Abuse in the Church is Heartbreaking--How Can We Do Better?
Practical steps for churches to become safer spaces for all.
Elizabeth Melendez Fisher Good
After speaking at a recent conference about the prevalence of childhood sexual abuse and attempting to destigmatize its presence within the Church, a pastor approached me with concerns for his niece. A child, she had been sexually abused by someone she should have been able to trust, another family member. The abuser, as is common with predators, warned her to keep the abuse a secret. Her boundaries and self-worth were stolen. Feeling as if she had no one to turn to and nothing left to lose, she began to act out and was labeled as “promiscuous.”
Her story is, sadly, not unique. We receive calls regularly that a teenager in the youth group was groomed and abused by a leader, or of a man or woman whose memory is triggered once their child enters youth ministry, and they recall incidents which they kept buried and secret for decades.
We hear and see these stories far too often, especially within the Church – an institution that should be known as the safest place on the planet, as well as one which should have solutions for those who have endured abuse, to help them heal. Once a young person reaches the same point where this girl found herself, they feel such pain and shame that they believe they are not worthy to pursue God’s purpose for their lives. Often, these feelings lead to destructive behaviors and can eventually lead to them becoming further victimized and possibly becoming prey to sex traffickers. When young people at the end of their ropes choose to run away, it is usually within 48 hours of them hitting the streets that traffickers will approach them with a kind word and an offer to feed them or take them in. Before they know it, they are being even more horrifyingly used by the person they believed would actually save them.
It behooves us as the people of God to put our churches under a microscope and do whatever is necessary to make them the safe places they are intended to be.
So, what can we do to prevent this scenario from happening in the first place? It behooves us as the people of God to put our churches under a microscope and do whatever is necessary to make them the safe places they are intended to be. It's not enough to just talk about social justice, sexual abuse, trafficking, pornography, shame, secrets, etc. We need to increase accountability and create protocols that keep our churches from inadvertently creating spaces that perpetuate these crimes against children. We need to get ahead of and circumvent the abuse so that young people like this pastor’s niece don’t go any further down that dark path, so that no child keeps this kind of secret.
In other instances, the Church may not be the scene of the crime, but it still isn’t the safe space that allows those who have been victimized to share the secrets they’ve been hiding in order to find true healing and freedom. It's not enough to say, "We'll pray for you." We have to make the Church the lighthouse in the darkness – a place that helps people transform and heal after the most devastating traumas. A place that feels safe enough to share, knowing they will receive help, healing and acceptance.
Pastors and lay leaders, including men’s, women’s, youth and even children’s group leaders, need to be equipped to minister to those who’ve been abused. It’s important that they are trained in the right language to use, questions to ask and steps to follow to get people the adequate help they need. It’s not just our children who are harboring secret abuse that is slowly crushing their souls, but also many adults in churches today who have their own stories they’ve never shared or truly healed from. Statistics show it is more common that most of us realize: 1 out of 3 girls and 1 out of 5 boys is sexually abused.
It’s time to bring this issue to the forefront. Until we make this a normal, out-in-the-open conversation and topic, the problem will persist. We know that the enemy is prowling around like a roaring lion, seeking out those he can steal, kill and destroy, and he is using other weak vessels who give in to temptation to do it. Not only does he destroy their lives, but what happens to them impacts their futures – their entire destiny, legacy and God-given purpose. Let’s do our part to repair this broken road so that our children can walk in the freedom and the hope that Christ has for all of them.
Elizabeth Melendez Fisher Good is the co-founder/CEO of The Foundation United, and the founder of Free with E, a catalytic new ministry providing REAL TALK ministry training modules to empower the Church and its leaders to walk in complete freedom and transparency regarding the current global pandemic of childhood sexual abuse. Elizabeth brings decades of ministry experience and a Master’s Degree in Psychology to the task of creating healthier, safer churches with no foothold for the enemy. She is a passionate pioneer and inspirational thought leader with a desire to expose the root issue behind sex trafficking -- childhood sexual abuse. Her book Groomed (HarperCollins, 2020) recounts her own story of loss, abuse and triumph.