April is child abuse prevention and sexual assault awareness month. While one would hope that churches would be a safeguard against child abuse, that is not always the case. Last year, the Southern Baptist Convention faced a backlash and investigation for hiding sexual abuse allegations. In its own way, the Seventh-day Adventist Church has made efforts to speak to issues of rape and assault through programs like enditnow. Ultimately, though, the responsibility to keep children safe needs to start at the local level with churches themselves. According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), every 68 seconds, an American is sexually assaulted, and every 9 minutes, that victim is a child. Is your church talking about proactively keeping children safe? Here are some discussion points to start the conversation.
Does your church evaluate those who work with children? Every single adult working with children needs to have a background check. Conduct your own check using the National Sex Offender Public Website (NSOPW). Ask for multiple references from previous churches or positions prior to someone working with children. Request links for their social media accounts. While these measures aren’t fail-safe to prevent abuse, they are a starting point to alert predators that your church community is proactive in keeping children safe.
Teach Children about Grooming
Gone are the days when children should only be taught to be alert for “stranger danger.” RAINN reports that 93% of child sexual abuse happens with someone the child knows, and only 7% with strangers. It is important that churches take active measures to teach children the warning signs of grooming. Teach children about consent. Children have a right to bodily autonomy, including refusing to receive hugs, kisses, or any other undesired attention from others. Teach children about unsafe secrets. The nonprofit Fight Child Abuse has a wide variety of YouTube videos that explain these topics in a child-friendly way.
Look Out for the Signs
While only some church members will work directly with children, it should be everybody’s job to look out for signs of child sexual abuse. Some signs include:
– Keeping secrets and not talking as much as usual.
– Not wanting to be left alone with certain people or being afraid to be away from primary caregivers, especially if this is a new behavior.
– Overly compliant behavior.
– Sexual behavior that is inappropriate for the child’s age.
– Change in eating habits.
– Change in mood or personality, such as increased aggression.
– Decrease in confidence or self-image.
– Excessive worry or fearfulness.
– Increase in unexplained health problems such as stomach aches and headaches.
– Loss or decrease in interest in school, activities, and friends.
– Nightmares or fear of being alone at night.
– Self-harming behaviors.
In addition to teaching children to trust their gut when they are feeling something is not right, reinforce that idea to the congregation as well. If something does not look or seem right, it is worth bringing it to others’ attention.
Does your church have a system in place for reporting signs of abuse? If you are concerned for a child’s safety, have a designated adult be aware of the situation. The child should be talked to in a safe space where the designated adult can ask direct questions. Reassure the child that this is not a matter of being in trouble, but follow up with the concerning signs that prompted the conversation. Never tell the child that the conversation will stay private.
If the child discloses abuse, do not make promises that the abuse will end—unfortunately, even with correct reporting, this may not be a guarantee. Begin by affirming the child, “I believe you, I am sorry this happened to you.” It is estimated that only 4 to 8 percent of child sexual abuse reports are false or fabricated. Or, in other words, between 92 and 96 percent of reports are true. Erring on the side of believing a survivor will always be the safer choice.
Depending on what you notice and what your role is in the church, you will have a different obligation as a mandated reporter. Know what those requirements are for your state. Call or text the Childhelp National Abuse Hotline at 800-422-4453 when you are ready to make a report.
Have a plan in place for situations of child abuse involving church members or visitors. Abuse continues when people are unwilling to talk about it happening. Even if your church does not have a safety plan in place, it is never too late to begin the conversation. Your church will be safer for it.
Raquel Mentor is the associate digital editor of Spectrum.
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