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The Church, Child Abuse and Adult Survivors

Posted on Tuesday, April 21, 2015 4:40 PM

In 1983 President Ronald Reagan designated April as Child Abuse Awareness Month. Most churches know something about this subject because of required Boundary Training for clergy and Safe Church policies for child care workers. Awareness raising is often motivated by a fear of litigation rather than the realization that it’s a crime against the state and constitutes violence toward persons created in God’s image. Because clergy and volunteers are often front line workers with children, in most states they are considered Mandatory Reporters (https://www.rainn.org/public-policy/laws-in-your-state). Child sexual abuse (CSA) is nonconsensual sexual contact with minors that includes sexually suggestive conversation, sexual exposure, showing sexual materials, touching and penetration. By virtue of the inherent power differential, any sexualized behavior between adults and children is considered nonconsensual. Most perpetrators of child abuse are relatives or friends of the family. For that reason few children tell for fear they won’t be believed. Research suggests only 38% disclose (London, et al; 2003) even though few allegations (4% to 8%) are fabricated (Everson, et al; 1989).

I experienced this conspiracy of silence first hand in a church where I served as Associate Pastor. A choir member of 30 years began dating a new church member who quickly rose in rank to deacon. He was charming, charismatic and well liked by the congregation. One night this beloved deacon was caring for this choir member’s children. She returned from work to find him in bed with her two children. Pressing criminal charges, some in the church called her a “whining woman.” But when the case went to trial, he was convicted and sentenced to 9 years in prison. Still in denial, a church Elder created an 800 number so that church members could call to support the offender. Congregants took sides, stayed silent and marginalized the mother. Shame took root resulting in the bottom-line message that the offender was right and the family was wrong. I wish this was an exception. But I’ve heard this story-line recycled across conservative and liberal church corridors throughout the country.

An old adage tells us that time heals all wounds. But children don’t grow out of child abuse. Instead, they grow up to be adult survivors. In the words of a scholar and survivor (Schmutzer, 2011), recovery is a “long journey home with life-altering effects.” Because most survivors are surprisingly resilient, many become successful professionals who overcome obstacles at all odds. Hence, connecting what we see with their stories can be a stretch when we don’t know the symptoms. Well put-together perfectionists to deflect shame, survivors struggle with low self-esteem, chronic emptiness, unstable relationships, life-altering anxiety, ongoing mistrust of others and unpredictable emotions alongside health issues and alcohol abuse to medicate psychic pain. Most that I see in my clinical practice feel small in size, rank and influence. Surviving by splitting feelings from thinking, theirs is a disease of denial locked in a long silence that in the words of one client “feels like seeing fish under a frozen pond.”

The scope of child abuse in this country is so staggering that it’s considered a “hidden epidemic” (https://www.childhelp.org/child-abuse-statistics/). It’s estimated that 1 in 4 women and 1 in 6 men are victims of child abuse before the age of 18 (ACE, 1996). According to one of the most respected studies of child abuse (National Incidence Study, 2010), there are more than 135,000 reports of child sexual abuse in United States annually. Thirty seven percent are incested by a biological parent, 23% by a step parent and 87% were abused by a male with girls being sexually abused at a rate over five times that of boys. As a tax-payer you'll be surprised to find out that in the U.S., reported cases of child sexual abuse represent the second most expensive victim crime behind murder, costing the U.S. billions annually (Fang, et. al; 2012). Because churches are embedded in society, credible statistics suggest that the rate of abuse is no different in churches than society. This means that more than 25% of the members of a typical congregation have experienced abuse. Therefore, says Presbyterian pastor James Poling, “victims, survivors and perpetrators are present in every congregation whenever a sermon is preached” (1998).

Faced with this human rights issue of epic proportions why do churches stay silent? We speak up about racism, hunger, and homelessness. Why so silent about abuse? Dr. Janelle Kwee suggests that unlike facing some disasters, psychological trauma causes us to confront two troubling aspects of human nature: “the repulsive capacity for evil and our profound vulnerability to one another” (2011). Psychiatrist Judith Herman echoes a similar sentiment stating that in the aftermath of a natural disaster, a witness naturally sides with the victim since there’s only one to choose (1997). But in cases of sexual abuse, right and wrong isn’t as clear-cut. Consider the Jerry Sandusky case where colleagues clearly saw the crime, but chose to stay silent to preserve brand, reputation, and the status quo. That said, systemic silence is nothing new. It happened in the Holocaust, Abu Ghraib, the Catholic Crisis, Protestant Churches and continues across this country on college campuses, military bases and sports teams. It happens where people see something, but won't say something.

In such a time as this how can we break the silence and become a sanctuary for victims and survivors of child sexual abuse? Is there a way to believe survivors and hold offenders accountable that affords a restorative response for all parties involved including the church community? These are critical questions for the 21st Century Church that wants to follow Jesus Christ. Boundary Training for clergy and Safe Church polices for congregations aren't enough.The clarion call is to educate ourselves (see Darkness to Light at d2l.csod.com), raise awareness in our congregations, proactively craft a plan with church boards, refer victims to qualified counselors and collaborate with civil service agencies rather than conducting inside investigations when a crime is committed. We can no longer circle the wagons, protect our brand and stay silent. For in the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil.”


ACE Study-Prevalence-Adverse Child experiences, http://www.cdc.gov/needphp/aceprevalence.htm.

Everson, M. and Boat, B. (1989). Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. 28, 2:230-35.

Fang, X., Brown, D., Florence, C., Mercy, J. (2012) The economic burden of child maltreatment in the United States and implications for prevent. Child Abuse & Neglect, 36:2,156-165.

Herman, J. (1997). Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence-From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Kwee, J. (2011). The adult survivor. The Long Journey Home, Smutzer, A. (Ed.). 277-292.

London, K., Bruck, M., Ceci, S., & Shuman, D. (2003) Disclosure of child sexual abuse: What does the research tell us about the ways that children tell? Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, 11(1), 194-226.

Poling, (1998). Preaching to perpetrators of violence. Telling the Truth, 72.

Sedlak, et al. Fourth National Incidence Study of Child Abuse an Neglect. (NIS-4): Report to Congress. Washington, DC: US Dept. of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families.

Shumutzer, A. Ed. (2011). The Long Journey Home. Eugene, OR: WIPF & STOCK.

Ullman, S. E. (2007). Relationship to perpetrator, disclosure, social reactions, and PTSD symptoms in child sexual abuse survivors. Journal of Child Sexual Abuse, 16(1), 19-36.

Weinhold, B. (Dec. 20, 2011) Systemic silences. The Courier-Journal (Letter to the Editor).
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