ATLANTA — There have been multiple stories of sexual abuse perpetrated by celibate Catholic priests. However, some have stated that evangelical churches are teetering on the edge of a sex abuse scandal similar to the one that rocked the Catholic Church.
In 2012, Christian radio host Janet Mefferd declared, “This is an epidemic going on in churches. When are evangelicals going to wake up and say we have a massive problem in our own churches?”
Kathryn Joyce, in an article from Prospect.org, states, “In November 2012, Bob Jones University, the longtime flagship institution of fundamentalism, announced it had hired GRACE (short for Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment), an independent group of evangelical lawyers, pastors, and psychologists, to investigate the university’s handling of sexual abuse and harassment reports. Bob Jones officials said they were taking the step after watching the pedophilia scandal unfold at Pennsylvania State University the previous year.”
“As a pastor and shepherd for many years I have focused mostly on the ministries of leading and feeding, but through this seminar I have learned about the ministry of screening – that is, protecting the sheep from potentially dangerous wolves.”
Jeffrey Morgan, pastor
Antioch Baptist Church, Yatesville
Kimberlee Norris referred to Jerry Sandusky and the PSU pedophilia scandal in her MinistrySafe presentation at First Baptist Church Atlanta on Oct. 22. Gregory Love and his wife, Kimberlee, are sexual abuse attorneys in Fort Worth, TX. They represent victims of sexual abuse, as well as secular and ministry organizations, in matters related to child sexual abuse. Their philosophy focuses on prevention and appropriate response.
A problem with horrific reach
Norris defined sexual abuse as any tricked, forced, manipulated, or coerced sexual activity for the pleasure of the abuser. She indicated that 1 in 4 females and 1 in 6 males will be abused before age 18 and that 66% do not reveal anything about the sexual abuse until adulthood. Conservative studies say that 60 million people are abused in the United States.
Tragically, those who molest boys will have an average of 150 different victims; and those who molest girls will have an average of 52 victims. Unfortunately, the problem is growing at an exponential rate in the U.S.
Norris revealed that not all abusers are adults, but there is significant peer-to-peer abuse with the average male abuser beginning to victimize others at age 13 or 14.
A wealth of information was provided about the “grooming” process by which the sexual abuser cultivates both the child and his/her “gatekeeper” (parent or guardian). Norris stated, “Abusers appear trustworthy, helpful, and responsible.”
The presenters went into meticulous detail about how the abusers gain access to their victims, how they select the ones whom they intend to molest, how they begin to introduce sexual touch and nudity, and how they keep the victims silenced.
Gregory Love asked his audience, “What do you do at your church to protect children from sexual abuse? We cannot reduce a risk we do not understand. In the event you have children under your care abused, you need to have a response plan in place.
- Effectively communicate to parents and guardians and be prepared to answer their questions.
- Listen with an empathetic ear.
- Assemble a response team that includes church leadership, legal counsel, insurance specialists, psychologists, and persons who can deal with media crisis communication.
- Make sure you notify the authorities.”
To be unprepared for this growing problem is to be vulnerable and no church or ministry wants to go through the horrible and spiritually debilitating experience of having to deal with sexual abuse. The information provided at this summit was vital and invaluable.
Jeffrey Morgan, pastor of Antioch Baptist Church in Yatesville, explained, “As a pastor and shepherd for many years I have focused mostly on the ministries of leading and feeding, but through this seminar I have learned about the ministry of screening – that is, protecting the sheep from potentially dangerous wolves.
“The seminar was extremely helpful and gave me a greater understanding on how to be more focused on this area.”
A responsibility to claim
Drew Startup, executive pastor at First Baptist Cartersville, testified, “The Sexual Abuse Summit was incredibly helpful to make me aware that sexual abuse happens and what I need to do to help keep the sheep in my care safe. This information is valuable for anyone who is in a leadership position of any organization. We have a responsibility to do everything in our power to prevent the wolf from entering the sheep pen.”
Lynn Harris, associate pastor at Emmanuel Baptist Church in Blackshear, commented, “This was extremely important and informative training. Just being able to learn the grooming process that abusers use and how to use that knowledge to develop proper policies and procedures was worth the trip.”
There were 403 people from nine states who registered for the MinistrySafe Summit sponsored by the Georgia Baptist Convention.
GBC Executive Director J. Robert White announced at the Atlanta Summit that six additional Summits would be provided to Georgia Baptists at selected locations around the state in 2016.
White exclaimed, “I want every Georgia Baptist pastor and staff member to receive this training. Some believe that it could never happen in their church. They are the very ones that concern me the most. This problem is pervasive and requires that we be trained and alert.”