What to Do about Sexual Predators in the Church

Like many of you, my heart has been ripped apart and shredded over the recent stories of child sexual abuse by a subset of Catholic priests in Pennsylvania. While this latest report is so widespread that it sucks one’s breath away and makes righteous anger swell, it’s by no means the only story of church leaders taking advantage of their position to prey upon parishioners for the sake of their twisted sexual desires.

As someone who writes about embracing healthy and holy sexual intimacy, I contemplate how someone repeatedly abused by a church leader in this most vulnerable way can move toward healing. And how does their experience color their view of God?

While God is entirely opposed to such heinous acts, He has chosen through much of history to act through His people. Which is why these stories, of both Catholic and Protestant leaders preying sexually on adults and children, bother me most in the way they were handled by Christians who knew or should have known what was happening.

Did we support the victim? Did we demand accountability? Did we put into place boundaries that made acting on evil impulses more difficult, if not impossible? Did we oust those who would abuse God’s Church and embrace those whom Jesus would embrace?

Y’all, we have to do better.

If we want people to experience all the beauty of sexual intimacy that God intends for them to have and to have a relationship with Christ, they cannot be made pawns of cruel abusers. We must “learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed” (Isaiah 1:17).

So what should we do as a Church about the sexual predators among us?

1. Identify the perpetrators.

Yes, a number of leaders who abused parishioners have been finger-pointed, but I fear we have a long way to go. We need to know who these abusers are to deal with the problem.

The reason the Pennsylvania grand jury report included so many victims is that the state set up a hotline for people to call and report their abuse. Why can’t Church do the same?

All denominations and individual churches should have a policy about reporting abuse, including a hotline to call or a clickable button on a website that allows someone to send an email to a trusted individual representing the church. The person receiving these reports should have training in sex abuse prevention and response. Of course, reports of child abuse or sexual assault must then be reported to the proper authorities.

But we need to encourage reporting and following up on accusations. We should lead the way in pursuing truth and compassion. We need to make it as easy as possible for victims to identify the perpetrators and thus stop the abuse from happening again.

2. Support the victims.

Jeremiah 22:16 says: “‘He defended the cause of the poor and needy, and so all went well. Is that not what it means to know me?’ declares the Lord.” Defending those who need defense is what it means to know God.

Too often, the Church has chosen to believe a leader over a victim, or simply placed leaders in such high regard that it can feel traitorous for a victim or victim’s family to come forward.

No matter how fabulous some preacher is or caring a priest seems to be, we cannot put those people on such a pedestal that evidence to the contrary will not be given consideration. We must keep an open door and an open mind and have resources to support those who have been abused within the Church.

Christian counselors, mentors, and support groups can help victims find healing and do so in a way that helps to preserve their faith. Churches should band together and create counseling centers, peer mentoring (see 2 Corinthians 1:3-4), and support groups led by well-trained leaders. We should keep a list of community and online resources that can also help, including law enforcement and non-profit organizations.

We should mourn with the victim and not push forgiveness of the abuser too quickly, as I’ve seen some churches do. That makes what happened about the abuser, not the abuse. There will be a time for forgiveness, but go read Psalms and see how many times David asks God to crush his oppressor. We must allow sexual abuse victims to have those same feelings — to grieve what happened to them.

3. Pursue justice.

It’s not enough to know the abuse happened or to help the victim(s); we have to hold the abusers accountable and stop the abuse from recurring.

When Simon the Sorcerer tried to purchase the power of the Holy Spirit from the apostles, Peter answered, “You have no part or share in this ministry, because your heart is not right before God” (Acts 8:21). Don’t we believe that sexual abuse is bad enough to warrant a similar response?

If someone uses the Lord’s church to prey on people, should they keep their position? Simply be moved to another position and retain their salary? Keep their retirement? Why? Why would we support that?

Can some abusers be helped? Changed? Redeemed? Yes, of course. But I don’t know anyone who experienced a transformation without confession, humility, and repentance. So if the abuser isn’t seeking help, they’re not likely to change — and we don’t owe them a place in ministry, or even our church.

