This past week, allegations of child sexual abuse poured on the internet after Lena Dunham’s memoir came out, in which she describes encounters with her sister. While Dunham denies that abuse took place, the internet swarmed with tweets and blogs either defending or accusing Dunham.
But it’s not about Dunham. What alarmed me was the high number of people who had their own stories of child sexual abuse by a peer or sibling, someone else who was also a child who abused them. These people shared their stories and were promptly told by others that they did not experience abuse, just “exploration.”
Once again, child abuse is silenced. Victims are told their stories are untrue or do not matter.
As the church, we have heard this story time and again. I was just graduating seminary when the clergy sex abuse scandal in the Archdiocese of Boston broke the news, and one by one other stories across the U.S. made the news.
Us Protestants, especially those who practice congregational polity, are still silent. And we still have secrets. While we have gotten better about boundary training, background checks, safety procedures—we’ve done a good job of protecting ourselves, but a lousy job of protecting children, let alone listening to them.
A January 2014 Religious News Service article states that 1 out of 4 women and 1 out of 6 men were sexually abused as children, meaning “that our churches are filled with abuse survivors.” But most children never report abuse. The shame associated with child sexual abuse, the feeling that no one will believe them, keeps children silent, along with the fear that the abuse will continue, or be worse. And a myth perpetuated among adults that children will lie about being sexually abused to punish and adult is unfounded. Studies have shown time and again this is simply not true. But children often feel that no one will believe them, and sadly we have made that belief true.
It’s time to stop the silence about child sexual abuse, especially in the church. We need to address the issue not only in our policies but in providing resources for counseling and support. We need to let people know they are not alone, and that help is available, and that they did nothing to deserve it.
But we also need to be accountable, too. Pastors, youth workers, and other leaders are let go—fired or resign—under allegations of sexual abuse. But often there are no charges filed. Churches do not go to the police very often, preferring instead to restrict someone’s access to children, to pray for the abuser, or to move them along. Perhaps if they did it one time, they won’t do it again. Several studies show that abusers will continue to repeatedly abuse children. In my own denomination, I know of cases of pastors and leaders who were fired, told not to work in a church again—only to go on to a different denomination, and the information not shared and passed on, let alone a criminal report made. Accountability structures for child sexual abuse are severely lacking in many Protestant denominations.
Church, we have failed. We have failed the children who are victims of child sexual abuse, especially in the church. We have reacted by making sure that no adult is left alone with a child, installing windows on Sunday School classroom doors, running criminal background checks—but we have not listened to the victims among us. Churches, all too often, have put the institution first. Take the example of this church in Oklahoma, and all the lengths they went through to protect themselves, instead of the children abused in their midst.
We must do better. First and foremost, let us listen to victims first. Let us listen to their stories, their experiences. We should provide as safe a space as possible for people to share their stories, their hurts, the places where the church has failed them. Secondly, we should act to protect our children not because our insurance policy says so, but because we truly believe that every child is valued and a gift from God—and that means we value their stories and what they tell us.