It is difficult for us to grasp and accept the fact that the evil of child sexual abuse exists in our midst — it is even more difficult to accept the prospect that it is prevalent today — yet that is what the statistics are showing. Consider the following reports:
"It is estimated that one in three girls and one in six boys will experience some form of sexual abuse before they are eighteen years old" (U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services, 1993).
"The typical child sex offender molests an average of 117 children, most of who do not report the offence" (National Institute of Mental Health, 1988).
Research indicates that most child sexual abuse takes place in the home, but news reports constantly remind us that such abuse can even be found in churches, and that even some pastors and church leaders have been found guilty of the offense.
This is especially egregious because the violation has taken place at the hands of those who are entrusted with the responsibility to lead and protect the sheep. It is particularly abominable when the protector becomes the predator. It fulfills the warning of Jude 4: For certain men, who were designated for this judgment long ago, have come in by stealth; they are ungodly, turning the grace of our God into promiscuity and denying our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ. This verse clearly warns of evil men coming into the church and committing sexual sin — and then using the beautiful gift of God's grace as an excuse or license to commit one sexual sin after another.
Therefore, we are faced with this question: "How do we as believers deal with this sin?" Here are five essentials steps we must take if we are to ever succeed in confronting and removing this cancer from our churches. We must stop denying the sin, excusing the sin, minimizing the sin, breaking the law, and hurting the victims.
Stop Denying the Sin
Our first response when faced with evidence that members of our church family or leadership are guilty of these horrible offenses often is disbelief and denial. We do not want to believe that such a thing could happen in our midst — so we convince ourselves it never really happened.
Tragically, when we deny the sin, it enables offenders to continue in their sin and further intimidates victims into not speaking up. They fear no one will believe them.
Consider the example of King Saul in 1 Samuel 15:20. And Saul said to Samuel, 'But I have obeyed the voice of the Lord, and gone on the mission which the Lord sent me, and brought back Agag king of Amalek; I have utterly destroyed the Amalekites (NKJV, emphasis added). God had commanded Saul to destroy all the inhabitants and animals, but he chose to disobey. When Samuel confronted him with his disobedience, Saul's first response was denial. Despite of the fact that Samuel could hear the bleating of the sheep and the lowing of the oxen (1 Samuel 15:14), Saul continued to deny his disobedience.
The Lord expects His people to take appropriate action within the church when a member sins (Matthew 18:15-20; 1 Corinthians 5). We might be tempted to report that we are fully obeying the Lord, but the cries of the victims of sexual abuse and the emotional heartache of those ravaged by this sin can be heard and seen all around us. When it comes to the issue of sexual abuse, too many pastors and church leaders are living in a state of denial; meanwhile, the sin devastates their churches.
Stop Excusing the Sin
Once believers are confronted with the evidence of this sin and they are no longer able to deny it, they may be tempted to excuse the behavior. This is especially true when the offenders are prominent members, or even leaders in their churches. Their flawed reasoning holds that because the accused leaders have done so much good for the church, they should be excused.
On the other hand, some Christians will overlook the behavior because of the potential consequences of dealing with this sin, such as scandal, embarrassment, loss of revenue, civil lawsuits, and criminal punishment. Some even claim that they are concerned that exposing such sin will bring reproach upon the name of Christ. However, it is this very sin, and the failure to address it biblically, that brings shame to the name of Christ, not exposing it.
Once again let's look at the example of Saul. When Samuel indicated to Saul that he knew Saul had brought back the animals and Saul knew he could no longer deny the sin, he chose to excuse the sin by saying: The troops took sheep and cattle from the plunder (1 Samuel 15:21). Saul excused his disobedience by blaming others for his sin. When they can no longer deny their sin, many offenders will excuse it by blaming the victims, or others, or their circumstances. In one recent case involving a pastor, the church people were blamed because "they were not praying hard enough for their pastor." When God confronted Adam with his sin, Adam blamed Eve — and, by implication, God — for his disobedience (Genesis 3:12).
As hard as it is to believe, many offenders who claim to be Christians will blame God for their vile behavior. They say "God made me this way" or "God gave me these desires."
In each of these, the assumption is that because of various external circumstances, their actions are understandable and excusable — but that reasoning will never stand up before God.
Excusing sexual abuse is neither loving nor forgiving. We must quit making excuses and start holding offenders accountable. 1 Corinthians 5:11-12 teaches that we are to judge those who are within.
Stop Minimizing the Sin
When an offender or church is confronted with the evidence of this sin, and when the sin can no longer be denied or excused, the abuser may attempt to minimize his sin and convince others that it is not really as bad as it appears. Abusers will often say things like: "We had an affair" or "We had an incestuous relationship," as if their abhorrent desires were shared mutually between offender and victim. In their perverted minds, they somehow convince themselves that this is not rape or molestation, but rather a mutual relationship. No! Sexually abusing a child is sin — it is the rape and molestation of children, it is filthy and vile, and the church needs to recognize it as such.
