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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.
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 reform, 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. In Part Two of this interview, Boz will talk about applications of Best Practices principles to real world situations, and will introduce GRACE’s Child Safety Certification Initiative. Today, I’ve asked Boz to share his thoughts on some of the obstacles to justice abuse victims routinely face, and on how the church should interact with the civil authorities on issues relating to Child Sexual Abuse.
“We as a church have to stop looking at the civil authorities as the enemy, and therefore taking it upon ourselves to carry out the responsibilities that God has specifically given to them.”
Boz, thank you so much for taking the time to do this interview. I’m really looking forward to talking with you and learning a little more about where you got your passion. I’m sure as a prosecutor you must have dealt with a lot of abuse cases. Was that formative for where you are today with GRACE?
Extremely formative. I really didn’t have a lot of knowledge about abuse cases prior to becoming a prosecutor. I had some, I had a family member who had been victimized, so I was aware of abuse issues, but nothing like I learned as a prosecutor. When you are a prosecutor you spend a lot of time meeting with families of victims and you begin to hear their stories first hand as they sit across the office from you. It’s hard to put into words, the impact it has when a nine year old is in a room disclosing what happened to him or her because of dad’s best friend. You can read all you can in books, and you can learn what you can in the classroom, but there’s nothing quite like that to really move you in a monumental way. The very unique position of a prosecutor is, you’re not just meeting with survivors of abuse twenty years later, but with survivors of abuse two weeks, a month later; and at the same time, you’re also prosecuting offenders, which means you have a front row seat in learning how perpetrators are thinking and acting, some common behavioral patterns. You’re learning sort of from both sides some very, very unique lessons and information. Eventually, as a prosecutor who was handling all types of felony cases, I asked that we start a unit that would just focus on sexual crimes. They were more than happy to do that, because, unfortunately, a lot of prosecutors don’t like handling those types of cases. I think the subject matter is oftentimes too difficult or uncomfortable, so they either don’t file on a case, or they file on it and plea it out to a lesser charge. So they gave me those cases and we began to hire people who had a similar interest, and that weren’t going to just plea out the case because they were uncomfortable with it. And so, you know, by the time I left the State Attorney’s Office in 2001 or thereabouts, I had overseen thousands of sexual abuse cases, and personally prosecuted hundreds. Whether you like it or not, when you’re on the front lines prosecuting these cases, you learn an amazing amount about this dark offense. And so, yes, that really was a pivotal point in my life as it relates to focusing on issues of abuse.
Tell me more about prosecutors encouraging a plea bargain early in a case they’re uncomfortable with. That sounds pretty unethical.
That’s a general statement, but I think that yeah, if we were honest…let’s focus on Child Sexual Abuse cases…I find a lot of prosecutors very reluctant to move those cases in the direction I think they need to be moved. This is probably one of the most serious criminal offenses being committed today and I’ve heard over and over again prosecutors who either won’t file it because they say it’s just a child’s word against the adult’s and we don’t have enough, or we’ll file it but we’re not going to take this case to trial. Often they never even consider taking it to trial, and opt instead to plea it out as a lesser charge, sometimes even to a non-sexual abuse crime. Oftentimes these types of plea deals don’t even require prison time. And it’s because, yeah, these are complex, tough cases. You have to do a lot of leg work on these cases to put a case together. Oftentimes, a child sexual abuse case is much more difficult to prosecute than a homicide case.
“Oftentimes, the gossip threat is just another way of church leadership silencing those around so they can handle it in their own way. It’s really all about control.
I find this really startling. How is a Child Sexual Abuse case more difficult to prosecute than a homicide case?
In most homicide cases, the prosecutor has access to the best investigators in the jurisdiction. You’ve got just about every resource available to focus on and prosecute that case. Usually those same resources are not available in child sexual abuse investigations, and so as a result, it is oftentimes left up to the prosecutor to do the additional legwork needed to put together a solid case.
Kind of sounds like you’re saying we need some changes to happen in the legal sphere.
