What About the Pandemic of Child Sexual Abuse and the Church?

I’ve never written anything more important than this 151st post.

An old adage says, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Nowhere is this more true than in cases of child sexual abuse perpetrated in Christian communities.

Case in point. Currently, the Upper Midwest diocese of the Anglican Church of North America (ACNA) finds themselves in the vortex of a sexual abuse scandal involving children. The abuse was initially disclosed by a mom named Cherin, on behalf of her 9 year old daughter in May 2019. First, she told her parish priest and the news moved up the food chain to the diocese Bishop a short time later. Neither church leader reported the allegations to law enforcement. The accused perpetrator, Mark Rivera, served at 2 Illinois parishes for more than two decades in leadership positions that gave him access to children. The date, 2019, matters because it’s 2021 now and until this spring, the Bishop made no public congregational acknowledgement of the accusations against Mr. Rivera and the possibility that there are other survivors suffering silently in their seats. The structure matters because it exemplifies the widespread ignorance of church leaders on multiple hierarchical levels regarding abuse prevention, responding to disclosure, reporting requirements and after care for survivors and their families. And, this unfortunately is not the only diocese in the ACNA to be embroiled in mismanaged sexual harassment and abuse scandals in recent years.

I write this post as an outsider looking in. My church community is not connected to the ACNA, but I am also an insider looking out because the ACNA is part of my broader Christian family and what is happening there is an institutional protestant church pandemic.

I’m a 50-something mom whose four amazing daughters are almost all launched so I started grad school this past year, simultaneously enrolling in Diagnosis and Treatment of Trauma Disorders and Prevention of Child Sexual Abuse.  PTSD, a disorder commonly suffered by child sexual abuse survivors, was the common denominator in both. What I understand better now compels me to write because when you know, you can’t un-know anymore.

But let’s start here.
You don’t know what you don’t know.

This applies to the average person warming the pew and the ones whose bios and headshots are posted on an organization’s website. Both, unfortunately are anemically informed in epidemic proportions about the most basic facts, statistics and predictable, preventable patterns associated with child sexual abuse and its aftermath, which results in failure to protect and care for the little children Jesus loves. 

Here’s a working definition and 3 basic statistics from the CDC and the Department of Justice .

Sexual abuse is any tricked, forced, manipulated or coerced sexual activity for the pleasure of the abuser. Abuse can be physical, verbal or visual.

  • 1 out of 4 females and 1 out 6 males will experience sexual abuse before they reach the age of 18.
  • 90% of the child sexual abuse problem is perpetrated by preferential offenders whose victims know and trust their abusers.
  • When a child discloses abuse, 96-99% of the time, they are telling the truth. Abuse actually occurred. 

Do you feel the weight of those statistics?
If not, sit soberly and consider them until you do.

That 9 year old girl whose mom, Cherin, disclosed abuse to her priest in 2019, she and the Bishop have both submitted written public statements recently, 2 years afterwards. You can follow the he saidshe said storylines in blue. 

Read it for yourself.
Really. 
Do.

It’s a textbook case of a mishandled church sexual abuse scandal. 

Where did the church get this wrong?
And what might it have looked like to get it right?

Starting with prevention. How might this tragedy have been avoided had all provincial denominational leaders, church staff, volunteers and parents been trained in the facts and misconceptions about sexual abuse, abuser characteristics, the grooming process, common grooming behaviors and reporting requirements? What if the church had a safety system in place based on this awareness education? In my seminary class, 4 students enrolled. Count them on one hand—a mom, a social worker, a retiring police officer and a staff pastor. Classes on Prevention of Child Sexual Abuse are an anomaly in seminaries, so I applaud my school for offering it; however, they can do better. It is an egregious oversight for any accrediting educational institution to launch graduates into Christian ministry without training them in prevention, reporting and victim-centric aftercare. 

If these church leaders had been trained, they would have realized that not only are 96+% disclosures true, they would also have understood that predators not only groom children, they also groom caretakers and gate keepers of children so that barriers of protection are removed and they have easy access to their victims. Predators, they don’t look like predators. They’re typically charming and distinguish themselves in their communities over time by appearing responsible, trustworthy and helpful. Usually, they’re married and have children. That’s why it’s so shocking when accusations start to surface.

