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Child molesters in the church

Published:Sunday | May 20, 2012 | 12:00 AM

Heather Little-White, PhD, Contributor

Sexual molestation in the church is an age-old problem and no one likes to talk about the ongoing sexual abuse of children. The church is supposed to provide spiritual fulfilment, guide social norms and be a place where one can find peace of mind and feel safe. However, over the years, splattered across news headlines, locally and internationally, are reports of children being molested by pastors, elders and other church leaders. The problem becomes even more complex when the church harbours known paedophiles within its leadership hierarchy.

The silence of the church, as well as that of the abused, encourages habitual abuse.

Paedophiles (child abusers) and ephebophiles (teen abusers) lurk in the church organisation, keeping their identities secret while they continue to victimise countless children. Child molesters, usually men, show evidence of being strong Christian witnesses and they could be teenagers or grandfathers. They usually work themselves into positions of trust so it is easy for them to manipulate children, parents and church leaders, creating opportunities to be alone with children.

How widespread is it?

Sexual abuse of children is a crime and is not exclusive to any one church, although some churches make the headlines more than others. Global statistics based on reported cases reveal that one in every four girls and one in every six boys will be sexually abused before the age of 18. In Jamaica, more than 7,000 cases of child sexual abuse have been reported over the last four years. Though not disaggregated, this data include sex abuse by sex molesters in the church.

Children who are sexually abused suffer silently into adulthood, failing to report the abuse out of fear and shame and/or unfounded guilt. Victims carry the guilt for years which very often affects their personalities and social interactions. Victims often become withdrawn and introverted. Victims may become abusive

Melody's story

Thirty-seven-year-old Melodywas molested as a child. Since age seven, she was abused by a man she had grown to know as 'Elder', a prominent leader in the church.

"He was a kind man, and he lived alone in a quaint rural district. My parents would leave me with him next door as they went to the market on Saturdays.

"Elder said he loved me like the daughter he never had. He gave me pocket money and fed me with bun and cheese, placing me on his lap. He would fondle me down there. I did not object as I thought this was a normal activity. My parents never warned me about things like these and when I mentioned it to my mother, she shrugged me off saying, 'He does not mean anything. Elder means you no harm.'

"The abuse continued for years up to the age of 11. He gave me something to drink and I started to feel sleepy. He put me to lie in his bed and I fell asleep. Later, I woke up to Elder trying to put his penis in my vagina. I started crying and I could not run outside as the door was locked. He tried to cheer me up and told me that I was dreaming. He did not get to penetrate me, but the attempt was traumatising.

"I convinced my mother to let me accompany her to market as I decided I was not going back to his house. I later learned that was his practice in the church because he gave young girls money under the guise of counselling them.

"Church leaders did not believe the reports until one of the girls agreed to a sting operation by men in the village to trap him. She led him on into the vestry and got in him into a very compromising position and the men burst in on him and made an alarm. The villagers almost killed him, and out of shame, he left the district."

Shame and guilt

Melody said that the sexual abuse affected every aspect of her life - emotional, physical, relational and spiritual. She considered herself a victim for more than 20 years. She experienced shame, guilt and found it difficult to trust men and afraid to love any of her suitors. She was afraid to encourage intimate relationships because she did not want to share her dirty secret with anyone. However, she learnt to forgive, be less angry and was more willing to accept counsel from those she learned to trust in her new church.

What is sexual abuse?

Child sexual molestation or abuse is any sexual activity initiated by a peer or adult without the child's consent of the child and includes physical, visual or verbal stimuli. Responding to alarming statistics on sexual abuse in the church, church leaders may scoff at the claim as some of them cannot identify exactly what is sexual molestation and they also fail to understand the damage the abuse causes to children and teens.

Church activities provide a convenient outlet for child molestation - Sunday school, evening prayers, camps, outings, visitations, care and cleaning duties. Even when victims make it public, it is usually swept under the carpet, and where the abuser is in the church's hierarchy, he may be quickly transferred to another church.

It is not surprising that child molesters in the church were themselves sexually abused. The typical molester is male, but abuse by females is on the increase. It is easy for the abuser to target a victim because, in most instances, sex abusers are known by the victims. It could be a family member, family friend, associate or trusted authority figure in school and church, cadet corps, scout troops or anywhere children are found. Child molesters span every socio-economic and racial group.

Victims usually want immediate vengeance from God, especially when they cannot get immediate redress from the justice system. Child molestation in the church or any other place is invasive and very often victims find it hard to forgive. Victims of sexual abuse need compassion, love, understanding, encouragement to focus more on the future than the past and how to regain control of their lives. Becoming part of a victim-support group also helps them to talk through their pain and encourage each other.

What can the church do?

The church has to grapple with keeping sex offenders in the congregation and on how to prevent continued sexual molestation of children in the church. Some churches provide a chaperone for a person convicted of sex crimes so they can continue to attend church. It is the belief that the convicted molester has a fundamental right to worship in 'a manifestation of God's grace'.

Some churches suggest that convicted sexual abusers be restored to membership if they will not be involved in unsupervised contact with children. Recommended activities include singing in the choir and taking part in Bible studies and cake sales. Apart from the legal aspects of this thorny issue, religious leaders are faced with protecting children while providing continued spiritual guidance to sex offenders.

Prevention plan

The church is a natural place to find children, and child molesters will hunt them. The clergy and church leaders should have an action plan to reduce the risk of child abuse in the church. There should be screening volunteers and people who work closely with children in the church. In addition, there should be clear policies against child molestation in the church as well as education of workers about the reality of abuse in the church, knowing the profile of the sex molester, what appropriate behaviours are, how to recognise signs of abuse and how to report the abuse. It is much easier for the church to prevent sexual molestation of children than to have them live through a very painful experience.

Name changed for privacy.