When Fabian Beck volunteered to help with the children’s ministry at his small evangelical church on the outskirts of Hanover, Germany, he imagined he’d be singing songs, telling Bible stories, and performing puppet shows.
He had no idea what he could do to protect Sunday school children from the possibility of sexual abuse. As he prepared to join the team, however, he came across resources provided by the Federation of Free Evangelical Churches (FeG) on the subject of violence against children and adolescents in the context of Christian communities like his own.
“Believers have to face the fact that our congregations are not safe just because they are full of Christians,” Beck said. “Safe places for kids don’t come naturally, and too often, we don’t know what we don’t know.”
Andreas Schlüter, the FeG’s federal secretary for the young generation, said the program Beck is using, “Protect and Accompany,” is part a much larger trend among free churches organizing against abuse. Evangelical churches are developing programs to face the reality of sexual abuse and seeking to prevent it from happening in the future.
“I know that in Germany, every free church is actively tackling the issue,” he said. “Free evangelical congregations should be, or become, safe places for children and young people.”
In recent years, child sex abuse cases have been extensively reported across multiple Roman Catholic dioceses in Europe. Spurred by these revelations, Catholics have taken steps in France, Portugal, Germany, and Italy to prevent abuse. Pope Francis, for example, removed the option for pontifical secrecy from cases involving the mistreatment of minors or other vulnerable persons.
Myriam Letzel, coordinator for the French evangelical organization Stop Abus, said that the Catholic church in France’s groundbreaking investigations into clerical abuse (the so-called “Sauvé report”) not only highlighted the systemic nature of sexual violence but also put evangelicals on notice about dynamics in their churches that might also lead to inappropriate and illegal behavior. The conversations around #ChurchToo and revelations of widespread abuse among Southern Baptists in the United States have also led European evangelicals to reckon with the fact their churches are not immune.
“We have to question ourselves on the theological bases which have, in the past, favored inappropriate sexual behavior: a misunderstanding of the relationship between men and women and a distorted relationship to sexuality,” Letzel said.
In September 2022, the National Council of Evangelicals of France (CNEF) started Stop Abus. It is run by a commission of 10 experts in the fields of social work, psychology, medicine, law, and pastoral care. The organization also has a listening service with a team of 35 “listeners” who receive abuse reports. In its first six months, Stop Abus received 15 disclosures that are now being processed.
Letzel said this is just the first step.
“What was happening elsewhere served as a warning: We could not pretend that such things did not exist in evangelical Protestant churches, and above all we did not want to pretend that they did not exist,” she said. “The mission entrusted to us by Christ obliges us: As Christians we have a duty to be exemplary in our conduct and in our way of caring for the most vulnerable.”
One of the church networks belonging to the CNEF, the Réseau-FEF, informed members and partners at the end of March that it would "neither recognize nor support any ministry" by one pastor, who has been accused of abuse by six women, two of whom went to the police. This is a first for French evangelicals. The pastor had a wide influence in French-speaking evangelical circles, especially online.
Other evangelical groups in Europe have launched similar efforts. In Switzerland, under the umbrella of the Swiss Evangelical Alliance, some 60 Christian groups and organizations put standards in place for staff and started crisis intervention teams alongside local church prevention programs. Among these organizations, the Fédération romande d'Eglises évangéliques (FREE) promoted online resources to help prevent abuse, including guidelines for Sunday school teachers.
The German Evangelical Alliance (EAD) has had a so-called “clearing house” for abuse cases in evangelical congregations in Germany for several years now. To equip churches in their association, they turn to groups like the White Cross (Weißes Kreuz), a Protestant organization that advises institutions and individuals on issues related to sex and sexuality. Ute Buth, a gynecologist and sexual counselor who has worked with the White Cross for 15 years, said the organization’s first task is to help churches become more aware of how their environments can provide fertile ground for abuse.
Buth said there are no reliable statistics on the prevalence of abuse among Europe’s evangelicals. But mainline Protestants in Europe, including Germany’s national Protestant church, have similar concerns about sexualized violence in their congregations and created a forum and working groups to address the issue in June 2022.
Some, however, think evangelical Christians may be especially vulnerable—and may even draw sexual predators.
Christian Rommert, a public theologian and former host of the popular Christian television program Wort zum Sonntag (Word on Sunday), told Germany’s largest public-radio broadcaster that free churches’ emphasis on trust and obedience, close physical contact, and conservative sexual morality create an environment where sexual abuse can thrive.
“In the free church context, everyone trusts everyone. No one expects the other to do anything bad,” he said. “The topic of sexuality is still something that is still somewhat taboo in the church context. Because you combine fear with it, you can’t talk about it openly. And unfortunately, there are also churches in which the power gap between man and woman is cultivated. And such power disparities are always uncertainty factors.”
Buth said that evangelical opposition to working with White Cross on issues of sexual abuse has declined, though, as people have become more aware of the widespread problems and turn their attention to prevention. The White Cross does not make accusations against churches but provides training.
“If you don’t have a good strategy on these things, structures allow children or even adults to be abused,” she said. “That’s a heavy price to pay for the Christian faith.”
Buth first guides churches through a risk analysis to help them understand what makes churches vulnerable.
“It’s about the atmosphere,” Buth said. “Do you give preference to one gender? What is the speech you use? Are there sexualized jokes? Is your leadership very hierarchical? That’s where the perpetrators start, taking advantage of the cultures and customs your church has already created.”
At the end of training, Buth said, congregations do a self-analysis before developing a new Schutzkonzept—or “protection concept”—that involves safety guidelines and reporting mechanisms. German laws, passed in 2010, stipulate that every organization that works with children, including churches, must have a protection plan in place.
Having a plan allayed Beck’s fear as he became a children’s minister in Hanover.
“It’s a big relief to have a system in place,” he said. “Now our church is aware of the problem, and we know what to do.”