Yeah, one of the biggest things for me is, I wish more District Attorney offices would focus on setting up sexual crime divisions. We have drug divisions, homicide divisions; and some larger urban areas have sexual crime divisions, but most don’t. If I was a DA, I would make sure my office had a sexual crime division, and we would scour the state, and perhaps the country, for the best prosecutors who are the most passionate about these cases — you know, the type of prosecutor who when they hit a brick wall, they’re not going to go, “Oh well, we can’t do anything about it.” They’re going to find an ethical, legal way to get over that brick wall. Sometimes that just takes creativity, commitment, and a lot of hard work. If you’re not passionate about the type of work you’re doing, you’re not going to do it.
So, this ties into a question I have about the church’s role in all of this. I’ve done enough poking around and looking into stuff at this point to find that there are these sort of stone walls that pop up when people are either ignorant of their legal responsibilities, or have concluded, sometimes in error, that they’ve fulfilled them. Most people know there’s some kind of legal responsibility to report crimes, but not everyone is a mandatory reporter, and some people (pastors, priests) would claim an exempted status. Would you say that at times our moral responsibility exceeds what is required of us legally?
Absolutely. As it relates to child abuse, for instance, it’s always good to know what the law says, but mandated reporting is the most basic responsibility — that’s the ground floor. As Christians we shouldn’t be saying, “Oh good, I’m not a mandated reporter, I don’t have to report.” We have a much higher responsibility than those who aren’t within the faith community, and that is our responsibility to Jesus, who was, in my opinion, the greatest child advocate in human history. So even if I’m not a mandated reporter but I have a suspicion, the question becomes, “What’s my duty before God as it relates to this vulnerable child?” Our responsibility in the face of a suspected crime against a child is simple: it’s to contact the civil authorities to allow the ones who have been trained and equipped to investigate. We don’t investigate ourselves, because we’re not trained or equipped for that. We don’t NOT make the call, because not making the call is making a decision…..making a decision based on very little data. We should always allow those who are trained to collect the data to make a full assessment, especially when we’re dealing with the safety and well being of a child.
Ok, but here’s the problem. Often people feel that calling a suspicion in to the authorities is needlessly smearing someone’s character, and there seems to be this huge concern in Christian communities about the danger of gossiping.
Unfortunately, you’re right. It’s strange, but about the only time we hear people express those types of concerns is with respect to alleged child maltreatment. If we had a suspicion that someone in our church was a serial killer we wouldn’t refrain from making the call. We would welcome law enforcement’s involvement and investigation. And something people don’t understand is that when you make a call — for example when somebody calls a mandated reporting hotline — the authorities don’t show up at the alleged offender’s house with sirens and the news and people video taping and putting it on Facebook. It’s usually one or two people from CPS showing up at the house or the school to speak with the child. If need be, they’ll also speak with the alleged perpetrator, and then they make a decision about whether anything needs to be pursued or substantiated. And so I always say, if you’ve got to err, err for the safety of the child. The worst case scenario is that you were wrong, your suspicion wasn’t founded, and perhaps you might have somebody a little irritated with you – in most cases they won’t know who you are, since most jurisdictions allow the reporter to remain anonymous. The best case scenario is maybe you saved the life of a child. To me that’s not even a comparison.
Oftentimes, the gossip threat is just another way of church leadership silencing those around so they can handle it in their own way. It’s usually all about control. If I can control you by saying if you speak you’re gossiping and that’s sinful, well… that works with many people. I often give the example of investigation we were involved with a number of years ago where a missionary doctor had been sexually victimizing a number of the missionary children. When one of his victims came forward and disclosed the abuse, the leaders of the mission field brought the other families together, and informed them that this doctor had admitted to sexually abusing a child and had been sent home. Unfortunately, the mission leaders also proceeded to tell the families, “We’re going to take care of this, we’re handling it, and any discussion of the matter will be considered gossip.” Most of the parents heeded that directive, and as a result never asked their own children whether they had been abused by this man. Tragically, a handful of the other children had been, but it wasn’t until 15-20 years later that this information surfaced. The children, who by then were young adults, could not understand, in all of their grief, in all of their trauma, why mom and dad had never asked them about it, had never broached the topic with them. They could have had twenty years of counseling behind them, and a lot of trauma and self-medication could have been avoided had the parents made the inquiry, but because they were following this ridiculous directive not to gossip, they never did. And that wounded the lives of many young people.
That is such a sad story. Does the church as an institution have influence that it could use to support legal processes?
