the coming weeks and months. Perhaps these statistics can encourage our faith communities to spend more time listening and learning.

Understanding the reality of these disturbing statistics is one of the first steps in transforming our faith communities into places where children are safe and abuse survivors are welcomed, valued, and loved. Perhaps a better understanding of these disturbing statistics would have prompted at least one church member in Memphis to step forward to love and protect a 16-year-old child by reporting her abuser to the police. Now that would have been an answer to prayer.

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