Help for churches concerned about sexual abuse

EDITOR’S NOTE — In response to the investigative report on sexual abuse in churches affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention published Feb. 10 by the Houston Chronicle, The Alabama Baptist has compiled the information below for our readers. The information is taken from articles on sexual abuse within the church that were previously published in The Alabama Baptist. We will continue to follow this story and provide additional resources for churches, parents and survivors of sexual abuse.

How to address sexual assault and protect children, adults within your church
(Originally published Oct. 8, 2018)

Sexual assaults and rape are rampant in today’s society. Even though sexual violence in the U.S. has fallen by more than half since 1993, rape continues to be a major problem, a humiliating crime that degrades and devastates its victims.

Every day more than 570 people experience sexual violence, and an estimated 17.7 million women have been victims of rape since 1998, according to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN).

Experts estimate that each year, 321,500 Americans in the general public (ages 12 and older) and 60,000 children are sexually assaulted or raped.

Statistics also show that 1 in 5 women — and 1 in 71 men — have been raped during their lifetime, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.


Almost half of those were sexually assaulted by someone they know.

Victims of rape fill our church pews in every worship service, most often sitting in shameful silence, feeling humiliated, alone and hurt.

“Because sexual assault is a form of victimization that is particularly stigmatized in American society, many victims suffer in silence, which only intensifies their distress and disgrace,” wrote Trillia Newbell, director of community outreach for the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention.

Among the many emotional and psychological reactions of Rape Trauma Syndrome, victims may feel:

  • Wounded physically, mentally and emotionally (and spiritually, if the rapist is a pastor, deacon or member of the church).
  • Angry with those who violated them.
  • Outraged that their rapists usually go free. (Ninety-nine percent of rapists walk free, receiving no punishment or jail time for their offense, according to the Huffington Post.)
  • Disgusted by people’s attitudes (for instance, when people view rape as a woman’s fault for wearing provocative clothing, flirting or using “bad judgment,” such as jogging at night alone).
  • Worried about sexually transmitted infections and possible pregnancy.
  • Shamed, degraded, dirty, hopeless, alone and guilty, leading to other problems such as depression, anxiety, stress, self-harm, substance abuse, fear, eating and sleep disorders and thoughts of suicide, according to RAINN.

As ambassadors of Christ, you and your church can be a sanctuary of healing and comfort, offering encouragement and hope to those victimized by rape, sexual abuse and violence.

What are some practical ways the Church can help victims of sexual abuse?

First, make church grounds and buildings safe.

  • Install lights in parking lots and hire visible security guards.
  • Hire reputable teachers and leaders and insist upon reference and background checks. Provide ongoing training for staff and volunteers.
  • Install windows in classroom doors.
  • Develop strong relationships with local police departments.
  • Have an emergency plan in place to deal with assault crimes.
  • Invest in two-way radios.
  • Create a single entrance into the church.

Another way you can help victims is to look for the common signs of someone who may have been sexually violated:

  • A happy, positive person who suddenly becomes sad, depressed, angry and cries often for no explainable reason.
  • A major lifestyle change happening in a person’s life — for instance, an organized, hardworking person who suddenly becomes lazy and unmotivated, misses appointments or stops functioning at work or school.
  • A socially active person who withdraws from church, family and friends.
  • A person who exhibits unusual behavior — such as being restless, easily agitated, frightened or startled more than usual, unable to relax or concentrate, emotionally numb, experiences loss of memory or panic attacks or shows self-destructive behavior.

Respond immediately

When you suspect or hear about a possible rape, respond immediately:

  • Make sure the victim receives proper medical care, and accompany them to report the crime to law enforcement.
  • Avoid asking details about the crime.
  • Help financially, if needed. Most rape kits (forensic exams) are free and are available through local law enforcement, and by law, you are not required to report the assault to law enforcement in order to receive a rape kit that can be used for later reporting.
  • Arrange counseling with a Christian professional in your church or community who specializes in sexual assault and rape.
  • As a congregation, encourage members to show the victim unconditional love and acceptance, listening to and valuing him or her, believing the person’s story and keeping confidences. Assure the person that he or she is the victim, not the criminal, and is not at fault. Walk with the person through the stages of the grief process,  praying with and for him or her.
  • Ask spiritually mature women in the church, perhaps also survivors of past sexual abuse, to befriend female victims, serving as advocates, jointly praying and reading Scripture, sitting together in worship services and offering encouragement and hope. Ask spiritually mature men in the church to befriend male victims of rape.
  • Make your church a safe place to talk about sexual violence and rape. Preach and teach about the sanctity of life and how our bodies, a dwelling place for the Holy Spirit, ought to be honored.

