I had the great pleasure of meeting Basyle “Boz” Tchividjian in person last year in Virginia at the Courage Conference. Boz has been a shining light of inspiration for myself and my husband for several years now. A one-time prosecutor, and founder of the justice-seeking organization GRACE (Godly Response to Abuse in a Christian Environment), Boz has a boundless zeal for the protection of children, for pursuing legal reforms, and for calling the church to higher standards of both justice and mercy. I personally know him to be that rare thing — a very busy, very sought after expert in his field, who is nonetheless always personable, always compassionate, and always available to serve as a resource on the topics he is so zealous for. Today I’ve asked Boz to give me his perspective on a number of sexual abuse disclosure scenarios that are fictional, but portray situations common enough that we should all be equipped to respond appropriately to them, whether as onlookers, or participants on a more intimate footing. I have also asked Boz to introduce my readers to GRACE’s exciting new program for educating churches in child safety. GRACE’s Child Safeguarding Certification Initiative is scheduled for release in fall of 2017.
“At the end of the day, who is our priority? If being vigilant in protecting the most vulnerable people in our church might upset a few people, then so be it.”
In this next portion of the interview, with Boz’s permission, I presented him with some fictional abuse scenarios that could happen within any church, and asked him how he would respond. These scenarios are hypothetical, and not intended to represent any particular individual or church.
So, if you’re ok with this, Boz, I’d like to give you some scenarios, and ask what you would recommend if someone were to come to you about situations like these.
Sure, and it will be important for me to preface every answer with the caveat that my responses are based on the limited information you provide, and these are just some personal suggestions on how I would recommend responding.
All right. Let’s say there’s an older sibling who abused a younger sibling, maybe even several years ago, and the family and/or church have no interest in reporting it legally, or pursuing professional counseling. It’s sad, but I think this happens a lot and families and churches feel really conflicted about how to love both parties, so they end up handling it in-house instead of taking it to the authorities. What would you say to a family or church in that position?
Well, my initial thought is that if we know someone engaged in some form of sexual abuse on a sibling when he or she was younger — our knowledge of research as it relates to offenders tells us that they usually don’t stop.
Meaning you’d be concerned with repeat offenses. Would you differentiate between “sexual abuse” by a sibling and childhood exploration that’s more of a mutual thing?
Yes, there’s research that outlines what type of behavior is within the norm for particular ages as it relates to childhood exploration for varying age ranges. So I can tell you this — outside of normal would be an adolescent engaged in sexual contact with a younger sibling. Usually when we see something within the normal range, it’s children who are about the same age, who are engaged in some type sort of innocent, curious behavior with each other or themselves. What you don’t find within a normal range is somebody who’s older engaged in that type of behavior with one who is younger. That demonstrates a dynamic of the older one using his or her age and physical power and influence over somebody who is more vulnerable, which is a concern. Other relevant behaviors can include whether the adolescent perpetrated at times and in locations where there was little chance of getting caught, or whether the adolescent verbally or physically threatened the victim at the time of the abuse. So based on this scenario, I would want to know whether there were other victims along the way. If the situation isn’t properly addressed immediately, the perpetrator is empowered to continue abusing.
“Research shows that if there’s any group of population that has any chance of truly rehabilitating from [perpetrating sexual abuse] it’s juveniles. So why in the world would you not take this as an opportunity to get your child the substantive help he needs?”