I think we as a church have to stop looking at the civil authorities as the enemy, and therefore taking it upon ourselves to carry out the responsibilities that God has specifically given to them. Not all churches are like this, but there are a lot who mistrust anything related to the government. And so when there’s a legitimate need for the involvement of the governing authorities, these churches often fail to cooperate and sometimes even stand in the way of the investigation. Churches need to consider how we can begin building bridges with those in law enforcement and child protective services. One of the things GRACE does as an organization is to connect the church with resources such as local law enforcement. Another practical thing the church could do to help effectuate legal change would be to actually advocate for waiving the statute of limitations in child sexual abuse cases. Can you imagine if some of the leading denominations in this country came forward and said, “We don’t think there should be a statute of limitations on child sexual abuse offenses”? And not just in the criminal realm, but what if we advocated for doing away with the statute of limitations for civil lawsuits against churches that had been negligent in relation to child abusers — what kind of a message would that send to the victims of abuse? To the broader world? The reality is that churches have been some of the most vocal opponents to changes to the statute of limitations in these types of cases. And you have to ask yourself why. Well, I think it has a lot to do with self protection.
“Both inside and outside churches, we prefer to embrace the easier narratives.”
Tell me more about that. In what venues do churches advocate for keeping the statute of limitations in place?
Oh, in the state capitols around the country. So, as you know, a statute of limitations is the time period by which the government can bring a criminal charge or an individual can bring a civil lawsuit — and yet many victims don’t even begin to come to terms with the fact that they were victimized, let alone want to take some type of legal recourse, until sometimes decades after the abuse. Oftentimes, by the time somebody realizes what’s happened to them and actually makes a brave decision to do something about it, the statute of limitations has expired and they’re prohibited from seeking any kind of legal recourse. So you’ll see victims’ rights groups come to lobby for getting the statute of limitations waived or increased in these types of offenses, but some of the strongest lobbyists in opposition to these groups are religious organizations, because they’re concerned this will open the door to lawsuits against their churches in an area where they have been protected for generations.
Do you have any comments on the passage that says Christians shouldn’t go to law before unbelievers?
Well, I’m certainly no trained theologian but I’m not sure how one would reconcile that with Romans 13. I have a few other thoughts — nothing overly theological. Number one, it’s important to distinguish between public wrongs and private wrongs. When I commit a crime against somebody, it’s not just a wrong against that person, it’s a wrong committed against the public. And a public wrong means that the government, under Romans 13, has the God-given responsibility to wield the sword. So I think we have to keep that in mind. So what about private wrongs — is it wrong for a Christian to sue a church, based on negligence related to child sexual abuse? Well, I think if one approaches the church and attempts to resolve the matter, and the church refuses to acknowledge its failure and makes no reasonable attempt to resolve the claim, I think at that point in time the God ordained civil legal system is available to be utilized. I believe that God often uses the civil court system to sanctify his church. My reading in the passage you mentioned is that it should be a last resort, and we shouldn’t run to law with every little dispute, but I also don’t think it’s a blanket prohibition. The reality is that the failure to protect a child from abuse is not merely a “dispute.” Think about it this way, I think we can all agree that without the civil court system, the Catholic Church would never have been forced to confront the systemic abuse of children by priests. This all happened because abuse survivors — some who still profess faith, some who don’t — stepped forward in front of the church, but the church refused to listen, the church refused to address it, the church refused to provide any form of restitution, so many of these survivors had no other choice but to seek legal help through the courts. Because of these brave heroes making use of the civil court system, I believe we’re seeing some significant reforms within the Catholic church with regard to child safeguarding…though it still has a long way to go. In my opinion, that is the sanctification of the Church by means of the civil court system.
In Part Two of this interview, Boz will address some sexual abuse scenarios that churches commonly navigate, and will also introduce GRACE’s Child Safety Certification Initiative, which, in my opinion, is one of the most promising advances in the Christian world today toward making our churches safer for children. Stay tuned!
“Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand.”
This is a subject a little off the beaten path of my normal message of advocacy for victims of violence, but bear with me, because it is connected. The fruit of one conversation being held within the church is alienation and misunderstanding, plus a confusing anti-gospel burden placed on the consciences of a lot of people I know. In light of that good extenuating circumstance, I have a few things to say.
