Protecting the vulnerable: MinistrySafe and SBTS discuss sexual abuse during Counsel the Word
Experts in abuse prevention address how churches can prepare and respond to situations in their congregations.
Christ took the exploitation of the vulnerable seriously, so the church is called to do the same, said Christian leaders during Counsel the Word at Southern Seminary, March 2-3.
Counsel the Word, a conference held in conjunction with MinistrySafe, sought to equip churches to prevent and respond to sexual abuse. Jesus did not avoid the topic of abuse, especially when it pertained to children, said Jeremy L. Pierre, chair of the department of biblical counseling and family ministry and dean of students at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
Using Matthew 18:1-7 as his text, Pierre argued that Jesus saw how the world treated the vulnerable — and it infuriated him. It is not only a horrifying abuse of power, Pierre said, but it is the worst sort of harm anyone could inflict on a child because it hinders them from experiencing God.
“Why is Jesus so offended by this sin?” Pierre asked. “I think it’s because it’s a misuse of a very beautiful design that God made for adults to transfer goodness and truth and value and beauty down to a developing generation.”
Pierre argued that because Jesus acknowledged the dangers and evils of this world, believers must do the same by taking seriously the very real danger children face and implementing policies and procedures that limit access to children.
“Sexual abuse is one of those things that we wish we could unknow, but it is [a reality],” Pierre said. “This conference is meant to give you understanding about that reality so that you can respond with wisdom and conviction from this changed heart that God has placed in you.
“The greatest hope this world has against child abuse is transformed hearts that love children the way God does and use whatever influence the Lord gives to build them up in what is true, what is beautiful, and what is righteous.”
The conference also featured the teaching of MinistrySafe, a Christian organization dedicated to preventing child sexual abuse in churches. It was founded by Greg Love and his wife, Kimberlee Norris, who both said churches need to be more aware to the possibility of sexual abuse within their congregations.
Because of the lack of information about the topic of child sexual abuse within the church, “sexual abusers seek access to children where the barriers are the lowest, and the barriers are lowest where the information is the thinnest,” said Love, cofounder and director of MinistrySafe. Churches must educate their staff and volunteers about abuse, and think more often and more strategically about protecting their children.
“What we believe shapes what we do. If we believe wrong things, or not enough of the right things, our efforts are going to be weak” and the church or ministry will be putting their children in danger, Love said. “The secular world is raising their barriers, and the church is not. The good news is that we have begun to see that the church is moving [in that direction].”
One in four females will be sexually abused by the time they are adults, according to Love, and one in six males will be. However, those numbers are fluid, because 66 percent of abuse survivors do not disclose until adulthood. The average molester of boys will have 150 victims before they are prosecuted. The average molester of girls will have 52 victims before they are prosecuted. There is no visual profile for the molester either. These statistics point to the urgency of the matter.
Love and Norris said one of the most effective ways to prevent sexual abuse is to understand the grooming process. The preferential offender will groom both the potential victim and the “gatekeeper” — the adult who stands between the offender and the child. These gatekeepers often include parents, children’s and youth ministers, Sunday school teachers, church league coaches, or anyone else who is in charge of protecting and caring for children.
It is important for churchmembers to understand the facts and misconceptions of child abuse, according to Love. Some common major misconceptions include assuming that there is a visual profile for an abuser, assuming that a background check will be an effective method of keeping predators out of a ministry, or championing the concept of “stranger danger.”
Both Love and Norris emphasized the importance of having a safety system in a ministry that protects the “wolves” from entering the “sheep pen.” This means doing more than just background checks — it requires understanding that peer abuse is common, communication among staff and volunteers is critical, and skillful screening of staff and volunteers.
The conference also focused on how to minister to survivors. Norris offered a number of tips, including not asking shaming questions, letting the victim know the counselor believes them, not covering the issue up, and not minimizing the victim’s pain. Norris added that the healing process for victims is lengthy and cannot be rushed by a push for reconciliation.
“How do we create environments in our churches that allow those who experienced sexual abuse as children to process this past abuse in a healthy manner?” Norris asked, noting that no church is immune. “Abuse crosses all cultural lines and demographics. It impacts all spiritual paradigms, including [the] church.”
Other topics addressed in the plenary sessions included talks on peer-to-peer sexual abuse, reporting requirements, appropriate questions to ask a victim, and mistakes to avoid. Support sessions were presented on the topics of skillful screening, age-appropriate abuse counseling, and the unique fallout of abuse committed by a spiritual leader.
Other speakers included Julie Lowe, a faculty member and counselor at the Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation, and Deepak Reju, associate pastor at Capitol Hill Baptist Church. Concluding the weekend, Love, Norris, Lowe, Reju, and Pierre were joined by Robert Jones, associate professor of Biblical counseling at Southern Seminary, for a panel discussion addressing how to properly care for victims of abuse.
Audio and video from the Counsel the Word event will soon be available online at equip.sbts.edu.