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For sex abuse trauma, churches must be ‘trustworthy’

NASHVILLE (BP) — Attempted suicide, drug overdoses, hatred of God and ruined teenage years are among the effects of sexual abuse described in a Feb. 11 Houston Chronicle report on sexual abuse among Southern Baptists.

Two Southern Baptist mental health experts say the effects of sexual abuse against children and teenagers are actually worse than the Chronicle described. They also say churches and pastors can mitigate those effects with prompt, biblical and wise responses.

“There are many more” effects of abuse “than the ones listed in the article,” said Chuck Hannaford, a Memphis, Tenn., clinical psychologist. At times, abused children and teens “have fear of being touched. Some get into sexual promiscuity. They can have habit disorders — biting, rocking, pulling their hair out.

“They can be aggressive at times because they’re keeping this stuff in. Self-injuries, behavior [issues], sleep problems. You can go down the list. Everything that is within the diagnostic context of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder they will have,” Hannaford told Baptist Press. “It’s a very traumatic event that can make life-changing negative impacts.”

The Chronicle said its investigation of sexual abuse among Southern Baptists had revealed approximately 380 instances since 1998 — including more than 250 since 2008 — of “those who were convicted, credibly accused and successfully sued, and those who confessed or resigned.”

The crimes have left more than 700 victims, the newspaper stated.

Citing the Amplified Bible’s rendering of Matthew 18:1-6, Hannaford described children as “trusting, lowly, loving and forgiving.” Abusing children is horrific because it “changes the way they think about themselves, they think about God and they think about relationships. And often these children feel what we call the ‘damaged goods syndrome’ — they feel dirty.”

In the long term, childhood sexual abuse can result in the abused experiencing sexual difficulties in their own marriages, becoming overprotective as parents, keeping other people at arm’s length and even becoming abusers themselves, said Hannaford, who served on the Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee’s Mental Health Advisory Group. At times, victims don’t realize their harmful behaviors stem from the abuse they suffered as children.

Dale Johnson, associate professor of biblical counseling at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, stated that “everyone” who has suffered abuse “endures some symptom or long-term effect that often takes a while to overcome, because when you’re talking about sexual abuse, it’s so intimate that it touches so many aspects of a person’s being.”

The first way to mitigate the effects of childhood sexual abuse is to report the abuse to law enforcement authorities, Johnson said. Hannaford noted the law in all 50 states requires pastors to report alleged abuse of children.

After proper reports have been made, Johnson said, churches must help victims understand the acts done to them were evil and not their fault. “If we’re condoning [the abuse], their world remains quite confused as to what’s good and what’s evil.”

Churches also must build networks around abuse victims comprising believers “who are supportive, who are caring, who are trustworthy so that we can begin to see true redemption occur for somebody who’s been so violated,” said Johnson, executive director of the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors. The “ministry of presence” is vital.

Hannaford urged churches to create support groups for sexual abuse victims to communicate love and tell victims they don’t have to feel ashamed of what happened. Care from a local church also should include referral of victims to mental health care providers who can help identify unhealthy coping mechanisms.

Pastors without specialized training in the care of trauma victims should always refer sexual abuse victims to mental health care professionals and not try to provide all necessary care themselves, Hannaford said. Approaching abuse with a “hyper-spiritual focus” or lack of training can set back a victim’s recovery.

“Most of the time,” Hannaford said, individuals who were sexually abused as children or teens will require “months of regular counseling, sometimes years” depending on “the intensity of the treatment” that may be needed.

Above all, Johnson and Hannaford underscored, the most important way to help underage abuse victims is to report their allegations to the authorities. Churches also must put protective measures in place, including background checks, to prevent abuse in the first place.

“The church has to do everything it can to protect the children and offer some sort of help for members that have experienced [abuse],” Hannaford said. Church leaders “should be prosecuted if they know of allegations of abuse and do not report it” to legal authorities.