Every week our ministry receives new reports from victims that are harmed by this sin. One such report was from a woman who, as a fifteen-year-old pastor's daughter, was raped by a guest speaker who was staying in their home. He threatened her, telling her that terrible things would happen to her parents if she told, so she kept her secret. But for years she thought she would go to hell because of what her abuser had done to her. Another victim shared that as a young child she was raped and molested for many years by her father. In her heart-wrenching testimony, she tried to describe her feelings of guilt and pain and how she thought others could smell the dirt on her. It's odd that victims seem to feel the guilt and the shame while the offenders seem to go on with their lives as if nothing is wrong.
What these criminals are doing to the victims destroys them emotionally, inflicting emotional injury that will last the rest of their lives. It not only devastates the lives of the victims, it does untold harm to the victims' relationships with their future spouses and children. There is nothing that could ever be presented that should allow an abuser — or the church — to minimize this sin.
Notice that Saul not only tried to deny and excuse his disobedience but also tried to minimize the sinfulness of it by reasoning with Samuel that the animals were saved to sacrifice to the Lord (I Samuel 15:15).
Proverbs 21:3 says: To do what is right and just is more acceptable to the Lord than sacrifice (NASB).
There is no conscionable way we can minimize this sin, yet because it is so troubling to believe that it is happening in the Body of Christ, many are willing to deny, excuse, and minimize it … whatever it takes to ease their consciences.
Stop Breaking the Law
Churches need to realize and remember that this sin is also a criminal offense — therefore, we have a moral, biblical, and legal obligation to treat it as such.
Consider what God says to the church in Romans 13:3-5: For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil, do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise of the same. For he is God's minister to you for good. But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God's minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil. Therefore you must be subject, not only because of wrath but also for conscience' sake (NKJV, emphasis added).
When it comes to addressing this sin, churches too often are reluctant to turn the offenders over to the law. They often have a misunderstanding of grace and justice, believing that it is unloving or unforgiving to hold an offender accountable before the law. For some reason, many conclude that somehow justice is wrong.
Proverbs 18:5 says: It is not good to be partial to the wicked or deprive the innocent of justice, and Proverbs 17:15 says: Acquitting the guilty and condemning the innocent — the Lord detests them both (NIV).
The Lord is clear in His expectations. Yes, we need to offer offenders love and forgiveness, but we must realize that forgiveness and love do not eliminate the consequences of the sin. The devastation that is heaped upon the victims of this sin is not erased merely by a simple "I am sorry," nor are the legal and personal debts of an offender satisfied with an apology.
We recognize this with other criminal activities such as murder, assault, or theft, but for some reason many are willing to simply overlook this specific criminal behavior. Some may think it is too harsh for offenders to face the consequences of their choices, because they may lose their reputation, social standing, family, or freedom. And when the abuse is brought to light, innocent people are heavily impacted; the family members of the offender, as well as the victims, face shame and loss. While it is true that the process will bring pain to the guilty as well as the innocent (and we must remember to be loving and supportive to all those who are victimized), we are not relieved of our legal obligation — we must hold offenders accountable before God and the law.
Stop Hurting the Victims
One of the things we have personally experienced, and have seen many others go through, is that when victims come forward, they do not find love and support from their church and family members. Many will respond with disbelief or assert that the victim needs to "forgive and forget." While it is true that we need to be able to forgive, much of the time when victims are told to forgive and forget, what is being said is: "You need to be quiet." Because the church and the family do not want to be embarrassed, inconvenienced, or forced to deal with a situation that makes them uncomfortable, the easiest thing to do is to pressure the victim to be quiet. This causes unimaginable damage and pain to the victim.
In the book Invisible Girls, Dr. Patti Feuereisen states that the most important factor in victims' healing is telling their story. When we tell a victim of sexual abuse to be quiet or we encourage them to suppress their story, essentially what we are telling them is that they do not matter, and what they have gone through is not serious enough for us to deal with. We devalue them as a person and as a child of God. When we do this, in effect we are reinforcing the abuse that they experienced at the hands of their offenders.
Often victims are told that if they are struggling with the emotional and spiritual wounds of their abuse, it is a sign that they are unforgiving. How ridiculous! We do not accuse someone who has suffered physical abuse of being unforgiving if his broken bones are not healed immediately, but we judge a person who has been ravaged spiritually and emotionally by how quickly or slowly the healing comes.
Luke 17:1-2 says: He said to His disciples, "Offenses will certainly come, but woe to him through whom they come! It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea than for him to cause one of these little ones to stumble." In light of what Christ says in this passage about offenders, we must remember that our role as the Body of Christ in these situations is to both help and comfort the victims, and firmly confront offenders in a biblically-consistent manner.
In conclusion, there are a number of things we need to consider when facing the issue of sexual abuse and how we need to deal with it in our church. Although we may never completely eradicate the sin, there are biblical guidelines that need to be followed in an effort to prevent this sin from happening in our churches and homes.
We must realize first and foremost that we need to seek God's face in our time of need. Second Chronicles 7:14 reminds us: If My people who are called by My name humble themselves, pray and seek My face, and turn from their evil ways, then I will hear from heaven, forgive their sin, and heal their land. We must humble ourselves and admit there is a problem, which means that we no longer deny, excuse, or minimize the sin. We must hold offenders accountable before the law and God. And we must be supportive of the victims and provide love and healing.