Rather, we owe our congregants a safe place to learn, worship, and fellowship.

4. Embrace prevention practices.

We must open ourselves to the hard truth that the Church has at times allowed abuse to happen, even by such small acts as leaving adults alone with children when they shouldn’t have been.

I don’t know about other states, but Texas requires child workers to undergo Sexual Abuse Prevention Training, and that extends to week-long church camp staff. Thus, I’ve gone through the training for the last 4-5 years. It includes the statistic that more abusers are situational offenders, meaning they will offend if they see an opportunity. Since we cannot always know who might abuse, one goal of prevention is to provide no opportunity.

Churches can therefore enact such policies as:

  • having two adults present for youth and children activities
  • installing windows in all classroom and office doors
  • avoiding imbalance of power (like an adolescent left alone with a preschooler; sad to say, perhaps half of child abuse is committed by an adolescent)
  • conducting routine background checks of all staff and volunteers
  • requiring all staff and volunteers to undergo sex abuse prevention training
  • providing a clear set of steps to pursue if/when abuse is reported

We should be leading the way of best practices for protecting our members, especially children. As Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these” (Matthew 19:14). We should do nothing that hinders our children from embracing the kingdom of God.

Honestly, the need for ministries like mine would be substantially less if the Church did a better job at handling sexuality in so many ways. But among all the things we struggle with, this is where my heart most breaks — where we have historically gotten things most wrong: We cannot allow the Church to be used by abusers as a gathering place for their victims. We have to fight sexual sin everywhere we find it, but most especially in our sanctuaries.

We cannot allow the Church to be used by abusers as a gathering place for their victims. We have to fight sexual sin everywhere we find it, but most especially in our sanctuaries. Click To Tweet

May God show us the way.

37 thoughts on “What to Do about Sexual Predators in the Church

  1. hubby m

    …As a former military man, and learning to be a better man every day, I have to fight the urge to litterly beat the life out of ANYONE whom commits ANY type of abuse. You could use the term “the sheep dog mentality” on steroids, it starts out as rightous anger and becomes a desire for revenge. So this crime against GOD is a crime against not only the IMIDEATE victim, but against ALL mankind….. Just my 2 cents worth. However, IF I personally EVER walk in on such IN progress, I have NO problem violently subduing the guilty party, NO matter their position,IF they want to run or fight to protect their SIN, therefore allowing it to continue. Is this a good position for me as a believer?
    Hubby m.

    Reply
    1. J Post author

      I’m okay with it. Because I think it’s our imperative to stop such abuse in whatever way we can. The right course would be to subdue them and then call in law enforcement, since earthly justice belongs in the hands of the authorities. Final justice is at God’s throne, and I can only imagine what God’s response to such evil will be.

      And thank you for being a real man who would use his strength to protect others.

      Reply
  2. hubby m

    Thank you! I am attempting to undo the damage done by 48 years of constant bombardment by the so called socicety we live in, that is trying to destroy both manhood AND womanhood. Thank you for what you do, it is astonishing how GOD uses one area to wake me to others, that I need to work on.🤣

    Reply
  3. SnowAngel

    Our church and many others in the area have implemented a program called Plan to Protect. It involves police checks as well as mandatory training for working with anyone vulnerable. It incorporates many of your suggestions as well as many others, to protect both the children but also our volunteers from malicious accusations. As a ministry leader this program is a wild pain in my behind many times HOWEVER it is for the greater good. If we save any child from the horror of abuse or protect an adult from unfounded (and possibly life ruining) untrue accusations, it is worth it. I hate that this is the world my kids live in

    Reply
    1. J Post author

      I hear you. It’s labor-intensive and costly, but worth it if we can prevent abuse. Thanks for chiming in! Glad your church has taken the right steps.

      Reply
  4. Andrew Budek-Schmeisser

    Wise and thoughtful post on a very rough subject, J. Thank you for this.