And here’s the thing, accusations will almost always be plural. Once one brave soul finds his or her voice, a symphony of singers will join the somber song. Typically, by the time a predatory offender reaches the legal system, if the truth be told, he’s averaged 150 victims if he prefers boys and 52 if he prefers girls.

And if that 9 year old girl’s church leaders would have been educated in the neurobiology of trauma, they would have realized that when a child finds their voice, that doesn’t mean that she can articulate a cohesive narrative or consistently recount details of her abuse. By God’s design, it is normal for memories to be fragmented and even absent from conscious recollection in order for the victim to be able to bear their trauma. The child’s account would not have been evaluated for accuracy but assumed to be true because 96+% of children’s disclosures of abuse are the truth.

If the parish priest and his posse of church leaders, including the Diocese attorney would have understood mandatory reporting laws, they would have conjoined their legal and moral responsibility to immediately report any reasonable cause to suspect abuse perpetrated by an adult on a minor to CPS or local law enforcement. Instead, churches often want to take reports of abuse to committee to internally investigate first. Sometimes they fear that they will unjustly besmirch the reputation of the accused.

Other times, they are motivated to do so based on innate mistrust of CPS and the legal system, thinking they can adjudicate a more just resolution internally. 

Some churches think of sexual abuse as primarily sin and therefore consider themselves to be the most appropriate setting to address their spiritual process of repentance, forgiveness and restoration. 

And, it’s not uncommon for churches to negotiate deals with offenders to leave their community of faith quietly, believing they are protecting the reputation of Jesus from public scandal or at least protecting the name and renown of their own institution.

All of these options, however, bypass the law, and mandatory reporters are increasingly being held culpable for endangerment of children and criminally prosecuted themselves. 

Once Mr. Rivera was arrested, if his parish and Diocese understood trauma they would have realized that the church can’t provide support for both the victim and the accused predator—that includes his family, who also, sadly, suffer because of their spouse/parent’s crime. The church would have opted for a victim-centered response plan which prioritizes the safety and well-being of the victim and her family, starting with ensuring a protective and supportive community of faith for them to continue worshiping in. Mr. Rivera’s family would need to go so 9 year old girl’s family could stay. Then, because leadership understands that 96+% of children’s disclosures are true, they would promptly and publicly fully disclose the allegations to their congregations and invite the voices of others who have been harmed to be heard. With unanimity, leadership would communicate that abuse matters and commit to becoming a place that protects and defends those who have been harmed.

This approach not only invites voiceless victims who feel ashamed, threatened or fear that they won’t be believed to risk sharing their stories, it also speaks volumes to the individuals who are watching the process unfold and are themselves adult abuse survivors, or married to one or love someone who has been. There is incredible, widespread, redemptive opportunity in the aftermath of abuse if a community of faith gets this right. Unfortunately, the Upper Midwest Diocese of the ACNA didn’t.

Rather than retrying victims in the court of public opinion, as was the 9 year old girl’s family experience, if they got this right, the church would begin the long, holy journey of communal suffering alongside victims instead. 

They would grieve with and for their victims.
They would listen without judging them for their anger and sadness.
The would support them the best they know how, ensuring that they have the resources they need to start to heal. 
And they wouldn’t just say that these things would happen, they’d actually happen.

Tragically, the clock can’t be turned back and the harm can’t be undone for the 9 year old girl, but we cannot and must not continue to get this wrong because when we do and children’s formative experiences in faith communities are sexually violating, barriers to understanding God’s character and receiving His love result. 
And Jesus has something to say about that in Matthew 18:6. 

If anyone should cause one of these little ones to lose his faith in me, it would be better for that person to have a large millstone tied around his neck and be drowned in the deep sea. 

We can; however, learn from the mistakes the ACNA and so many others have made. Going forward, as a unified community of Christ followers, our banner of love can proclaim that we will no longer be blind, deaf and dumb to the pandemic of sexual abuse. Today, we will begin to make our churches places of safety, hope and healing. 
May it be so.

(All data and statistics credited to Ministry Safe, legal professionals who are sexual abuse experts and whose mission is to prevent child sexual abuse in ministry contexts.)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s