For a while now I’ve watched a small but persistent storm of messaging going by in some Christian circles, especially traditionally complementarian ones, that says women who pursue edgy style choices (such as tattoos or piercings, or dyeing their hair the colors of the rainbow) are actually rebelling against God-ordained gender roles, or expressing their inner wounding, or both. Of course conservative Christians have always been a little extra absorbed with appearances, and they build all sorts of cases referencing the roles of men and women, the essence of the gospel, and our role within culture to support their perspectives. While I agree that how we dress communicates something, I question the value of making this rather open-ended principle a focus — or worse, offering up a misinterpretation of what is being said. I have two main concerns. The first is that when we start identifying an “Us” versus a “Them” that is based on appearance we are actually self-protectively outlining the edges of our tribe. This binds wrongful burdens onto the consciences of some, and pushes others away.
Exhortations like this one, from one complementarian Christian pastor, amount to an assessment of the hearts of fellow believers based on their hair color.
In the ordinary course of things, God designed for much of [a woman’s] glory to be communicated through godly husbands, fathers, brothers, and other honorable men in appropriate ways. But unfortunately we live in a world of men that have abdicated this responsibility. Some have simply failed to be anything more than a bump on a log. Some have tried and given up. And still others have taken their own insecurities and frustrations out on the very women God entrusted to them to cherish and protect. This has left us with a world full of women starving for love, embittered with pain, and grasping for something, anything to fill that aching void. I certainly grant you that the sin involved in dressing a boy up as a girl is far worse, but you need to see the fact that it’s in the same category as a woman wearing her hair short like a boy, dying her hair clownish colors, or otherwise trying to attract unnatural attention. But no hair color will soothe your pain. No haircut will fill that void. No piercing, no amount of cutting, no number of likes on your Facebook sob story diary entries will give your confusion meaning.
Statements like this must be so difficult and humiliating for the women who have already gone and dyed their hair, which is really sad. They tend toward creating us/them divisions, not just between the church and the world, but within the church itself. As author and blogger Rebecca Davis astutely noted in a recent post about conscience and abusers,
Paul’s point about “knowledge” and “liberty” was that no Christian would be made any more or less holy by any religious activity (like offering to pagan idols) regarding any actions that were morally neutral in and of themselves because their holiness was accomplished in Christ alone.
A weak conscience, then, is one that doesn’t have the full strength of understanding of what Christ has accomplished…and as a result thinks that certain activities—like eating ceremonially cursed meat—would affect that standing.
Ms. Davis goes on to say that the Judaizers, whom the Apostle Paul battled fiercely, had “wanted to control the consciences of the new Christians in order to keep Christianity from being the free, transformative gift of grace that it is,” and she points out that pressuring believers to abstain from things that are actually morally neutral, such as hairstyle and clothing choices, can be just as confusing and debilitating as encouraging a weaker brother to participate in activities his conscience tells him are wrong.
Teachings that alienate some believers and bind burdens on the backs of others should obviously be resisted; but I have a second, slightly more nuanced, objection to the direction this conversation has taken. I work in advocacy for domestic violence victims, which means I get front row seats to the fallout from conservative complementarian* Christianity. Let me tell you, this world is not a pretty one — or perhaps I should say, this world can look good on the top, but it has a dark underbelly. Communities in which men are strongly dominant and in charge can be benevolent places to live, no argument there, but when they are not, they are perhaps exceptionally dangerous. Inside of a kind patriarchal culture, women and kids can be well provided for; inside a corrupt one, anyone not vested with authority in leadership may be very thoroughly cut off from avenues of escape. In my life, I’ve seen examples of both kinds of patriarchy. I know of good Christian men who believe that men should be in charge and are still good men, but I also know of many, many Christian men who have been corrupted by the undue power that is granted to them by their own theology and supported by the popular opinion of their peers.
So let me just throw this out there. I know women of all ages who wear tattoos, who cut their hair, who dye their hair, who pierce their noses, their lips, and their bellybuttons. They do it for a whole host of different reasons, some meaningful, some not so much. I think it’s safe to say that most of these women are not trying to send a message, but are simply having some legitimate fun with color and creativity and individuality, just because they can (and as believing Christians, they certainly can): “Since you died with Christ to the elemental spiritual forces of this world, why, as though you still belonged to the world, do you submit to its rules: “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”? These rules, which have to do with things that are all destined to perish with use, are based on merely human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.”