    Though I have to admit, the title’s question “What to do about sexual predators in the church” brought first to mind a rope and a tree.

    Still does, actually. I was once a private military contractor, and summary justice was an unremarked norm for me.

    Reply
    1. hubby m

      ROGER THAT, brother!!!
      Hubby M

      P.S. In the sand box there were those of us who DID execute “summary justice” for this same kind of thing committed against both children and women. Praise GOD it is NOT the “normal” here.

      Reply
    1. J Post author

      Well, that’s right to the point. It is heartbreaking that anyone would do such a thing. Much more anyone who claims to be a Christian!

      Reply
  5. Lynn

    I recently read a letter to the editor of a major Pennsylvania newspaper saying that if priests were married this would not happen. For those who read your blog who express feeling unsatisfied with their sex lives, ask yourself how ‘thirsty’ for marital sex you’d have to be to consider abusing a child. Not a solution! I do believe truly God-fearing people can live a life of holy celibacy – just as married people must live in celibacy if a spouse is sick or away. So thankful for my good Christian husband!

    When I taught Sunday school to kids at my church, we had to get fingerprinted and sit through a (really bad) presentation on child safety. But it isn’t women committing these crimes…

    Reply
    1. J Post author

      I honestly don’t believe that not marrying would cause someone to get so desperate that they abuse a child. Yes, someone might be tempted to watch porn, masturbate, go to a strip club, hire a hooker, have an affair. All of those things make some sense. But abuse of a child? That’s in another category altogether. What I do think might be happening is that these positions of power can attract those with twisted desires or a complete lack of a moral compass in the sexual arena, and the secrecy of the priesthood, and other pastor setups, give temptation, opportunity, and evil a place to flourish.

      By the way, last I saw about 90% of sexual crimes are committed by men, but that still leaves a fair number of women perpetrators as well. One theory is that, as women gain positions of power, you might see more such infractions. I expect we will, though I suspect females will still remain a strong minority.

      Reply
      1. Brian

        Just a side note, some studies put the number of women perpetrators closer to 20%, but it’s very hard to know for sure because even in anonymous surveys boys and men are less likely to report sexual abuse.

        Reply
          1. Eric V

            You chose not to post my comment. Fair, it’s your blog. Can you say why since it took me more than an hour to dig up the relevant statistics and studies to draft my answer?
            I’m glad you’re not clinging to your 90% figure which was way off and very insulting to men and survivors like me.

          2. J Post author

            I do see your comment, but there are six links and I always check out links before I approve a comment. Frankly, you have no idea what’s been going on in my life lately that has severely limited my time on this blog, so my “choice” has only been that I haven’t been able to get to the very long comment you wrote. That said, I’ll come off that 90% that I casually threw out there, because you’re right in that I did not check my number when I said it and I should have. I don’t want to throw out poor statistics and have them cited elsewhere.

          3. Brian

            In my research there are some studies that come up with something around 90% even if they are extremely flawed in how they get that number. Child sexual abuse is a very difficult thing to nail down. Many studies are flawed because of the hardships involved in obtaining accurate information. Many children never report abuse, and there have been many cases of adults being indoctrinated into believing stories that weren’t true, especially in the cases of messy divorces. On top of this, male victims are especially difficult to measure, because there is far more shame in being a victim for a male and because there is a stigma that males can’t be raped and that females never sexually abuse. It’s even codified into law that the definition of rape doesn’t apply to a male (I didn’t believe this either until I looked it up).

            Based on gut feeling and limited data, I happen to believe that the number of male perpetrators of child sexual abuse is far higher than female perpetrators if you were to control for the amount of opportunity women have with children versus men. Women are assumed to never be a predator and so they are given access to children by default in almost all situations, whereas men are always looked on with as least caution. Sunday school teachers, elementary school teachers, daycare workers, and mothers get almost exclusive assess to young children as opposed to men. If men had that same assess to children I would imagine the numbers would be far higher for sexual abuse. Men just have a stronger sex drive than women.

