What I’ve Learned Since My Friend Got Arrested

I got the call from a mentor of mine last February. The news was not good. A former intern in my student ministry in Missouri had been arrested. He was charged with six counts of sodomy. I’ll spare you the gory details. The charges were serious.

The news cycle ran with it. The mug shot of the intern–a guy I had shared an office, many a meal, hotel rooms, and life with–were splashed all over the evening news. Facebook lit up, prompting me to write this.

This isn’t a blog to reveal any details or make it seem like I’ve got anything to offer. I’m still processing. But a wise mentor (the same one who called me last February) challenged me recently to think through what I’d learned. What had I learned? I’d been so busy feeling I hadn’t done a ton of thinking. So I sat down and did some. (At the end of this blog I pose a question to all of you who work with students. I’d love to learn from you, so please share.)

All of us in the student ministry world, and the broader population as a whole, could afford some reflection on this difficult subject. We’ve got to learn some stuff from this. It can’t keep happening. Here’s what I’ve come to realize:

1. The Church Must Get Better at Recognizing Sexual Abuse

A lot of guilt settles in as I think about how close I was with an individual who was abusing kids in my youth group. I didn’t see it. Did we have to have conversations about wisdom, immaturity, and doing things the right way? Of course. But even though he had walked in step with me on so many projects, serving as my right hand man in so many ways, I didn’t think for a second he was capable of such evil.

criminal1

2. The Church Must Get Better at Preventing Sexual Abuse

In what other profession is it acceptable–even encouraged–that an adult male sit alone with a teenager over an ice cream cone? When is it okay for an adult (of any gender) to take a minor (of any gender) on a car ride, at night, to their home without even discussing it with their parents first? We don’t accept those behaviors anywhere else, but they’re far too accepted in youth ministry.

Background checks aren’t good enough. You can’t background check the condition of someone’s heart or their secret sin. While we don’t want to falsely accuse, we have to be better at diagnosing potential issues and creating safeguards for ourselves, volunteers, etc.

In the ministry I’m a part of presently, we no longer do small groups with students in homes. I don’t have teenagers in my house very often. I rarely give a kid a ride home, and when I do I clearly communicate with parents when we’re leaving and I try not to sit out in the driveway having prolonged conversations. After a late-night arrival back from a trip, we never leave a volunteer waiting for a parent with a single student. We’re not only protecting the volunteer or ourselves from a false accusation. We’re also protecting kids from predators.

We’re shepherds, and we need to hit wolves over the head quickly, repeatedly, and with force until they leave our sheep alone. While what I’ve suggested above may sound basic to some, there are far too many ministries out there with zero boundaries in place.

3. The Church Must Get Better at Dealing with Sexual Abuse

The phrase “mandated reporter” does not mean “suggested reporter.” When a church and its leaders hear about potential abuse, they must deal with it in an aggressive and expeditious way. They must confront the accused and they must report the allegations to the proper authorities. Even if they believe the accusations to be false, it is not our place to be the judge. It is our place to report the alleged crimes.

If we don’t, we are breaking the law. Some churches may be tempted to deal with issues internally and quietly and breathe a sigh of relief when the alleged criminal moves on to a new ministry. I understand that relief but am enraged at that irresponsibility. We are not only breaking the law to ignore potential issues. We are also morally responsible for every subsequent victim a predator may abuse following our inaction.

Above I’ve listed three things I’ve learned throughout this ordeal. As a church leader, though, there’s one thing I’m more certain of than any of the things already mentioned: I don’t want to receive another phone call like the one I got a year ago, and I’m going to do everything in my power to prevent it.

What about your church? What are some boundaries or guidelines you’ve put in place to help you recognize, prevent, and report alleged abuse?

9 comments

  1. I’ve read many of your blog posts over the years. I’ve not liked nor disliked them enough to make a comment except for maybe the first one I read as a courtesy. However, this post warrants a positive comment. Guard those lambs Titus. Keep encouraging others to do so too.

