A common struggle amongst Christian child advocates is how to love the church that too often fails to protect children and turns its back on abuse survivors. This has been my struggle. As I take a step back from writing for a few weeks to enjoy some time with my family, I am grateful for these powerful words from a dear friend who has given his life to child protection and who knows this struggle all too well. – Boz
As a Christian who also happens to be a child protection professional, I have a strained relationship with the church. It is a struggle borne by many who share my faith and my profession.
In my personal life, the church is my friend, the center of my world. As a baby, I was baptized in the church. As an adolescent, confirmation classes steadied me through the awkward years of puberty and pimples. When I gave my confirmation vow to die rather than abandon my faith, I uttered the words with grave seriousness. The church pronounced me married, educated my children, and comforted me through the death of loved ones. The rhythm of the church calendar marks the passing of each year and my morning and evening prayers soothe me at the outset and close of the day. Without the church, I would be lost.
In my professional life, though, the church is often my adversary. In the 26 years I have worked in the field of child protection, I have seen the church repeatedly used as an instrument of abuse. We all know of priests and pastors who have sexually abused children. What we fail to realize is that most sex offenders claim to be religious and often use the church to great advantage. When sexual abuse is found within the church, parishioners often rally around the offender and ostracize the victim. I know brave children who testified against the person who hurt them only to look out in the audience and see the courtroom filled with elders and other church members supporting the accused sex offender. Upon witnessing such a spectacle, a girl victim once asked me “does this mean that God is against me too?”
In cases of physical abuse, many Christians spout corporal punishment proverbs as if they were their life verses and pay little heed to the impact of their words. According to research from the Centers for Disease Control and Kaiser Permanente, 28% of all children are hit so hard that they receive injuries and, each year, a large number of substantiated physical abuse cases involve parents who claim they are “disciplining” their children out of Christian love. Some of these children die and those who survive often grow up to associate God with pain. Many of them will one day leave the church.
With respect to medical care, there are at least 20 sects, most of them Christian, who withhold even life-saving treatment from their children. As a result, hundreds of children have died from diabetes, meningitis, measles and numerous other preventable or treatable conditions. Consider, for example, the case of a 4 year old girl who developed a tumor behind her eye. Eventually, the tumor blinded her and grew to the size of her skull. After her death, police officers found streaks of blood on the walls in her room where her head had bumped. Rather than take the child to the doctor, her parents relied on prayer.
In the past quarter of a century, I’ve discussed these facts with numerous Christian clergy and laity and nearly everyone laments the cruelties inflicted in the name of Christ and will even shed a tear when learning the gut-wrenching facts of an individual case. When, though, I speak of church policies or training programs that could prevent many of these cases, or the importance of periodically preaching about this sin and reaching out in Christian love to the survivors sitting in our pews, there is frequently something else more important. Even after multiple lawsuits, high profile prosecutions and extensive media coverage, we continue to follow the Priest and the Levite to the other side of the road. When it comes to child abuse, the Samaritans among us are few.
After 26 years of fighting the church, my faith is shaken. Even with Christian friends I love, there are times I can’t sing or pray or pay attention to the words from a devotion or sermon. Like Elijah, I often find myself fleeing the company of believers. It is a spiritual struggle of enormous proportions—a struggle I know to be shared by others in my profession. Indeed, Christians in my field have often asked me how my faith survives. In the end, I tell them, God sustains my frail faith with five reminders.
1. Stay focused on the life and teachings of Jesus. Although churches may run away from the sin of child abuse, our Lord does not. Jesus was the descendant of a sexually exploited woman (Joshua 2, 6:22-25; Hebrews 11:31; Matthew 1:5) and narrowly escaped being murdered as a baby (Mt 2:16). As a man, Jesus was frequently seen in the company of those who were sexually exploited (Mt. 9:10). Not only did Jesus minister to the sexually abused, he promised them the very kingdom of God (Mt. 21:31). Our Lord 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 (Mt. 18:6). Jesus said that the angels of children have direct access to God (Mt. 18:10) and that the spiritual insight of children often exceeds that of the most learned theologians (Mt. 21:15-16; Luke 10:21).
When we consider the words and conduct of our Lord, we know that God cares deeply for hurting children—and expects His followers to do the same. Although our work as child protection professionals may isolate us from the visible church, our conduct also brings us closer to Jesus.