            For all of the talk about how women have just as much desire for sex as men and such, this just isn’t born out by the facts. Men with a deviant desire, such as towards children, are far more likely to act on it, and I believe that’s because men have far more sexual drive than women. Of course there will be some women to also abuse, but women are also granted far more assess to children than men, and so they have far more opportunities.

      2. Eric V

        Where did you get your 90% of sexual crimes figure?

        As for child abuse, it may surprise you to know that women abuse children more than men do.

        According to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services Administration for Children and Families Administration on Children, Youth and Families Children’s Bureau, 54% of child abuse perpetrators were female.
        https://www.acf.hhs.gov/sites/default/files/cb/cm2012.pdf

        This may be because women, being more likely the caregiver have greater opportunity.

        Also, men are sexually assaulted by women in much higher numbers than you think.
        Read the article “The Understudied Female Sexual Predator” at
        https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2016/11/the-understudied-female-sexual-predator/503492/
        and “When Men Are Raped” at
        http://www.slate.com/articles/double_x/doublex/2014/04/male_rape_in_america_a_new_study_reveals_that_men_are_sexually_assaulted.html

        See https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/nisvs/summaryreports.html
        For a summary, see:
        https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/pdf/NISVS-StateReportFactsheet.pdf

        Also, juvenile detention centres are rather unsafe for detainees. See
        “The dark secret of juvenile detention centres is the sexual abuse inflicted by female staffers”
        https://nationalpost.com/news/the-dark-secret-of-juvenile-detention-centres-is-the-sexual-abuse-inflicted-by-female-staffers
        According to the article, nearly 8% of the respondents to a survey reported
        being sexually victimized by a staff member. They victims were overwhelmingly
        teenage boys and their alleged assailants were female employees.
        Nine of ten of those who reported being victimized were males reporting
        incidents with female staff.

        So, I really doubt the 90% figure that you quote.

        We’re not doing anybody any favours by ignoring the fact that
        given opportunity, women may abuse in the same numbers as men do.

        One last thing. It does not in any way condone abusive behaviour, but most
        abusers were themselves abused. Stopping abuse now and providing help for the
        victims improves the chances that the victims will not go on to become abusers
        themselves.

        I say this as a man who grew up in an abusive household where my mother inflicted physical, emotional and sexual abuse on me. I doubt anybody in my church would have believed it if I’d spoken up.

        Reply
        1. J Post author

          I finally had a chance to read the linked articles! My thoughts are below.

          1. “As for child abuse, it may surprise you to know that women abuse children more than men do.” Actually, I’m not surprised. The link you provided from the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services Administration for Children and Families Administration on Children, Youth and Families Children’s Bureau clearly shows that 54% of abuse cases have a female perpetrator. However, this report includes all forms of child maltreatment, including physical abuse, emotional abuse, and neglect. The 9.3% of abuse that is sexual is not broken down by perpetrator’s gender, so this isn’t a reliable source for how many sex crimes toward children are committed by men or women.

          2. “Also, men are sexually assaulted by women in much higher numbers than you think.” Actually, I’d read that Atlantic article a while ago, and I absolutely should have remembered it before casually throwing out 90%. Even so, the most important statistic in this article is from the National Crime Victimization Survey conducted by the Bureau of Justice Statistics: “After pooling and analyzing the data gathered in the years 2010 through 2013, the authors found female perpetrators acting without male co-perpetrators were reported in 28 percent of rape or sexual assault incidents involving male victims and 4.1 percent of incidents with female victims.” That would make 32.1%, or nearly one-third, of rapes or sexual assaults the doing of females. So yeah, way higher than 10%.

          However the CDC statistics don’t shed light on who is perpetrating sex crimes, but rather the makeup of victims. These two stats, in particular, caught my eye: “Nearly 23 million women and 1.7 million men have been the victims of completed or attempted rape at
          some point in their life” and “An estimated 6.8 million men were made to penetrate another person in their lifetime.” That first statistic would make it seem that women are 13.5 times more likely to be the victims of attempted or completed rape; however, I don’t know how “made to penetrate another person” is not rape. So if I combine those numbers for men, it’s 8.5 million men…thus making women 2.7 times more likely to experience attempted/completed rape. (Check my math, if you wish! I’m a writer, not a mathematician.) Regardless, the word “million” just makes my head spin for both genders. So many victims, so many painful experiences, so many broken hearts. The right number of abuse victims should be 0.