One other major concern is with regard to the victim. What type of professional and qualified assistance has been provided to the victimized child ? And another question — is the victim living in a home which encourages them not to realize that what happened to them was wrong and probably a crime? Some abused children come, in a sad way, to accept the narrative that mom and dad want embraced — that the abuse was nothing more than innocent exploration. They have no other option but to accept the admonition from the adults in their lives that what happened wasn’t good, but that “you’re going to be fine and move on.” Sadly, that’s where a lot of victims end up, and it’s not until many years later, sometimes never, that the reality sets in about what actually happened to them as a child.This is not easy stuff. Intra-familial abuse is really difficult to deal with, but handling it on our own will never result in the right ending. One thing I think parents who find themselves in this type of situation need to understand is that there is research that indicates that the population of offenders who has the greatest chance at genuine rehabilitation are juveniles. So why in the world would you not take this as an opportunity to get your child the substantive help he/she needs? The best way to do that, quite frankly, is to follow the law and report it. The offending child will most likely go into the juvenile system, a system that is far from perfect, but it will most likely have the best resources available for the offending child as well as the victimized sibling. Oftentimes, I find parents don’t do either. If the victim is younger, many parents convince themselves that if they just love them, stop talking about it, and move on, the victim will soon forget about it and have a healthy, happy life. I can tell you, I’ve met many people in their twenties and thirties who experienced just that, and their lives are anything but happy and healthy — because they were traumatized, and their bodies knew it, but their minds didn’t necessarily realize it until later on in life. As a result, they never received the professional help they needed to even begin healing, let alone live a healthy life.
One other important point I want to make on this subject: What message do parents communicate to an adolescent who has perpetrated on a younger sibling when they don’t report that crime to law enforcement? What message are you communicating to the perpetrator? The overarching one is, “It’s ok, this isn’t a big deal.” That is not the message you want to be sending to a young sex offender. No less important, what message are those same parents communicating to the victimized child? Sooner or later, that child will want to know why his/her parents did not advocate for him or her by handling this grievous situation in a legal and responsible manner.
Those are some really great insights. Ok, so here’s another one. Let’s say a convicted child molester gets out of prison and wants to join a local congregation. How should the church respond?
Well, there’s a lot of debate about this among Christians. The older I get the more I have come to believe that if an adult has sexually victimized a child, he or she should not be allowed to be a part of corporate worship. I know many will disagree with me, and that is ok. But this is a belief I have formed after dealing with these issues issue for over twenty years. Now, I’m not saying they can’t be part of the church, just that they should not be part of corporate worship, because that typically includes children. I remember receiving a call a few years ago from a person who was attending seminary, and he informed me that he had a sexual attraction to children. In response to this disturbing disclosure, I asked him whether he had ever acted on those urges, and he assured me he never had. I am still somewhat haunted by the fact that I have no idea whether he was telling me the truth. He then proceeds to tell me that sometimes after seeing a child during the day, he goes home and indulges in erotic fantasies about that child. Based on that conversation I told him he shouldn’t attend corporate worship where there are children present, and he got really incensed with me and ended the call shortly thereafter. The thing is, even though he said he had never acted on his attractions to children, he actually had. I didn’t want my child or any other child that he may encounter at church to be the subject of his erotic fantasies. When the church allows a person who admits to sexually fantasizing about children to be in corporate worship, I don’t believe they are protecting their children or serving that individual well.
“If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my twenty something years of dealing with this, it’s you don’t get all your information from the alleged perpetrator.”
Here’s the thing. Whether it’s inside the church or outside the church, we want to create controlled environments where people who have these struggles can be able to share them with somebody. I believe that is the only way the very few of these individuals who earnestly desire genuine help will ever find it. What I would like to see is a system where we don’t just kick people out, we still engage them in the life of the church, but we also create strong and well defined boundaries for the protection of our children. The most dangerous thing about most offenders is not what’s below their belt, but what’s between their ears. I often hear churches say they allow known sex offenders to attend their corporate worship but that they require them to have a chaperone. If you’re actually concerned that there is even a chance that someone’s going to harm a child while on the premises, should that person really be allowed on the property with children present? It’s like saying I’m concerned this person is a serial killer, and so we’ll just have someone follow him around. I think the chaperone thing is done to make ourselves feel better. At the end of the day, who is our priority? If being vigilant in protecting the most vulnerable people in our church might upset a few people, then so be it.
One realistic option might be to integrate the offender into a home community group comprised only of adults, and to make sure the other members know about this individual’s past offenses. We also recommend churches to encourage the offender to listen to the service/sermon online, and have an elder or deacon assigned to visit with the offender on a weekly basis to review and discuss the sermon. Sure, it takes a bit more work and creativity, but it’s worth it if it better protects the vulnerable in our churches.