But, as Pastor Sumpter suggests, there may in fact be some women out there who are in a state of social reaction, and are trying to send a message with their hair. What about them? What exactly might they be trying to say? Are they really expressing a deep woundedness because of the abdication of their husbands and fathers? Well…maybe. I would like to suggest that Sumpter is half right, but he makes both much too much, and much too little, out of what he sees, and in the process misses an entire demographic of women whose message really ought to be of interest to him, and to all of us who come from within conservative evangelical Christianity.
Some women have excellent personal reasons for not wanting to look like conservative women inside of a male-dominated culture. These are women who are refusing to wear the uniform of the enemy, and for them, that enemy may be the family or the church they just barely escaped from with their sanity intact. It may be the power structures that subjugated them, that kept them and their mothers and sisters and brothers and friends trapped and cut off from rescue. It could be the church that placed such a heavy emphasis on authority and submission, but failed to stress they had any worth that was their very own as a gift from God, and not derived from their position relative to others. It is perhaps the family that said their job was to be special and beautiful, but only in mapped out, predetermined ways. The enemy, as far as these women are concerned, is the whole system that sustains prerogative while suppressing individuals, that puts the structure first and the people inside of it second, that amplifies the voices of those with power, mutes the voices of those under authority, and offers those awful, empty promises that just a little more silence, submission, and long-suffering will make it all work out right in the end. The difference between me and Pastor Sumpter is that, instead of telling these sisters to toe the line, I think we ought to listen to them. This system is our system, and these wrongs were done by us.
If I could send a single message to all of complementarian Christianity in one fell swoop (hey, I can dream), it would be this: Stop trying to control outcomes. Stop trying to manage the behavior of your women and children, and instead, take a moment to go back and see these people as people. Let’s take some time to put right the harm our systems of power have caused. Let’s set straight the imbalances and the inequities, and for heaven’s sake, let’s all stop pretending they never really happened, or were just some fluke of a moment. We have to stop policing our boundaries and reinforcing all our favorite tribal taboos, and work toward real communication, understanding, and empathy instead.
To the women I want to say this. Dye your hair, my sisters. It looks creative and beautiful, just like you. Also, if (as I suspect) some of you do wear it as a flag that says you are opting out of a corrupt system of power that hurt you or those you love …. well, that’s something I can totally understand and sympathize with. To my daughters and the daughters of my friends, I want to say: Do nothing out of selfish ambition or conceit, or hatred, or contempt, or disdain, but always out of love, which may legitimately and honorably be defiant against oppression and systems of false piety. Blue hair and nose piercings may not be my thing, but insofar as you are drawn that way as a symbol of your true freedom before God, I love it, and I love you, and that’s something I can get behind.
And to the people who muse on the motives in the hearts of others, I have just this. Every time you frame the discussion this way — the khaki slacks vs. the blue hair, the conventional vs. the provocative, the us vs. them — you pass by an opportunity to see and talk with the people involved. Women have a lot of different reasons for flying the flags they fly. With all that brightly colored hair, they shouldn’t be too hard to locate. Why not go find one, and ask her about it?
Only that now you have taught me (but how late) my lack.
I see the chasm. And everything you are was making
My heart into a bridge by which I might get back
From exile, and grow man. And now the bridge is breaking.
For this I bless you as the ruin falls. The pains
You give me are more precious than all other gains.
*I use the terms complementarian and patriarchal interchangeably. Both are meant to describe conservative Christian communities that place a heavy emphasis on the differences between gender roles, with the result that in family, church, and business, men are expected to hold the positions of leadership, authority, responsibility, and power, while women are expected to orient themselves toward their men and fill supporting roles.
In an earlier blog post I talked about why we should begin with belief when hearing allegations of child sexual or domestic abuse. Today I’d like to talk a little more about that.
- Assuming the victim must have misunderstood or misremembered details, or must be blowing things out of proportion is failing to take the claim seriously.
- Not asking enough questions is failing to take the claim seriously.
- Being uneducated about what patterns of abusive behavior look like is failing to take the claim seriously.