          3. “Also, juvenile detention centres are rather unsafe for detainees.” Unfortunately, detention centers and prisons are places of opportunity for perpetrators of sexual assault, of both genders. It’s heartbreaking and, again, should be stopped, yesterday.

          Ultimately, I apologize for my throwing out a number like 90% before checking the stats. Looking through all the materials you presented, I’d venture that 68%, or around 2/3, is a better statistic on how many sex crimes are committed by men. That leaves a lot of sex crimes committed by women. But regardless of the predator’s gender, our society, and our churches especially, should have a better response to guarding against abuse, handling reports of abuse, and helping victims heal.

          I’m saddened that you ever experienced abuse in your life. That should never have happened. Blessings!

          Reply
          1. Brian

            J, I can shed some light on the confusion I think. The problem lies in the definition of rape. It has changed over the years but believe it or not it’s almost impossible for a woman to rape a man by the legal definition that is used because it is categorized as “penetration, either vaginally or anally”. So, the only way a woman can legally rape a man is to penetrate him with fingers or an object. This study is the first time they used the category of “made to penetrate” in order to capture this type of sexual assault, and believe me that the results caused a pretty big initial stir. Of course, because this didn’t fit the approved narrative that men can’t be victims, it was almost completely ignored by the press.

            A very valid question to ask would be, “does sexual assault affect men the same way it does men?” I don’t know the answer to that, and men and women seem to deal with trauma differently. I think men deal with being “raped” by women better because we know we won’t find much sympathy and so we just suck it up and move on.

          2. J Post author

            Oh wow, that’s awful. Heartbreaking that we even have to think about all these categories. But thank you for clarifying.

            I do know that the definition of “sexual assault” varies, so when one sees that term, you have dig deeper to know what the researchers or reporters mean by it. For instance, I don’t consider all forms of harassment to be assault (like when my high school teacher leered at me and made an inappropriate comment — harassment, not assault), but some lump them all in one category. But I would think forced penetration should count as “sexual assault,” even if they conclude it’s not technically rape, so I’m glad I used the higher percentage. I think that’s a more accurate view of what’s happening and how many victims there are.

    2. Annette Keipp

      It is not a celibacy issue. It is a pedophile issue and frequently a homosexual issue. Most importantly it is an issue of the heart.

      Reply
  6. Brian

    Unfortunately it happens all the time over there, and it’s pretty open. Most Americans have never seen true evil until they witness the Middle East. It was a shock for me and haunts me to this day.

    Reply
    1. hubby m

      The same here, that is why I have such a violent, visceral reaction to abuse of anyone, young/old/male or female….the ONLY thing nesecary for evil to prevail, is for good men/women to do nothing….if I see a evil action being committed and don’t ACT to stop it, I am JUST as guilty as the perpetrator.
      I hope my words give us ALL something to think on, to grow and be our BEST selves.

      Reply
  7. Wayne

    Coming at this problem from a different angle, if I can use as mild a term as “problem”:
    One time in my former church, a young woman came to Sunday school reporting abuse from her husband/ boyfriend (not sure which). The elders’ response? Keep coming to church. Bring your husband. Pray for his “deliverance”, or words to that effect.

    My response? Get away from there – out of that situation as soon as possible, and by any means necessary! I could not believe I was the only one in that class to say so.

    All props to those with combat experience who are or would be willing to use force in a righteous manner to enforce a sorely needed lawfulness, within the church or outside. And to you, J.
    By the way – good to ‘see’ you.