Ok, back to the statute of limitation questions, let’s say somebody reports child abuse from decades ago and the abuser is still living, what then?
Well, I often tell people not to make the unilateral decision that the statute of limitations has expired. In fact, many jurisdictions don’t have a statute of limitations on the prosecution of felonies. Let law enforcement and prosecutors make that decision. If you get to the point where you want to report this offense, report it. Don’t let possible statute of limitation issues stop you from reporting the crime. If you are considering a civil lawsuit, a qualified and experienced attorney is the best person to tell you whether the statute of limitations for your claim has expired. If you find yourself in a situation where someone discloses having been sexually victimized and the claim falls outside of the statute of limitations, my suggestion is that you handle it much like you would if the statute of limitations hadn’t expired. Your priority must always be to take steps to affirm, believe, and care for the one who has made the disclosure. Secondly, you must see to it that steps have been taken to address the alleged offender who will not be facing a criminal prosecution. This is a situation when churches much reach outside of themselves and find experts to come in to provide assessment and counsel. In some circumstances we recommend what we call Limited Access Agreements. In situations where the law is unable to touch the offender, we can come up with an Agreement that outlines all the boundaries, which this person must follow if they want to continue participating in some aspects of church life. If they violate the limited access agreement, they can be removed from the church.
Is there a clear value to filing a report even when the statute of limitations is past?
Yes. As I mentioned earlier, always file a report. Let law enforcement/prosecutors make the determination about whether or not the statute is expired. You may be wrong, but even if you’re right, law enforcement may possess other reports involving the same individual, and your report is what they need in order to target him for an investigation. You just don’t know. Or three years later a more recent victim could come in, and the older victim could be asked to testify in the case. I’ve done that as a prosecutor: some of my most powerful cases involved prior victims who had been abused years earlier who were able to come in and testify and support the victim by telling the jury, “This guy abused me too.”
Obviously GRACE’s Child Safeguarding Certification Initiative is closely connected with all of this. Can you give me a plug for this program? Tell me a little about where the concept came from, and what you are hoping to provide.
Sure. Back in 2013 we met with a donor who suggested that we should use our expertise to train and certify churches. He remarked that a “certified by GRACE” could become the new standard for churches and other Christian organizations. Though we loved the idea, we placed it on hold as we were just beginning a rather large independent investigation. When that project ended in late 2014, we once again began thinking about the certification idea. Our board wanted to create an initiative that could help shape the culture of Christendom so that maybe one day there won’t be a need for independent investigations to address how a church or organization failed to protect children or to adequately respond to abuse disclosures. So for almost two years, we consulted with some of the best experts in the field and developed the GRACE Child Safeguarding Certification Initiative. Each church that engages in the process gets assigned a Child Certification Specialist. That person will be connected to a church liaison member who will be their primary point of contact. The Certification Specialist will lead the church through a process that will educate and equip virtually every demographic within the church, in some way, shape, or form, with regard to issues of child abuse/maltreatment. Also, the Specialist will help the church form a child safeguarding team and will walk with them through the process of developing their own child safeguarding policies. They will also have the assistance of a Child Safeguarding Policy Guide (that we recently sent off to the publisher) that walks churches through the A-Z of developing a policy.
“Our Child Safeguarding Initiative Certification is a very personalized process churches can take with expert help through GRACE, to help equip them and prepare them to be a place that’s safer for children and less safe for offenders.”
So the newly formed Child SafetyTeam will go through this guide and discuss and wrestle among themselves over necessary policy issues — many of the same issues we’ve talked about today. For years, people would ask us to send them a template for a policy, or something they could cut and paste in creating their own policy. After awhile, I began to realize that simply providing a policy to a church doesn’t make it a safer place for children. Instead. we want churches to wrestle through what’s in their policy and why, and really take ownership of a policy that they wrestled through and sweated over and perhaps even argued about. In the end, each church needs to come up with a policy that fits with best practice standards and the unique aspects of their own church. Our Certification Specialist will work with them through this process. There is also an on-site, in-service training phase of this initiative where the Certification Specialist actually comes to the church and spends a period of time doing some in-service training with the leadership, child care workers, children and youth, and the general congregation. Again, it’s all about equipping and educating the entire church, not just a select few. .