It also is important to educate your congregation about sexual assault:

  • Organize a support/educational group for girls, youth and women, teaching them to protect themselves against sexual predators, to understand the biblical rules for dating and marriage and how to help and respond to other women who are victims of rape.

Speak frankly

  • Educate the boys, youth and men in your church, teaching them to protect themselves from rape (10 percent of adult rape victims are men) and to relate to girls and women with respect.
  • Speak frankly to your church’s college-aged men and women about protecting themselves from rape on campuses, a trend that has become epidemic. Female students ages 18–24 are three times more likely than women in general to experience sexual violence, according to RAINN. Male students ages 18–24 are five times more likely than non-students of the same age to be a victim of rape or sexual violence.
  • Raise social awareness in your church and community by inviting professional speakers to address the epidemic of rape in our society.

Another important step is to teach the youth, men and women in your church the steps to take if they or someone they know is raped:

  • Call 911 if in immediate danger.
  • Contact the local police department. Visit a medical center. Report the crime. Ask to have a sexual assault forensic exam (collects DNA evidence).
  • Call the National Sexual Assault Hotline (1-800-656-4673) to talk with a counselor about procedures, reporting, etc.


Spiritual leaders hear sobering word about child sexual abuse within church

(Originally published Dec. 6, 2017)

Research suggests at least 60 million Americans are survivors of sexual abuse.

Concerned churches must be proactive in protecting children in their care from predators.

That was the message of the MinistrySafe Conference held at Canaan Baptist Church, Bessemer, on Sept. 19 (2017). The event was jointly sponsored by the Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions (SBOM) and GuideStone Financial Resources.

Greg Love, an attorney and a minister, served as presenter at the conference. Love and his wife, Kimberlee Norris, are co-founders of MinistrySafe and Abuse Prevention Systems of Fort Worth, Texas.

An estimated 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys under age 18 will be sexually abused, Love said. As a place where children are invited and welcomed, churches often attract predators.

Abusers most often go where the barriers are the lowest, Love explained.

“The Church is welcoming and affirming,” he said, “and we’re overjoyed when new people come and volunteer to work with children and youth. The abuser tries to gain the trust of leaders or what I call the ‘gatekeepers.’ They convince us they’re helpful, trustworthy and kind. Then they proceed to gain the trust of our children. This is called ‘grooming,’ and it’s a significant mark of the abuser.”

Love added that 50 percent of abuse in churches is perpetrated by volunteers, 30 percent by church staff and 20 percent by “aggressive children” or peer-on-peer abuse.

Once thought of by many as a Catholic problem, child sexual abuse crosses denominational lines now, Love said.

The problem is always a concern, said John Murphy, development manager for GuideStone property and casualty, noting it has been the top litigated claim in churches across the country in years past even though GuideStone has not had to deal with it often.

It’s what Love calls the “Baptist quandary” since other denominations have ecclesiastical systems, many of which have mandatory precautions against sexual predators.

Must identify the problem

“Baptists are congregational without a controlling authority but must do a better job identifying the problem (sexual predators in the Church) and implementing safeguards,” Love said.

The number of children harmed by each abuser is staggering. Ninety percent of abusers are males who began abusing their victims when they themselves were children — age 13 or 14, according to Lee Wright, coordinator of church compensation services for SBOM who helped organize the conference. Many abusers are never caught. The average age of arrest for a male perpetrator of sexual abuse is 35, meaning that the person might have been abusing boys 20 years or more. The typical female abuser has harmed 52 children before she’s stopped. Love defined sexual abuse as “any tricked, forced, manipulated or coerced sexual activity for the pleasure of the abuser.”

“The key is that the abused is not receiving pleasure, but most often guilt and repressed feelings,” he said. “The abuser has unequal power since he or she is an authority figure. And abuse need not be touching. Abusers can use social media to prey on children.”

Predators often introduce drugs, alcohol and pornography to young boys, and this adds to their guilt, which predators use to their advantage, Love said.