- In any case where there is a suspicion of verbal, psychological, emotional, physical, or sexual abuse, trying to get “the other side of the story” from the alleged abuser is failing to take the claims of abuse seriously, and will likely result in increasing the danger to the victim.
- In any case where there is suspicion that a crime has been committed, attempting to investigate is failing to take the claim seriously. Investigation of crimes is the domain of the civil authorities. When an allegation of criminal behavior comes up, it is no longer our call what we should do about it. It has to be reported to the appropriate authorities for investigation.
- Talking about abuse as though it is only physical is failing to take the claim seriously.
This last point is a doozy. Church leaders often talk a good game about providing refuge for victims of abuse, but then demonstrate the only thing that meets their criteria for abuse is physical battering. In a recent blog post, this pastor/counselor, and director of multiple counseling programs, said this:
Just as the act of adultery is a greater threat to a marriage than a lustful look (Matt. 5:27-28), there is a difference between physical assault and a harsh word. Because Jesus declared, “What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate” (Matt. 19:6b), every effort should be made to preserve marriages and to help both men and women who have fallen short of perfectly keeping the marriage covenant to change. Church leaders shouldn’t swing from the extreme of sending women back to abusive situations to the other extreme of encouraging the breakup of marriages which might be restored. A man who refuses to repent of controlling and angry behavior may be put through a process of church discipline which will often give the time and space needed for the abuser’s heart to be more clearly revealed.
He goes on to say,
While I agree that in many cases it is true that changed behavior will have no effect on a wicked, hardened man, the Bible explicitly gives hope that the Lord can use the godly behavior of a victim to soften the heart of a sinful spouse. First Peter 3:1-2 says a disobedient or unsaved husband might be won by his wife’s treating him better than he deserves. Proverbs 15:1 tells us that a gentle answer may turn away wrath. I know that these verses have been misused to wrongly send women back into dangerous situations, but it is also true that God can use the Christ-like behavior of a wife to reach an angry husband. Again, a distinction needs to be made based upon the degree of sinful anger (and the resultant danger), rather than quickly saying that a situation is hopeless and that the woman ought to give up and move on. If there is any doubt as to whether a woman is in danger, I would encourage church leaders to err on the side of safety by helping her get away (hopefully temporarily) and then work with the husband to gauge true repentance before trying to restore the marriage and bring the couple back together again.
- Educate yourself about the patterns of abusive (that is, coercive, controlling) behavior so you can recognize the red flags when you see them.
- Become a good listener. People often seek help hesitantly at first. Be a safe place.
- Ask good questions.
Take the time to become familiar with your own state’s laws on Intimate Partner Violence and Child Sexual Abuse. The important thing to know is that criminal violence does not have to include physical battering, and sexual assault does not have to mean what we think of when we say rape. Depending on the state, physical restraint and intimidation may also be crimes, and so may behavior intended to sexually gratify an adult at the expense of a child.
What beginning with belief does NOT mean:
- Beginning with belief does necessarily mean conclusive, implicit, unquestioning trust that everything the victim has said is 100% true.
- Beginning with belief does not mean casually sharing the allegations in social settings, although credible claims may in fact lead to social action.
What does it look like to fail to treat claims of abuse seriously?
In his talk for Awaken 2017, my husband made the comment that he wants to accomplish for abuse what we’ve seen happen within very recent memory for seatbelts and cigarettes. Once upon a time, cigarette smoking was not just socially acceptable, it said you were savvy, upscale, classy, elegant. There was also a time when nobody wore seatbelts in the car, EVER. And then suddenly — it almost looks like overnight in retrospect — everybody knows smoking kills you, and we buckle up first when we climb in. Today, the wave of disapproval I encounter when I don’t have my 70 pound child strapped into a five-point harness is almost palpable. That’s some serious progress.
I was pondering this phenomenon this morning. In reference to abuse, what exactly would this global change of social expectations look like? Here are my ideas. I would love to see all of these things happen within the next twenty years. I am writing with a church audience in mind, because these are my people, and this is where I think the changes should start.
With regard to Child Sexual Abuse:
- Children would be taught from birth as a matter of course about bodily autonomy and consent.
- Every educator and children’s ministry worker would expect to be under scrutiny, and would invite and welcome that scrutiny. Not because we think they’re bad people, not because we want suspicion to be the norm, but because our norm especially where our children are concerned should be to trust but verify.