  2. Great article Titus. Working in a public school system we have a lot of safe guards in place as well, to protect both staff and students. As you mentioned, it is not acceptable nor advisable for an adult to be in a situation where they are one on one with a student, but in some cases it still happens. In a youth group setting, I think it is important that there is always more than one adult present, which isn’t always easy especially if you don’t have enough volunteers. One thing you did not mention, which probably goes without saying anyway, is never to leave students unattended, alone, or with other student(s), but no adult present. We are responsible for them even when they go to fetch something from a store room or go to use the restroom (for example). Adults are not the only predators, sometimes they are in the form of fellow students, and we need to be watchful of that as well. Thanks for your insightful comments on this subject.

  3. I completely agree with you here Titus! When I was a teenage female with a male youth leader, I was not comfortable being around him by myself. I tend to be a guarded person anyway but the fact that he was a Christian didn’t make me feel any better. As it turned out, he had issues too and I was glad I was leery around him. It seems like we have forgotten that youth leaders are also sinners and that the enemy tends to try harder to make them fall because when they fall, impressionable young teens are taken with them and lose faith in the church. Almost every male youth leader I have come in contact with has struggled with a sexual sin of some kind so yes, I believe boundaries are an essential part of a youth ministry. Good questions.

  4. 3 of our teens work at our church as babysitters for the various groups that use our church’s building: small groups, support groups, Mops, etc. Our 3 teens and the others who do the babysitting recently went through training and it is set up that 2 teens will work together in babysitting, even if it is only 1 child needing care, in order to keep the teen sitters safe from any false accusations, and for accountability amongst the baby sitters. As for youth group activities, we have adult helpers and college aged helpers. As far as I know, the same is true for them, no adult helper is left alone with a teen. There are two small groups for the high schoolers, one for guys, one for girls. The guy’s group meets at church, the girl’s group meets at a home. I do plan on sharing your post with our youth minister, to inform him and double-check on some things that came to my mind as I read your post. Background checks are done on all volunteers who work in childrens and youth ministries, but as you said, they aren’t infallible.

  5. Titus,

    This issue lies in three fronts in my mind, projecting control over another (out of internal weakness), a distorted value system (somewhere along the way the principals for what is right and what is wrong got warped, as abusers is often originally the abused), and simple lying (lying to self and lying to those around them about non-social thoughts and actions).

    The first step in this direction has to be “detection.” Detection is more psychological, than practical “after the abused fact.” Perhaps the simplest way to stop abuse is to generate a solid mental profile of a typical abuser with some variants, then share that knowledge with as many youths as you can so they (as potential targets) know what to look for, and what to do when they believe there is a problem. I know of someone who is a very qualified person for this mission, if you decide to do it.

  6. HI Titus, thank you for being so bold to challenge the Church to do the right thing. Many years ago, my friend and i were teaching bible stories on Wed. evenings to 4th and 5th graders at a small church,, when 2 sisters started crying, and we asked why. They told us their parents were dropping them off at their grandpas for a few days and they didn’t want to go… he was abusing them somehow. We spoke to the pastor of the church,, begging him to tell the parents, help us to tell them but he refused. He didn’t want to deal with it . Sadly when we told the parents they had blind eyes as well because the grandparent was a “church going man”. My heart has grieved over the years whenever i think of these two little girls, and how i failed them by not calling the police for them. Question pastors/church leaders who turn blind eyes as well. I still see these two little faces in my mind’s eye asking for help. I am vigilant now for any sign of a child in danger, and have no fear of revealing a predator, in church or out, family or neighbor. God bless these little ones who cry out for help.

  7. Titus: we attended FCCF at the same time you did, although our kids were too young for youth group while you were there.

    One comment about this Blog: As a teen in the 80s, our Youth Pastor REFUSED to close his office door if he was counseling one student alone, or to be alone in the car with one student. This was inconvenient and often frustrating to a teen girl wanting undivided attention from a trusted adult. But he was CRYSTAL Clear: If I follow these rules consistently, any allegation against me cannot stand b/c I will be known for these boundaries.

    WE respected him enough to respect the rules he set for his ministry. WISE

    1. Hillary,
      I remember you and hope all is well for your family! Thanks for sharing…it is boundaries like that which protect pastor and students alike. I insisted on a window being installed in my office in Florissant, and as I said in the blog, I rarely give students a ride home. We just have to demand these kinds of things of our ministry staff. Thanks again for reading/sharing!

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