“With the girls, it’s more often social media, including Facebook, Snapchat and texting,” he said. “This is how young girls communicate today, and the predator is an expert on building trust and trying to form unhealthy relationships, including the sharing of pictures.”

Abusers look for children “on the fringe,” Love said, such as children in single-parent homes, children with meager possessions because of socioeconomic status or even children with physical impairments. Then they experiment with touching or closeness to see which children warm up to such attention.

Love highlighted three key failures in churches: the failure of staff to recognize risky behavior, the failure of staff to communicate to lay leadership and the failure of leadership to receive the information.

“The five words of regret I normally hear when we go into a church to do forensics are, ‘Now that you mention it …,’” he said. “Often church members notice abhorrent behavior and fail to report it until the abuse is complete.”

Love likened churches dealing with the fallout of abuse to the 9/11 Commission.

“The commission investigated why 9/11 happened,” he said. “This was after the fact. What churches need to be is more like Homeland Security — trying to prevent incidents before they occur.”

Safety system

An effective safety system involves at least five elements, beginning with awareness training, Love said. His organization and others offer training films that explain the dangers of exploitation.

“Skillful screening is also important,” he said. “This includes application forms that highlight high-risk responses and checking references.”

Background checks are the third element, Love said.

“Background checks aren’t a ‘silver bullet’ since sometimes predators are able to stay ‘under the radar’ of the legal system. But we must continue to require this of our workers,” he said.

The fourth element is appropriate policies.

“I’ve often heard church leaders talk of zero tolerance for sexual impropriety, but this can be meaningless unless the church has specific policies that are updated, shared and enforced,” Love emphasized.

The fifth element is monitoring.

“I can’t explain the psychology of an abuser,” he said, “nor is there a visual profile. What we look for is a behavioral profile. God has called church leaders to be shepherds and we mustn’t allow those with wolf-like qualities into the sheepfold. But even then we must continue to be observant.”


Reporting law includes clergy

Mandatory reporting is a term teachers and medical professionals know well. Pastors and church leaders may be less aware of their legal requirements when it comes to reporting child abuse or neglect.

According to Alabama law, any person who is asked to provide “aid or medical assistance” to a child “known or suspected to be a victim of child abuse or neglect” is required to report their concerns to the local Department of Human Resources (DHR). The DHR office is then responsible to investigate and provide necessary protective services.

The list of professionals named in the law is extensive and includes physicians, dentists, nurses, school teachers and officials, law enforcement officials, day care workers and members of the clergy.

The mandatory reporting law for clergy has been in place since 2003 in Alabama but has had little enforcement, said Lee Wright, coordinator of church compensation services for the Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions. That appears to be changing in part because child sexual abuse has become one of the top reasons that a church is taken to court, Wright said.

“There is more attention. The reporting law is beginning to be enforced in Alabama and many other states,” he said.
Most professionals who are mandatory reporters regularly undergo training in reporting procedures, but there is no such requirement for training in Alabama Baptist life.

And while some information shared with clergy by a church member seeking spiritual advice is considered confidential under Rule 505 of the Alabama Rules of Evidence, that law has “no impact” on child abuse reporting, according to state missionary Jim Swedenburg.

Failing to report suspected child abuse is a misdemeanor under Alabama law, punishable by a sentence of not more than six months’ imprisonment or a fine of not more than $500. (TAB)


Basic policies can help prevent child abuse in church
(Originally published Feb. 17, 2017)

“Unfortunately we can’t stop all child abuse in the world but we must try to prevent it in our churches,” said John Murphy, agent for GuideStone Financial Resources, the retirement and insurance agency for Southern Baptists.

Murphy was one of several presenters at the Considerations for a Safe Children’s Ministry conference at North Shelby Baptist Church, Birmingham, on Feb. 4 (2017). The event was sponsored by Shelby Baptist Association, the Shelby County Sheriff’s Department and the Shelby County Law Enforcement Chaplains Association.

Erin Woods, children’s minister for the Church of the Highlands’ Chapel at Grants Mill, Birmingham, used the acronym BANNN to explain the basic policies and procedures for her church.

The “B” stands for bathroom.

“We don’t want any preschooler to be in the bathroom with a single adult,” she said. “If the child needs help, another adult should be at the door as an observer and helper if needed. This prevents any misunderstanding when a child needs assistance.”

