Over the last few decades, there have been numerous reports of children and teens being sexually molested at various churches. While a couple of denominations have dominated the headlines, it is something that sadly could happen at any church – including yours. I hasten to add that this type of behavior is condemned by God and Christianity. Those who behave this way and those who may cover it up are not doing what God commands them to do. In one of the most famous exchanges between Jesus and his disciples, Jesus reinforced the importance of protecting children from any sort of harm. He also let it be known that the punishment for hurting them would be severe.
The truth is that predators look for churches, ministries and non-profits to find their victims. They want to take advantage of easy access to a large number of children in a place where those running it tend to trust others at face value when they say they want to help children. Thankfully, many places are being more careful about screening volunteers, but not every predator will get caught in a background check. Those with criminal records might move on, but if they’ve never been arrested, they may pass the average guidelines.
The answer isn’t to keep your child away from churches, ministries and their programs. It’s to make smart choices so they stay safe – even if there is a predator in the building. Here are some important ways to protect your kids.
- Personally take your children to class or the restroom. Chances are high that your kids are safe when lots of people are around, but sometimes the confusion can act as cover for someone.
- Make sure your church conducts background checks on all volunteers. At a minimum, this should include a criminal records check and reference checks – including calling those in other places where the person may have worked with children or teens.
- Make sure your church has child safety rules in place. These rules should include not allowing only related adults in one classroom (couples teaching together should have a third adult in the room), classroom doors must be open at all times or have a window in them, children should not be allowed to leave an environment unless accompanied by an adult or peer and adults should not be alone with a child in a room with a closed door. Ministry leaders should regularly monitor any environment to make sure young people are safe. (Especially during worship services and class time in bathrooms and other private places.)
- Do not allow your child to leave the worship service alone. Due to the nature of my ministry, I meet a lot of people who have had negative experiences. Many of these happened either during a worship service or when there weren’t many people in the building. This can happen to teens as well as small children.
- Be very cautious about allowing your children to go places with other adults – especially to their homes. It’s often the ”sweet grandpa” type or the charismatic minister who has the parents’ permission to take a young person somewhere alone or to his or her home who causes trouble. It may sound paranoid, but meetings should include more than one child, be in a public place or involve more than one adult.
- Pay attention to your kids’ reactions to adults. Kids can’t always verbalize why they believe an adult may be dangerous to them or even how. Some kids are very perceptive and pick up on subtle signals even before the person has crossed the line with them in some way. Very young children do go through a stage when all strangers and new situations may cause a meltdown. If your child is normally fine being left with others, but balks at a specific person, pay attention.
- As soon as your kids are old enough to be taught about ”stranger danger”, constantly reinforce that they should tell you if an adult doesn’t make them feel safe. Let them know over and over that they will not be in trouble if an adult asks them to do something bad. (Of course, also teach them that they can and should say ”no” if possible.) One of the most common weapons of predators is the threat that the child will get in trouble if the adult tells the child’s parents what happened. If your kids know you will be angry with the adult instead, they will be more likely to ignore the threat. Also, as they get older let them know that if an adult threatens to harm you in order to get them to do something, they should ignore it. Reassure them you can handle any threat – no matter how scary it sounds. (The norm is threatening to kill the child’s parents.)
- Make sure even little children know it is not appropriate for adults to touch certain areas of their body without your/their permission. Obviously, doctors will check those areas, but once a child can go to the restroom without adult assistance, they should know to deny access to areas covered by a bathing suit.
- Give your kids permission to yell, kick, scream or do whatever is necessary to get away from someone who has grabbed them and taking them somewhere against their will. “Good” kids may be afraid to scream during a worship service if someone does grab them. Reassure them, they will not get in trouble.
- Spend lots of quality time with your kids. Predators look for kids who don’t have strong relationships with their parents. They often groom them for months before trying anything. The grooming basically consists of giving the child the attention the child craves but doesn’t receive from parents. Having a strong, healthy relationship with your kids will protect them from most predators who use grooming.
- Don’t assume you know what a predator looks like or the preferred prey. While men are still the predominate predators, women can be, too. Don’t assume a predator will look ”sleezy” or openly leer at children. The average predator looks like an average person. Likewise don’t assume your child won’t be a potential victim, boys can fall victim to a predator as well as girls and teens as easily as small children.
- If you have a personal or custody situation where someone might attempt to pick up your child from an environment without your permission, make sure everyone involved is aware. You don’t have to give details, but you should let those who are caring for your child know there is a potential danger to your child and that they should release your child to only you or someone else you approve.
- Don’t assume your church is different than any other church when it comes to predators. Predators aren’t only part of one denomination. They can be anywhere and are much more common than most people realize. As our culture begins to attempt to normalize adult sex with children and pornography, the danger will only get worse. Every story I have been told involved a priest/minister, deacon/teacher or trusted ”grandpa” type adult loved by everyone. Take the precautions to protect your kids.
It is sad to think predators are harming children in ministries, but Satan will do anything he can to destroy a church, Christians and even the growing faith of your kids. Don’t give predators a chance to succeed.