All told, we will take them through a process that should last between 5-7 months. It won’t be an intensive everyday thing, but we really believe that if you’re going to shift the culture of a church it can’t come just through a weekend training. It has to come through a period of time, and we think 5-7 months is enough to begin to shift the church in the right direction. By the time a church finishes this process, almost everyone in the church will have at least some basic tools in their toolbox in understanding, preventing, and responding to child sexual abuse. Once the church has satisfactorily completed the process, GRACE will certify it has completed this rigorous, guided program. We aren’t guaranteeing that they are a safe church, of course, because we don’t know. I know offenders too well to think you could ever create a church that would be impenetrable. But it will certify you’ve been through the process, and we’re going to require that certified churches engage in continuing training. In short it’s a very personalized process to help equip churches and prepare them to become a safer place for children, and less place for those who want to hurt them.
“I began to realize that simply providing a policy to a church doesn’t make it a safer place for children.”
That’s amazing. What a fantastic and needed service to the church. I’m really excited to see this happen; about how soon should it be available to the broader church communities?
We’re in the process of piloting about eight churches around the country. Our hope is we’ll get this finished by the summer, spend some time tweaking it, and prayerfully roll it out on a nationwide basis sometime in the fall of 2017.
Well, Boz, once again, thank you for taking the time to talk with me. I especially love what you said about focusing our work on the front end, so that we don’t find ourselves putting out so many fires years down the road. That’s tremendous. I’m incredibly excited about the potential for progress that your Child Safety Certification Initiative brings to the table, and I really am grateful for the hard work the GRACE board and contributors have done to make so many resources available. Thank you.
I’d like to close this post with one final thought: Some of the solutions Boz has recommended will strike on Christian ears as being very harsh and unloving toward perpetrators. I sympathize with the sense of tension church leaders and attendees will experience as they try to perform what seems like an impossible balancing act. Surely, we all want to protect our vulnerable children. Surely, we all also want to extend Christ’s love to even the most hardened offenders, because to fail to do so is essentially to deny the gospel. I believe sometimes we find ourselves at a point in history (consider the history of abolition, women’s rights, child labor laws, etc.) where a new social norm has to be established; and until it becomes the norm, the people who are committed to the new values will find themselves very much swimming upstream. In this case, those in the church who opt to fight for change may be made to feel like they are being overly dramatic, setting their standards impractically high, and exercising unreasonably harsh judgment toward offenders. I’d encourage us all to remember that this is the nature of our circumstances, because we are taking on a dark and dirty corner of the world that has been allowed to exist without challenge for far too long. My hope is that once we set the bar where it ought to be set, we will find we have extended much more of the love of Christ to offenders through the known quantities of discipline, consequences, and accountability than we ever did with all of our cheap grace and premature acceptance.
To my readers: stay tuned for updates on the Child Safety Certification Initiative in the coming months. Please share this post with the leadership at your churches and private schools, and for more information and resources on the prevention of child sexual abuse, see the following links.
GRACE Resources: GRACE has a giant library of resources on sexual abuse — articles, presentations, videos, and recommended books. There is enough material here to keep interested parties reading for weeks.
The Mama Bear Effect: I really can’t overemphasize what a fantastic resource this organization is. They have a web page and a Facebook presence, and provide thorough, extensive resources for educating children about body safety, and adults about abuse. Check out their website to learn about red flags of abuse, how to report suspected sexual abuse of a child, working with CPS and the police, and much more. They even have free coloring pages for helping you educate your kids.
Natalie Greenfield Advocacy: Natalie is a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. She channels a wealth of information on surviving and thriving through her Facebook page. I highly recommend following her work.