The “A” stands for appropriate affections.

Woods cautioned that though children need a lot of affection, child-care workers in the church must be judicious.

“The predator gains trust from the children often with hugging and stroking,” she said. “Our workers use ‘high fives,’ fist bumps and side hugs but no snuggling or cuddling or lap-sitting. Of course the church has always had members with genuine and good hearts who’ve done these things, but we’ve established a policy for everyone in order to prevent anyone from taking advantage of our boys and girls.”

The first “N” is for name tag. The Grants Mill church has devised a name tag system that is computer-generated so every child has an affixable tag with name, allergies and a number and letter code that is given to the parent or grandparent who brings them. In this way the church prevents unauthorized people from picking up children after activities.

“We also fill out accident reports if there’s a bumped head or a scratch and have the parent sign it,” she explained.

The second “N” is “no pictures.”

“We have church photographers take pictures occasionally for promotional purposes but we always get a release form from parents,” Woods said.

“Other than this workers are not to take any pictures of the children. We believe it’s inappropriate to post photos of someone else’s kids on social media. And we tell our workers to put their phones on the shelf when they’re teaching. We only have an hour and a half to pour as much of God into these young lives as we can and we don’t need to waste it using our phones for pictures or texting.”

The final “N” stands for “never alone.”

“At Highlands we follow the two-adult rule and we don’t count teens under 16 as adults,” Woods said. “A 16-year-old can volunteer as an adult. We still ask another adult to step in and help when preschoolers go to the bathroom and need help. Older children usually don’t need bathroom help but we have a monitor who lets the children go to the appropriate restroom one at a time.”

Deputy Heather Parramore, investigator for the Shelby County Sheriff’s Department, said predators often use social media to find lonely children and try to build a relationship.

“They pick kids with problems and try to make them feel better,” she said. “They can be 1,000 miles away but they try to build a friendship, asking the children to send inappropriate pictures of themselves.

“Sometimes the predator is local and can even be a person known to the child and the family,” she noted. “The predator may give gifts to open the door to relationship, and then threaten, blackmail or bribe the child not to reveal any secrets.”

Parramore said parents must monitor computer use and never let children use the computer behind locked doors.

“Trust your instincts,” she said. “Stop contact with someone you suspect. Encourage your child to talk to you about the relationship and don’t hesitate to contact law enforcement.”

Murphy cited statistics supporting the fact that most predators are not caught quickly.

“Most abusers have molested scores of children before they’re stopped and this happens because of our reluctance to report,” he said.

“Most predators have no visual profile; they have a behavioral profile. They try to isolate children and build trust. That’s why we must be wise in assigning workers in our churches.”

Background screening

Murphy said Brotherhood Mutual, the insurance agency for GuideStone, is handling some 300 sexual abuse claims every year.

He said screening all staff and volunteer workers is a must and the screening should be repeated every two or three years.

“Ninety-five percent of all predators have never been backgrounded,” he said. “This can be our first line of defense in the church, along with the six-month rule. No workers should be assigned before having been members for at least six months.”

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Faith and Family: Keeping children safe at church – screening, supervision of workers vital to keeping children safe from sexual predators
(Originally published July 20, 2015)

A church should be a refuge from the dangers of the world. Unfortunately we hear all too often about children who have been abused at church by those entrusted to guide and protect them.

Although many high-profile cases of sexual abuse deal with stranger abduction, molestation typically occurs within a long-term, ongoing relationship between the offender and victim, writes Laura Ahearn, executive director of Parents for Megan’s Law and the Crime Victims Center.

“Sexual predators are smart, extremely cunning and often individuals you least expect would commit such crimes,” Ahearn said on her organization’s website. “Sometimes they are the well-respected pillars of the community. They develop elaborate schemes and go to great extents to do anything to get access to children.”

That’s why prevention efforts must focus on screening and supervision, said Chip Smith, an associate in the office of Leader­Care and church administration at the Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions (SBOM).

Background checks

Screening in the form of background checks is the first step churches should take when it comes to allowing any person to work with children. Before hiring staff members, churches should do a complete background check on the potential employee, including criminal, credit and motor vehicle records.