- Every Christian teenager would go through TWO studies on boundaries in healthy relationship — one sponsored by school, and another sponsored by church.
- Every crime or suspected crime against a child would be reported as a matter of course. People would understand that safety measures to protect the accused are built into our legal system, and that individuals outside the system are not responsible for exercising “healthy skepticism” or “assuming the best” when a crime is being alleged.
- All children would know that healthy play happens with doors open, lights on, and people around. Private places, secret places, and dark places are unsafe places.
- Social sleepovers and time with friends in general would receive much more parental attention. Houses of relatives and friends CAN be safe, but we should not assume so.
- Churches and schools would universally implement child safety policies and education along these lines, and would prioritize the education of their youth ministry workers about bodily autonomy, consent, and the power and responsibility that are incumbent on them as spiritual leaders.
With regard to Domestic Violence:
- Society would be broadly educated about the signs of an abusive relationship.
- Healthy relationship patterns and boundaries would be a common topic. Churches and schools would teach teens and young adults.
- Churches would stop talking so much about forgiveness, avoiding gossip, and believing the best, and instead would teach on speaking (and receiving) the truth even when it hurts, protecting the disadvantaged, oppressed, and voiceless among us, and about upholding our system of justice.
- Churches would begin as a matter of course to include the financial support of single moms as a line item on their budgets.
These are my ideas and my hope for the future. I would love to hear from you. What can you add?
I had the great privilege of working on the planning committee for this conference this past weekend, and wow, what an experience. The speakers were so, so good, and the way the church (leadership and staff of Real Life on the Palouse, courageous tellers of their own stories, and friends) pulled together to make this event possible surpassed even my most optimistic hopes. So many thanks go to so many people, I wouldn’t even know where to start, but let’s just say God was in it, so our thanks definitely go to Him. The conference in its entirety is now available at the link below. Please share freely — this is more than four hours of exceptionally good info for counselors, survivors, and churches. Let’s keep this conversation going, shall we?
To study psychological trauma is to come face to face both with human vulnerability in the natural world and with the capacity for evil in human nature. To study psychological trauma means bearing witness to horrible events. When the events are natural disasters or “acts of God,” those who bear witness sympathize readily with the victim. But when the traumatic events are of human design, those who bear witness are caught in the conflict between victim and perpetrator. It is morally impossible to remain neutral in this conflict. The bystander is forced to take sides. It is very tempting to take the side of the perpetrator. All the perpetrator asks is that the bystander do nothing. He appeals to the universal desire to see, hear, and speak no evil. The victim, on the contrary, asks the bystander to share the burden of pain. The victim demands action, engagement, and remembering.
from Trauma and Recovery, by Judith Herman
(photo credit goes to Peter Roise Photography)
Douglas Wilson of Christ Church Moscow has recently blogged against the best practices concept that when we hear allegations of mistreatment or crimes against women and children, we should begin with belief. According to him, beginning with belief is exactly what we must not do.
Let’s break this down a little.
Why begin with belief?
- Because of the power imbalance inherent in an abusive relationship. When one of my kids comes crying into the kitchen and claims her brother hit her on the head, I do not begin with belief, but with investigation. I reserve judgment, call the other child, and ask for his side of the story; but this is exactly what we must not do when dealing with allegations of abuse. Why the difference? Because an abusive relationship always involves a significant power imbalance, and any attempt to interact within or bring healing to the situation must begin by taking that imbalance into account. Abuse has a range of meaning, but in the vocabulary of advocacy, it speaks of the systematic misuse, entrapment, or domination of another person. Abuse of this kind silences the voice of the person who is being abused, it cuts her off from saving relationships, and it removes her power, or her ability to act. You see this dynamic when a husband is pervasively dominating his wife, when a parent systematically oppresses a son or daughter, and any time an adult relative or friend, a counselor, a coach, a caregiver, or a significantly older sibling preys sexually upon a child. Wherever one person holds a position of privilege, strength, authority, seniority, or greater knowledge, and uses it to take advantage of someone smaller, weaker, and less able in the world, you have abuse. Where you are dealing with allegations of abuse, your first priority must not be to flush out the whole truth of the situation to your own satisfaction, but to preserve the safety and return the voice of the victim.
