It shouldn’t happen, but it does. To remain silent is to take the side of the abuser, rather than the victim of abuse. What am I talking about? Sexual harassment, assault and abuse in the church. Maybe those three last words don’t come as a surprise, considering the swell of abuse claims against priests in the past decade. But many incidents of church abuse are never reported.
Every church my husband and I have been part of since we married 23 years ago has either had someone in it who was found guilty of sexual abuse against people in the church or who was charged and sent to jail for sexual abuse outside of the church. That’s five churches.
Thankfully, many churches now have “Safe Sanctuary” policies to help ensure the protection of children in their programs. These policies include criminal background checks for anyone with contact with children, making sure classrooms have doors with windows and ensuring that children are always in the care of more than one pre-approved individual. If your church doesn’t have one, check with your denomination or church board and help put one in place. Then publicize it.
After a member at one of our past churches was arrested and charged with sexual abuse, the pastor held a congregational meeting with a local police detective. The detective reviewed signs of abuse, behaviors of predators and ways to help protect our children. At the time, our oldest child was 2. It was one of the most important messages I’ve heard in church.
Sometimes the line between unwanted touch and harassment is fuzzy. In the churches where I grew up, hugging was the norm. The moment you walked in the door, you ran a gauntlet of reaching arms. As I got older – and encountered more and more unwanted embraces – I learned to step back and extend my hand. Sometimes I’d even brace my other hand against a would-be-huggers shoulder to stop an unwanted advance.
No one should have to defend herself in church. Men, don’t assume that just because a woman – or anyone – is friendly, they’d like a hug. Remember old-fashioned manners? If a woman doesn’t extend her hand first, don’t reach for hers. Or ask. Similarly, teach children to recognize and resist unwanted touch.
By definition churches tend to be welcoming places. Sometimes this allows people to get away with predatory behavior for years. Or decades.
If you have witnessed or been the victim of abuse – no matter how long ago the abuse occurred – speak out. Hold abusers accountable to stop the cycle of abuse. If you attend church, ask about a “Safe Sanctuary” policy. If yours doesn’t have one, help put one in place. Bring in a local law enforcement officer or other expert to talk about preventing abuse. And, in the words of Olympic gymnast McKayla Maroney, “Have zero tolerance for abusers and those who protect them,” no matter who they are.
Meadow Rue Merrill, the author of Redeeming Ruth: Everything Life Takes, Love Restores, writes for children and adults from a little house in the big woods of midcoast Maine. The first volume in her children’s picture-book series, shining the light of Christ on the holidays, releases in 2018.