For volunteers, the process does not have to be that extensive, Smith said. A Child Abuse and Neglect report from the Child Protective Services division of the Alabama Department of Human Resources (DHR) will suffice. Form 1598, known as a CA/N (“can”), is available on the DHR website,

“A DHR check can tell you if there have been any reports made on that individual,” Smith said.

A DHR report is free and churches who have never done them can start with current volunteers, then do checks as additional volunteers come on board, Smith said. No one should be exempted, he added.

“The most common question I hear from pastors is do we have to screen everybody that works with children,” Smith said. “The answer is yes for both staff and volunteers. Churches shouldn’t grandfather anyone in either. If you do that, you’ve lost the effectiveness of the process.”

Most people are going to be fine with the background check, Smith said. Failing to screen in order to avoid hurt feelings not only puts the church at risk of lawsuits, it puts children at risk of abuse.

“If something happens, parents are going to want to know if the church tried to prevent this from happening,” Smith said. “Doing something is better than doing nothing.”

Pastors also are mandatory reporters, which means if they receive a credible report of potential abuse or neglect, they must tell child protection services. If no concerns are found in an investigation, pastors are not liable. However, if a pastor fails to report a concern and the child is further abused, the pastor can be sued for nonreporting, Smith said. It’s just something pastors and leaders who work with children must do.

“You’re looking after the welfare of children,” Smith said.

Supervision during church activities is the second key to prevention, especially in youth ministry, which is considered a high-risk situation for sexual misconduct allegations, Smith said.

“Youth workers are often closer in age to the teens they work with, they’re often unmarried and they spend a lot of time with youth, sometimes off-premises or at overnight activities,” Smith said.

Youth ministry teams can be helpful, as can policies that prohibit spontaneous unsupervised outings, Smith said. It also is important that only adults be allowed to chaperone youth ministry activities. Chaperones should not be younger than 21 and ideally they should be 25 or older.

“In Alabama anyone under the age of 18 is considered a child, and anyone supervising them should be a legal adult,” Smith said.

James Dew, vice president for undergraduate studies and academic support at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina, also suggests the two-person rule. This policy states that two adult workers must be present during all children and youth activities, especially those that occur off church premises or do not take place during normal church hours.

“In best cases, at least one of these workers will be a woman, particularly when changing diapers or assisting children with restroom breaks,” Dew said. “Teens or preteens who help with the nursery, children’s church or ministries like AWANA should not count toward the two-person rule.”

Other simple steps churches can take to increase supervision of children’s activities are to put windows in doors and to have someone walking through the children’s area when children are present. Other simple steps, like strategically placing mirrors and video cameras and locking unused rooms, can be deterrents to sexual abuse situations as well.

Strict policies

When activities take children’s groups off-site, precautionary measures should include adequate adult chaperones, frequent roll calls and little unsupervised time.

Such strict policies may seem excessive but a church must do everything possible to keep kids safe at church, even if it means challenging the comfort level of the congregation.

“Precautions, individually or taken together, will not provide a 100 percent guarantee against child predators,” Dew said. “However, these simple guidelines give practical and effective layers of protection to our children, our churches and to the name of Christ. All of us want our children to be safe, but that won’t happen if we aren’t deliberate and aggressive to pursue such protection. Our children and our mission are worth the cost.”


5 ways to ease concerns about child safety at church

Talk: Talk often with your child and set a tone of openness. Talking openly and directly will let your child know that it’s OK to come to you when they have questions. If your child comes to you with concerns or questions, make time to listen and talk to them.

Teach: Teach children the names of their body parts so that they have the language to ask questions and express concerns about those body parts. If your child is uncomfortable around a specific adult, pay attention to their discomfort. Teach your child that if someone ever touches them inappropriately, he or she should tell a trusted adult immediately.

Empower: Your child should know that he or she has the right to speak up if they are uncomfortable or if someone is touching them inappropriately. Teach them that it’s OK to say “no” even to adults they know, including family or church members. Empower them to have healthy boundaries and to understand that it is almost never okay for anyone to touch their private areas (any part that is covered by a swimsuit).

Implement: Make sure there are safety protocols and policies in place to protect children both at home and church and that these policies are enforced. Protocols and policies are worthless if they are not implemented.

Educate: Educate church members, staff members and yourself about the warning signs of child sexual abuse. Educate them about what to look out for and prepare them for the best way to respond to potential situations.