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4 ways churches can respond to the spiritual impact of child abuse

A 7-year-old girl sexually abused by her father squirms in her chair, stares at her toes, and hesitantly asks the investigator, “Am I still a virgin in God’s eyes?” A sexually abused boy walks into a crowded courtroom and sees both his ministers and half a dozen church elders present to support the father he accuses of violating him. The child tugs on the suit of the prosecutor and whispers in his ear, “Does this mean that God is against me too?” Another boy recounts in therapy years of physical and emotional abuse from his parents. “I prayed and prayed for the abuse to stop but it never did. Why didn’t God answer my prayers?” 

These cases, and thousands just like them, reflect what researchers call “spiritual injuries” that result when an abused child is violated in the name of religion or simply has profound spiritual questions as a result of the abuse. Left unresolved, spiritual injuries also impair the physical and mental health of abused children. If, however, qualified mental health and pastoral care providers work in tandem to address the spiritual impact of abuse, faith can be a significant source of resiliency that aids in coping with abuse

Unfortunately, many mental health providers and clergy have received little or no training on the spiritual impact of child abuse. As a result, many abused children suffer in silence with no qualified professional able to address their needs. It doesn’t have to be this way. Churches taking seriously the command of Jesus to protect children (Mark 9:42) and to minister to the least of these (Matt. 25:45) should take at least four practical steps. 

First, churches should witness their faith by implementing child protection policies to prevent abuse. Many churches don’t have any policies and those that do often have policies focused only on preventing sexual abuse within the church. This is because policies are often drafted by insurance companies and law firms that want to prevent the sort of abuse most likely to result in a lawsuit. A true Christian witness would result in policies addressing not only sexual abuse but also physical abuse, emotional abuse, neglect, and witnessing domestic violence. Moreover, these policies should not only address abuse within the church but also abuse in the home. Dr. Shira Berkovits writes of 10 core policies each faith community should have. Churches should review this guidance and see how close they are in meeting best practices. In addition, The Introductory Guide to Caring Well will help you think through making your church a safe place. 

Second, churches should require quality training on recognizing and responding to child abuse. Without training, even the best child protection policies will fail. The Centers for Disease Control recommends that churches and other youth serving organizations require training of pastors and others working with youth. This training should include instruction on recognizing signs of abuse, responding to a report or suspicion of abuse, monitoring employees and volunteers working with children, and implementing personal safety training for youth and parents. The training should be provided by experts in child abuse and address all forms of abuse. 

There are many high quality child abuse training programs. The Child Safeguarding Training Program offered by GRACE, the Standing Up for Children training program of the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod, and the Keeping Faith training program of Zero Abuse Project are three solid options. The Caring Well initiative of the Southern Baptist Convention also provides online training and other resources. In the Jewish Community, Sacred Spaces has launched a pioneering training program called “Aleinu” (which means “it’s on us”) that allows a congregation to develop multiple best practices online while receiving expert assistance at each step of the way. 

Third, churches should speak openly about child abuse. A survivor of abuse once told me he longed to return to church but was waiting until he could find a congregation where the pastor had spoken about child abuse from the pulpit. Every Sunday night he listened to area sermon podcasts certain he would eventually find such a church. Week after week, month after month, his search came up empty and, after several years, he simply gave up. “I love Jesus,” the man told me, “but I can’t find Christ in the church.” 

This man is not alone. A Lifeway study found that 1 in 10 Protestants below the age of 35 have left a church because of silence or insensitivity in responding to abuse. In my Lutheran community, 65% of our parishioners do not believe our churches are fully prepared to respond to sexual abuse. 

Jesus said how we treat children reflects how we receive God (Mark 9:36-37). When pastors preach about child abuse, discuss maltreatment in Bible class, and develop proactive ministries for those wounded by abuse, they speak volumes about their attitude toward Christ.

Fourth, churches should develop collaborations with child protection professionals. In some states, there are creative partnerships between faith leaders and child protection workers. In Minnesota, for instance, a program called Care in Action works with social services to provide resources for children in need. If, for instance, a child is in foster care and wants to go to prom but doesn’t have money for a prom dress, partnering churches will work to address the need. 

In the United States, many maltreated children receive services through accredited Children’s Advocacy Centers. Some of these centers have developed chaplaincy services to address the spiritual needs of abused children and to educate local faith leaders about trauma-informed pastoring of children and adults impacted by maltreatment. 

A survivor of abuse once asked me how Christians could worship a God who was a victim of abuse while failing to care for the child abuse victims in our pews. To this survivor, and so many others, the true Christian church will only be known by its fruit (Matt. 7:20). 

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