2. The work of a child protection professional returns us to the earliest days of the church, The words of Jesus about children were uttered in an era in which child abuse was even more prevalent than today. In his book Bad Faith, Dr. Paul Offit writes “so common was child sacrifice at the time of Jesus that everyone—including academics, historians, and physicians—accepted it.” Not only was infanticide legal, Offit notes the children of Christ’s era were beaten, stoned, starved, traded for beds, sexually abused, sold into slavery and “exposed on every hill and roadside as prey for birds and food for wild beasts.”
Influenced by the teachings of Jesus, the early Christians spoke out on behalf of the victims of child abuse and neglect. According to Offit, “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, culminating in an historic edict by Constantine…”
The words of Offit are an incredibly comforting reminder to me and other child protection professionals that we are not asking the church to do anything new. We are asking the church to return to its roots.
3. Jesus struggled with the church as well. When child abuse in the church angers me, it’s helpful to know that Jesus was also angry at those who would defile a congregation. Christ even went so far as to turn over tables in the temple and to drive the blasphemous from His midst (Mt. 21:12-23). He called false religious leaders “whitewashed tombs,” a “brood of vipers” and accused them of neglecting the most important teachings of the law—including justice and mercy (Mt. 23:23-37).
Justice and mercy—the very things denied to so many abused children were important to Jesus. In cherishing these virtues, and in raising our voices against the sins within the church, today’s child protection professionals are modeling the conduct of Christ.
4. Patience will open the eyes of the faithful. In Jesus’ era and in ours, many members of the church are not wicked so much as oblivious to the teaching of God. Those who were closest to Jesus, his own disciples, repeatedly failed to grasp the mission of Christ and, even after the Lord’s resurrection, they assumed He would now establish an earthly kingdom. Christ was patient with his followers and gave them the wisdom to change the world.
I think of this when I see many wonderful, Godly men and women fail to protect the children around them. It is not that they don’t care so much as they don’t really see, or truly understand the suffering that is nearby. Not long ago, a highly educated friend was in my office. When I stepped out for a moment, I returned to find him badly shaken. In my absence, he perused through a child maltreatment treatise on my desk and was horrified at the pictures he saw.
What struck me most is that the pictures he looked at were so mild in comparison to the images and accounts that daily cross my desk. It occurred to me that this extraordinarily gifted man didn’t fully understand what I did because he hadn’t walked the same path.
This is an important lesson for Christian child protection professionals. We must keep in mind that most of the faithful, like most Americans, will act on behalf of children if we show them the face of suffering. It may take cajoling, it may even take an occasional display of righteous indignation, but the day will come.
5. There is a faithful remnant. When Elijah felt alone in the church, and even pleaded to die, God came to him as a “gentle whisper” and assured him there was a faithful remnant (1Ki. 19:1-18). Whenever I have felt discouraged, God always reminds me that he has kept his real church close to His bosom. Wherever I go, I encounter those willing to speak up and protect a child even if it means losing their family, friends and church. Oftentimes, the most faithful I’ve found are the children themselves.
When six year old Ruby Bridges became the first African American to desegregate an all-white elementary school, she daily strode past an angry mob that threatened to kill her. Like Jesus on the cross and Stephen beneath the stones, Ruby Bridges asked God to forgive those who hurt her. In the past quarter of a century, I have seen many abused children pray for those who hurt them and otherwise find in God the strength to overcome. These children are the truest saints of the church—and I long to be in their number.
Many survivors of abuse have told me they love Jesus because he, too, was abused. Stripped of his clothing, mocked, beaten and tortured to death, Jesus is a God who truly understands all the world can do to a child. We are not praying to a cosmic spirit, but to a God who took on flesh and suffered with and for us.
Jesus also understood those who mourned his abuse and death. On Easter morn, he tenderly spoke Mary’s name and comforted all of the disciples from their failures to protect Jesus. Perhaps, then, Jesus also understands child protection professionals who mourn for abused and neglected children and lament our own failings to save them.
This is the faith that brings me to work each day.
Victor Vieth is a former prosecutor who gained national recognition for his work at addressing child abuse in rural communities. He went on to direct the National Center for the Prosecution of Child Abuse, a program of the National District Attorneys Association (NDAA). He worked with the NDAA and Winona State University in developing the National Child Protection Training Center, which is now a program of Gundersen Health System. He is on the board of directors of GRACE (Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment) and is pursuing a Master of Arts in Theology through Wartburg Theological Seminary.