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Reflections

April is Child Abuse Awarenss Month. A Call to Churches

This season of Lent couples Easter and Child Abuse Awareness Month. Recognizing the ramifications of child abuse, the Child Abuse Protection and Treatment Act (CAPTA) was legislated by our Federal government in 1974. Raising awareness, President Ronald Reagan proclaimed April as Child Abuse Awareness Month in 1983. This tradition continues today. Church-goers find it hard to hear the words ‘child’ and ‘abuse’ in the same sentence. It seems like an oxymoron. But it’s not. See these statistics: 
 
  • A report of child abuse is made every ten seconds about as long as it takes to blink twice.
  • More than four children die every day as a result of child abuse.
  • Approximately 70% of children that die from abuse are under the age of 4. 
  • More than 90% of juvenile sexual abuse victims know their perpetrator.  
  • The estimated annual cost of child abuse in the United States for 2008 is $124 billion.
      Source: http://www.childhelp-usa.com/pages/statistics 

But statistics are just one side of the coin. Abused children grow up to be adult survivors with lingering scars and life-altering effects. These are some of the
symptoms: hard to regulate roller-coaster emotions, trouble speaking their truth,  
mistrust in relationships, blurred boundaries, low self esteem and damaged faith (https://www.childwelfare.gov/pubs/factsheets/long_term_consequences.pdf).   Covered with shame and surrounded by silence, many can’t name what happened and are unaware of how past abuse connects with present problems. 
 
Churches are called by God to care for the most vulnerable among us. Certainly abused children and adult survivors fit this category. And if we think abuse exists in secular society but eludes our sacred sanctuaries, think again. Child abuse occurs at every socioeconomic level, across ethnic and cultural lines, within all religions and at all levels of education (http://www.childhelpusa.com/pages/statistics).
But perpetrators aren’t primarily clergy. The Christian Science Monitor featured an article reporting the results of a longitudinal survey conducted by Christian Ministry Resources in 2002. CMR cites that the rate of sexual abuse across all denominations is the same and that perpetrators are more likely to be volunteers than clergy (http://www.ethicsdaily.com/news.php?viewStory=16146). To that point Presbyterian pastor James Poling summarizes that “more than 25% of the members of a typical congregation have experienced violence. Therefore, victims, survivors and perpetrators are present in every congregation whenever a sermon is preached” (Telling the Truth, p. 72). 

Since the church isn’t called sanctuary for nothing its important to respond restoratively. For starters the task seems two-fold: prevention and intervention.
Here are some practical tips toward prevention:

  • Put this article on your Board's agenda and discuss what to do.
  • Establish a plan & procedures collaboratively with church leaders.
  • Familiarize everyone with the mandatory reporting laws of your state. See https://www.rainn.org/public-policy/laws-in-your-state).
  • Conduct background checks on all who work with children.
  • Consult an attorney and update your insurance policy.
  • Invite an abuse prevention educator to address church/board.
  • Hold a boundary training for congregation, staff and church leadership.
  • Report rather than investigate crimes.
  • Preach a sermon/offer special prayer during Child Abuse Awareness Month. 
    NOTE: For a bulletin insert and liturgical resource click here: http://www.beverlyweinhold.org/blog/2014/03/28/Child-Abuse-Awareness-MonthResources-for-Churches.aspx 

Beyond prevention, intervention is equally important. An informed response is critical when a victim discloses. Because child abuse is a largely a silent and witness-free crime, detection is difficult. The burden of proof falls on the victim. Fearing not being believed, delayed disclosure is common. While church leaders are often concerned about false allegations ruining reputations, credible research has consistently shown that false allegations by abused children are extremely rare
(http://www.sidran.orgpdf/Falsereportsbychildren.pdf). Not to believe a victim who discloses becomes a double sin. Here are important tips toward intervention: 

  • Familiarize clergy/staff with local professionals who specialize in abuse.
  • Reflect theologically regarding how the church can respond to survivors at http://journals.biola.edu/jpt/assets/16/40-257.pdf
  • Belive victims when they disclose. Look them in the eye and say: “I believe you. I’m so sorry. What happened to you is wrong and it's not your fault." 
  • Refer survivors to qualified, licensed professionals rather than offering pastoral counseling.

In summary, April is Child Abuse Awareness Month. Children are suffering from a hidden  epidemic of child abuse and neglect. Every year more than 3 million reports of child abuse are  made in the U.S. During this season of Lent in April 2014, we are called to contemplate the broken body of Christ by caring about child abuse and adult survivors. Because we are called to incarnate Christ and live into what it means to be church, we can't choose to stay silent. For "if no one remembers a misdeed or names it publicly, it remains invisible. To the observer, its victim is not a victim and its perpetrator is not a perpetrator; both are misperceived because the suffering of the one and the violence of the other go unseen. A double injustice occurs—the first when the original deed is done and the second when it disappears.” (Volfe, 2007). 


Sources & Resources

Child Welfare Information Gateway. (n.d.). What is child abuse and neglect? Recognizing the signs and symptoms. Retrieved from

Fang, X., et al. (2012). The economic burden of child maltreatment in the United States and implications for prevention. Child Abuse & Neglect, 36 (2), 156-165. Retrieved from: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0145213411003140 

Poling, J. (1998). Preaching to perpetrators of violence.  In McClure, J., Ramsay, N., Telling the truth: Preaching against sexual and domestic violence, (p. 72). United Church Press, Cleveland: OH.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, Administration on Children, Youth and Families, Children’s Bureau.
(2013). Child maltreatment. Retrieved from http://www.acf.hhs.gov/programs/cb/research-data-technology/statistics-research/child-maltreatment 

Veith, V. (2012). What would Walther do? Applying law and gospel to victims and perpetrators of child sexual abuse. Journal of Psychology and Theology, 4 (4), 257-273. Retrieved Mar 7, 2014 from  http://journals.biola.edu/jpt/assets/16/40-257.pdf

Weinhold, Beverly. (Dec 20, 2011). Systemic silence. The Courier-Journal. (Letter to the editor).Retrieved March 7, 2014 from http://www.courier-journal.com/article/20111221/OPINION02/312210056/

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