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.
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?