Sexual Abuse And Church: Is It Really An Institutional Issue?
You’ve heard about the me too movement. Now, there is the church too movement. But is abuse an institutional problem? What can be done to make churches safe for the most vulnerable?
One church member states, “In 35 years of regular church attendance, I have never been exposed to any ethics training on abuse. I’ve always felt this was institutional denial and it is almost universal. But I have learned that there are good, well-developed materials available to combat this problem.”
Our culture and society have brought the #MeToo movement. Along those lines we hear about Penn State University, Michigan State University and the gymnasts with Larry Nassar–it’s not only sometimes personal denial and family systems denial, but it can actually also be institutional denial.
The statistics are alarming, with at least 2 out of every 10 girls and 1 out of 10 boys are estimated to be sexually abused before their 14th birthday (Child Molestation Prevention Institute). This shows the need for personal safety being taught as prevention of child sexual abuse. This can consist of learning boundaries as well as child-friendly language. Kids can learn to say no to unsafe touches in situations by protecting themselves with boundaries to prevent or stop sexual abuse. A prime place to teach this is in our churches because they have ties within the community.
Is Sexual Abuse An Institutional Issue?
Some church organizations do have policies that are already in place, like two adults need to be in a room with children at all times. It is best when everyone collectively knows the policy in order to ensure accountability and maintain adherence in all situations. But this is just the first step, as additional policies are usually needed to specifically protect children.
Kimberly Perry, author of Say No and Tell: Training Grownups in Boundaries and Personal Safety for Kids, states, “We must really implement training into the very DNA and fabric of our church. What are we doing to prevent and get in front of this to help the next generation?”
She has recently created a new training manual for adults who serve in clergy and guidance positions. Kimberly explains that her training workbook is “designed for any grownups who are working with children’s organizations.”
Overall, Perry states, “The training to help the adults working with kids about how to implement it in the organization to make it safer as an environment has been well-received. The positive feedback was very supportive and people were asking for more.”
How Teaching Personal Safety Combats Sexual Abuse
Statistics also show that every 8 minutes, Child Protective Services responds to a sexual abuse report (RAINN). According to the CDC, 1 in 6 boys and 1 in 4 girls is sexually abused before the age of 18. Realizing the need for empowering children with self-care skills and personal safety tools is critical for their safety and well-being.
As Perry explains, “What I like to tell parents is that the kids and grownups and organizations that learn about boundaries and personal safety can be safer, otherwise everyone is vulnerable. Even though there is great discomfort in pain, by taking the time to learn about preventing child sexual abuse, it does not compare to the pain of finding out something has happened and it’s too late. Plus then there is the pain in years of recovering from the trauma that affects the child, the family, and the community. It takes a lot of bravery to get in front of the problem.The impact is great. The more we can make it safe for people to talk about, then we can also begin to move into the prevention phase.”
Training for clergy, guidance, and parents should state the importance of going through story, scenario, and solutions. The key is to use child-friendly language. Perry’s training manual is something that anyone can present–a boundaries and personal safety workshop and take the preventative steps to safeguard against child sexual abuse by empowering everyone in your organization. The training workbook also contains a customizable toolkit for both the presenter and the participant. She says, “The key is to begin the conversation in your organization.
Training Can Help Keep Children Safe From Sexual Abuse
A specific part of Perry’s training workbook involves opening doors to intervention. This is specific to the organization, meaning it covers which steps they need to take to look at this issue.
Four Essential Steps For Institutions To Take To Protect Against Sexual Abuse:
- A scan to identify the vulnerable places within the environment, both structurally and environmentally.
- A code of conduct for interacting with children. This can be tailored for infants, toddlers, elementary age, teenager, high school age.
- A way to ensure everyone understands what the protocol is. The can be done with trainings, memos, etc.
- Visible code of conduct that is posted everywhere throughout the organization so any staff members, volunteers, as well as the children and parents, all understand it.
Experts agree that teaching boundaries and promoting safety in telling someone and to keep telling until it stops is critical because children do no tell most of the time with estimations around 40%, according to Darkness to Light Organization. Of this 40%, many will tell a friend which basically goes unreported. Telling clergy in the church can also be an issue, as sometimes victims are not believed the first time and other times there are cases of institutional cover-
Teaching That Telling About Sexual Abuse Is Not Tattling
Anne, founder of BTR, states, “Applying it to my own situation where I was in an abusive situation for seven years, I talked to people about it and kept talking about it. But I didn’t know at the time that it was abuse. I didn’t describe it that way because I didn’t have the words to say it at the time–I called it his anger problem when my ex-husband was arrested for domestic violence. Because of his arrest, I was finally able to get the clarity I needed.” Language is essential and telling should always be taken seriously by those who hear this from a victim. Part of this is educating everyone within the church congregation to recognize abuse when it is described to them.
Recently a speaker at the Coalition to End Sexual Exploitation stated, “When it comes to trafficking and child abuse, whether it’s a boy or a girl that is a child or a man or a woman, it’s the same person at just a different stage of life.”
The knowledge that abuse is abuse, no matter what point in time we learn this, can a powerful tool. When we give language to our experiences, we empower our children, our youth, our families, and ultimately, our communities. The more we can have these conversations, and train and empower and bring it into the light, we can help ourselves and the next generation.
If you need help setting boundaries or detecting what kinds of behaviors are abusive, please consider joining our betrayal trauma daily group sessions. You can talk to a recovery coach about anything you want.
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Until next week, stay safe out there.