    Reply
  8. Anonymous

    While I agree with the post and can understand the comments, I think we might be missing an important post game piece: PRAY. For the victim, for the church body who experienced this, but also for the perpetrator. What has to happen to a person for them to harden their heart to a point where acts like these become viable options? There but for the grace of God go I, right? The fact that so much of this happens in the church seems evidence to me of Satan’s ongoing war against God’s people.

    Reply
    1. J Post author

      I agree with everything you said, except for “there but for the grace of God go I.” That’s not in the Bible, but rather a quotation from 16th century preacher John Bradford. And while it’s often true, and can remind us of our need to remain humble and contrite, plenty of us would never sexually prey on children like this. Just like plenty might commit murder in the right circumstances, but never become a serial killer. It’s a different level of evil. Still, I agree that we should pray for all involved.

      Reply
  9. KatieL

    I have been struggling with what our response should be to a church member who was convicted of pedophilia, went to prison and has now been released. He has made no public confession / repentance although people that have been “working” with him and state that there has been a heart change. The overall theme has been one of acceptance of him before his prison term and after his release. Do we accept him back into fellowship? What boundaries / expectations should be in place?

    Reply
    1. J Post author

      I had to think through this, because while I understand that we are forgiven and can have fresh starts, we also have to be very protective of our children. Honestly, if I was an alcoholic, I wouldn’t walk into a bar. If I had experienced issues with pedophilia, I wouldn’t be around children. Period. Like even in church. To my mind, the penitent sinner would not put himself in the way of temptation or put others at risk. For instance, I have a feeling King David didn’t go to the top of his palace and look around for women bathing after his terrible sin with Bathsheba. That’s just common sense.

      So what does “back into fellowship” mean? Yes, we can recognize and honor their confession and repentance, but at the very least I would have strict rules about that person staying far, far away from any children’s sections of the church. I might ensure that he is accompanied at all times when he isn’t with the group (like in the sanctuary). I might require proof that he is continuing to address those issues with a counselor in the same way that an alcoholic who hasn’t drunk in years might continue attending AA. I might suggest that some leaders and/or members simply meet with him separately and worship and tend to him, so that he doesn’t have to come to a building where children and no family has to be exposed to someone whose past signals potential danger in the future.

      I don’t know what an individual church should/will decide. But it is unacceptable to have no boundaries or expectations. You MUST prioritize the safety, security, and wellbeing of the families and children in your midst above this person, even if he has repented. And frankly, if he isn’t willing to own his past sins and actively keep from sinning in the future, I would doubt the sincerity of his repentance.

      Reply
  10. Eric V

    I’m also a survivor of sexual assault, twice, by a female superior, while I was serving in the Canadian Armed Forces Communication Reserve.
    For quite some time afterward, I would experience devastating flash-backs of the incidents.
    So, to say men suffer less from sexual assault is quite wrong, even if we know we won’t be believed or supported. You just get to suffer in silence. I was even asked if I enjoyed it!
    Fortunately, she resigned from the service to avoid facing trial. My reputation saved me.

    Reply
  11. Brian

    Eric, every individual is different and will react differently to trauma. On the whole I do believe men handle trauma differently than women and studies in combat-induced PTSD back this up. In various research, men seem to be less likely to experience PTSD than women for similar levels of combat stress. Now, whether that carries over to sexual assault is a big question mark. Who can say? My negative sexual experiences definitely affected me in a bad way and still do, but I just don’t know if it would be the same if I was a female.

    One reason I believe certain types of sexual assault against men can be different is because we don’t even know we are victims sometimes. If you are told your whole life that any sex you get is a gift and you’ve never heard of a single instance of female-perpetrated rape in the news, when it happens to you as a man you don’t know that it was even wrong necessarily. In my case, my body and even my heart very much wanted it to happen, and so I blamed myself for being in that situation more than anything.

    Reply
    1. J Post author

      It’s hard to tease out differences in response: whether they’re based on gender, culture, personality, background, circumstances, etc. Of course, in truth it’s a combination of all of these. My basic response is that any sexual assault has a negative impact and is repulsive to God. We must take it seriously and do what we can to support victims of both genders.

      Reply

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