- Because disclosure is costly for the victim. Women who speak up about their husband’s mistreatment, and children who disclose sexual abuse at the hand of a parent, sibling, relative, or friend, are putting a lot on the line. They risk losing relationships, the affection and approval of friends and family, and the lives they are familiar with. The choice to disclose abuse is not an easy one: it typically comes from a place of desperation, and we need to begin by honoring that likelihood. Diane Langberg, a Christian trauma counselor with many years of experience, has said this: “Keep in mind that it is extremely rare for an alleged victim to lie about child sexual abuse. It is a fair assessment of the body of research on lying to say that most people lie on a regular basis. However, numerous studies have documented that it is rare for children or adults to lie about abuse. When victims to lie, they tend to lie to protect their offender, not to get him or her into trouble.”
What is belief?
Belief is serious and careful listening. It is willingness to hear, ask probing questions, and act on the basis of what we learn. When we begin with belief, we assume for the moment that what a child is saying about having been sexually assaulted, or what a woman is telling us about the way her husband mistreats her, is statistically very likely to be true. When we begin with belief, that will lead us to do certain things:
- We will act immediately to offer safety to the woman or child in question. If there is severe or systematic abuse in the home, our first priority must be to provide options that support the safety of the victim. We need to deliver a message that we are there unconditionally to support and help as needed–whether by talking about safety plans, providing financial assistance, or even merely offering a safe, supportive space in which to discuss the situation.
- We will encourage reporting to the proper legal authorities. Sexual abuse of a child is a felony in all fifty states, and any caregiver who suspects it is required to report it. Domestic abuse should often be reported as a crime, as well.
- We will NOT try to get “the other side of the story.” Often appropriate in counseling, in an abuse scenario, because of the exposure it entails to the victim, this would be a serious breach of trust. When we have been trusted with sensitive information in an abuse scenario, our first priority has to be the safety of the weaker party. Furthermore, if a crime is being alleged, it needs to be investigated by the appropriate people. Running to check with an alleged child predator or wife-beater about the truth of the allegations can create any amount of harm for the victim, and may constitute obstruction of justice. Investigation is not the role of the church, the counselor, or the advocate.
What about “Innocent until Proven Guilty”?
Isn’t what I have said at odds with some of our most dearly held principles as a church and as a nation — that an accused person is innocent until proven guilty? Tim Fall has written an wonderful blog post about this topic here; but the short answer is no. The legal system exists for precisely this reason. It is in court that an accused person has opportunity to clear his name of false allegations.
While some do take the position that the role of the church is to sit with authority as a judge between parties in a dispute, I am coming more and more to believe that the role of the church is very different. The role of the church is not to sit as the impartial judge between parties; it is not to provide spiritual comfort and acceptance alike to sufferers and to those who afflict them; and it is not to fill the role of the father confessor, until it has successfully exposed the sins of all parties involved. The role of the church is to follow Jesus in defending the weak and underprivileged, in standing against the wicked, and in lifting the burdens from the backs of the oppressed. We need to do better.
Open your mouth for the mute, for the rights of all who are destitute. Open your mouth, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy. (Proverbs 31)
Give justice to the weak and the fatherless; maintain the right of the afflicted and the destitute. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked. (Psalm 82)
O LORD, you hear the desire of the afflicted; you will strengthen their heart; you will incline your ear, to do justice to the fatherless and the oppressed, so that man who is of the earth may strike terror no more. (Psalm 10)
Hello everyone. Today I am excited to introduce a new ministry organization to you — one that I believe has the potential to significantly improve how the Christian church supports victims of domestic violence. My husband, Peter, and I learned about the Psalm 82 Initiative recently through Naghmeh Abedini, who has over the past year become a very vocal and high-profile advocate for women caught in abusive marriages, and who has consulted about her own case with founder Thomas Pryde. read more…
“Destructive behaviors and attitudes can sometimes be difficult to describe succinctly. That’s why an emotionally destructive marriage is not usually diagnosed by looking at a single episode of sinful behavior (which we’re all capable of), but rather repetitive attitudes and behaviors that result in tearing someone down or inhibiting her growth. This behavior is usually accompanied by a lack of awareness, a lack of responsibility, and a lack of change.”
The Emotionally Destructive Marriage, by Leslie Vernick