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:
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:
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:
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/