As I sat in college Bible classes, I daydreamed of what I’d be doing in ministry. I heard professors tell us students cool stories of being missionaries overseas. For the first time in my life, I was in the heart of the Bible Belt where the church was thriving. And it was awesome! I logged many hours at the feet of amazing, passionate men of God who have influenced and inspired so many–men like Jimmy Allen, Jack Lewis, Jerry Rushford, and so many others. I had dreams of being a church leader who, through the Holy Spirit, would experience God breathing life into his anemic church in the Northeast where I grew up. Then in 2011, just barely 2 years into my role as the preacher at my childhood congregation, those dreams were shattered when a victim disclosed to me that she had been molested for years by my father.
My world came crashing in on me. I had no idea the burden that God was about to place on my shoulders and the radical shift I was about to take in ministry. Nor would I know the price my family would pay for the sins of my father. My mother and I reported my childhood hero to the police. We both trembled in fear, not knowing what would happen next. My father, who ministered for decades at the church where I still preach to this day, is serving a 30-60 year sentence for sex crimes against very young children.
I still preach full time at the Somerset Church of Christ in Pennsylvania, about 15 miles from where hijacked United 93 nose dived into the ground on 9/11 and 5 miles from the Quecreek Mine where 9 trapped coal miners were rescued the following year. In 2015, I co-founded Church Protect, Inc. It is a non profit ministry that provides specialized training in the prevention and detection of child sexual abuse within churches. We also routinely consult with churches where allegations of abuse have surfaced and we walk those church leaders through the process of ministering their churches though it. It’s not as simple as suspecting abuse, reporting it, and going back to life as it was before. Once a report is made, lives and the course of the church are changed forever. Because I am wading through the carnage left behind by my father, we have a vested interest in helping churches and families prepare for the impact.
Abusers are incredibly skilled at grooming and molesting children, are tedious at covering their tracks, and are often the people we respect and admire the most. In fact, almost every church we’ve consulted with have had as their abusers the most trusted and well liked church leaders–preachers, elders, deacons, youth ministers, missionaries, Sunday school teachers, and leaders of Christian camps. While there’s never an excuse for protecting an abuser, I understand why most people deny that someone they know is raping children even when we repeat the facts back to them. This is the biggest reason we suggest churches hire professionals to consult with. Since my colleague and I usually don’t know the perpetrator personally, we can be far more objective and we have zero interest in protecting or covering for the abuser. The temptation to defend the offender is far too great when church leaders are forced to report their best friend. It creates a major conflict of interest for most people and it’s just good practice to have fresh eyes from an outsider. As a good friend recently said, “Justice is no longer blind if a judge is giving a sentence to a good friend of his.” Walking a church through the aftermath of abuse, especially when there are victims within the congregation, is an incredibly delicate process and must be handled with extreme care. There are so, so many variables that need to be considered.
Church Protect has a growing online Survivor’s Support section, where churches can send people who were once victims of child sexual abuse. These services are 100% free and confidential. The majority of abuse victims we speak with have either been ignored, excluded, disfellowshipped, forced to forgive their abuser, or were verbally (and sometimes sexually) abused by church leaders. This is revictimization at its worst and, sadly, it happens far more often than not. We felt that survivors needed a safe place to share with one another, so it was a natural progression to develop survivor support for survivors of child sexual abuse that is led solely by survivors.
In recent months, it is rare that a week passes without several congregations contacting us about allegations of abuse. I had another call just yesterday concerning a child rapist in a local church. Today there was another. Predators have enthusiastically infiltrated the church and are destroying the souls of our children in mass numbers. Peter was exactly right about wicked men who prey on the innocence of others: “Bold and willful, they do not tremble as they blaspheme the glorious ones, whereas angels, though greater in might and power, do not pronounce a blasphemous judgment against them before the Lord. But these, like irrational animals, creatures of instinct, born to be caught and destroyed. . . They count it pleasure to revel in the daytime. They are blots and blemishes, reveling in their deceptions, while they feast with you. They have eyes full of adultery, insatiable for sin. They entice unsteady souls.
They have hearts trained in greed. Accused children!” (2 Peter 2:10-14 ESV). There are an estimated 42 million people in the United States alone who have horrific stories of adults repeatedly molesting them when they were young children. Abuse doesn’t happen in a vacuum, it happens in our churches and homes. And it’s happening a lot.
In order to be effective at what we do, we have to know exactly how predators think, plan, and manipulate everyone around them. Because victims are young, are threatened if they tell, and have no vocabulary to describe what has been done to them, very few ever tell anyone. Gathering enough information to even make a report to police is incredibly difficult to accomplish. Most investigators, in our experience, shrug off reports of abuse even though most states mandate that church leaders report reasonable suspicion of abuse. It’s not that investigators don’t care, it’s that they are overworked. Sadly, investigators wear out from uncooperative reporters who give the bare minimum amount of information.
We work hard to help churches gather enough information to make a solid report but we work even harder to keep children safe from abusers. We can’t rely exclusively on the justice system. People often say that we need tougher laws to help the abuse epidemic. My response is that child sexual abuse is a felony in all 50 states. We can’t make it any more illegal to abuse a child. We don’t need more laws, we need more trained protectors. In the end, it takes all of us working together to keep our children safe.
I routinely enter into the “underworld” of the church–the place where predators reside, think, plan, and molest children. We call this our “special ops” ministry because few have the stomach for it. The conventional wisdom has been to teach churches to look for “signs of abuse.” We flip that completely on its head and teach churches not to look for abusers, but to look at ourselves through the eyes of a child predator. When we are able to do so, the wolves no longer look like sheep. Their cover has been blown and we can prevent abuse before it ever happens.
I recently developed a powerful 30-60 minute walk-through tool that I use when I train church staff and parents. The purpose is to get into role and demonstrate how predators are looking for opportunity to abuse children and what specific methods they use when they are abusing children in the churches. I will walk through the building and identify the most vulnerable areas and follow up with a report detailing how the church can improve those areas. I’ve visited churches that have incredible protection policies and I still, without exception, identify lots of vulnerable areas. The reason is that people underestimate how bold, willful, and persistent abusers are. Most people don’t believe that abusers are molesting children in the church building during worship (especially if we implement policies) and they falsely believe that we would be able to recognize abuse if it were going on. But our experience is that abusers intentionally abuse children during church services, they do it often, and unless we think like perpetrators we will almost never recognize abuse. We are shifting the culture in this area and our mission is simple–prevent abuse before it happens and put people in prison who have already abused children.
Children should not have to live in perpetual fear because of being repeatedly molested, threatened, and made to believe they are worthless. The irony is that abusers are most fearless once they’ve entered into the life of the church. It is, hands down, the safest place for abusers to molest children. We believe it’s time to turn the tables and have child rapists lose sleep because of the real threat of being caught. We are committed to work tirelessly to convince churches to lead the way in showing the world that children are the planet’s most precious resource. Children deserve to have a community of adults who love, respect, and protect them. Let’s be that community for them.