Gilbert and Virginia Contreras are AGWM missionaries to Argentina. Their vision is to reach, equip, train and empower tomorrow´s church leaders to obey the Great Commission. They equip the future generation of Argentine pastors and thus mobilize the national church to take seriously the command of Jesus of making disciples of all nations.
Virginia is a prolific writer especially regarding urgent issues that we, as missionary educators, need to address with our Bible School students and pastors. Among those issues is the underestimated incidence of child sexual abuse within society and even the church. In this article Virginia not only defines and helps us identify the problem, but also challenges us to look for solutions.
The awareness, prevention and possible intervention of Child Sexual Abuse (Especially inside our church facilities)
By Virginia Contreras
AG Missionary to Argentina
Yesterday my husband and I had a well-known pastor from our city and his wife over for coffee. We were planning to talk about our work with university students. As we shared about the possible workshops that we could offer at their church we began talking about the topic of sexual abuse and human trafficking.
The pastor’s wife shared that at last week´s evangelistic crusade in Cordoba with well-known Argentine evangelist, Carlos Annacondia, she was dismayed to see how many children were demon possessed. One in particular, after receiving deliverance from demons said, “I don’t want to go home tonight.” This child had experienced family violence and did not want to return to it.
She continued telling us that she had been invited to teach on “sexual abuse of children” at a pastor’s conference. During the second part of the day, where they were going to address this issue, many of the pastors left the conference. They had told the superintendent that the topic was not “spiritual”. Interestingly enough, in those days a pastor from the same area and denomination was on the news charged as a pedophile.
Our pastor´s wife recalled another incident where a lady from a different church called her for advice. She had just discovered that her husband had been abusing their daughter since a very young age. The first thing our pastor’s wife told the lady was that she needed to report her husband to the police. Within the hour the lady called her back, screaming and name calling. The lady´s pastor had rebuked her, arguing that to report her husband was the worst thing she could have done because it would ruin her marriage. So now she was calling and swearing at our pastor´s wife for advising her to report her husband to the authorities. Although the abuse stopped due to the fact that the husband ended up serving eight years in prison, their daughter still committed suicide.
She recalled another incident when their church was having a Christmas celebration for the community. There were so many kids at the front of the church that they decided to take them to the second floor of the building where there would be a special ministry activity for them. A four year old was taken by the hand by a man who said, “I’ll take you upstairs.” This person knew the church facilities well, because he took her to the kitchen where he proceeded to drop his pants…the little girl began to scream, “Mama!” The man got scared and left…they never could identify who he was, but it shows that the pedophiles are in the midst of our congregations.
Lastly, she let us know that on one occasion she was given a five-minute spot at a pastor’s meeting to announce an upcoming event on “child abuse.” When she was done, the pastor who was in charge stepped up to the microphone and said with a mocking tone, “Well, it’s getting to the point to where we won’t even be able to greet the kids with a kiss.” She felt completely put down but especially frustrated at their lack of vision and understanding of the seriousness of the atrocity of child sexual abuse.
After our visitors left our house I went to my computer to check my emails and there it was an email from Judy Graner asking me to write something about this topic.
Today pastors and tomorrow church leaders need to be aware of the insidious and horrible evil that will try to prey on their churches. What obstacle could hinder this understanding? Could it be prejudice? The majority of those involved with topics such as “child sexual abuse” or “human trafficking and sexual exploitation” are women. Few men (whether missionaries, pastors, or teachers) are involved—leaving many to conclude that it is just part of a feminist agenda. As educators we all need to grow in awareness and to train the church leaders and Bible School students to know how to respond (with prevention, intervention and restoration programs) to one of the growing and greatest evils of the XXI century: Child Sexual Abuse and Exploitation.
Child Sexual Abuse: What is it?
Sexual abuse involves forcing or persuading a child to participate in adult sexual activities, in which they cannot give an informed consent. It affects more girls (80%) than boys (20%). In most cases the abusers are family members, people who are close to the family, acquaintances or people they trust.
Child Sexual Abuse and Religious Communities
It is a proven, documented fact that pedophiles are targeting, not just Christian churches, but also synagogues and mosques. These predators come intentionally to religious communities, because they are aware that its members are trusting and naive. Much of this evil could be avoided if the institutions would take concrete measures to protect children within their facilities from sexual abuse.
Why does it happen at the local church level?
Here are some reasons why child sexual abuse happens within the physical perimeter of our churches:
- The profile of pedophiles is difficult to identify. They can be men or women of any social class. They usually appear as amicable and considerate people.
- Pedophiles are very clever and cunning and take advantage of the fact that the members of the church “lower their defenses” and are not as worried about the safety of their children inside the church’s facilities as they would be elsewhere.
- Since there is a need for volunteer workers in churches, no one investigates the past criminal history of these volunteers. Pedophiles know this and take advantage of it.
- Most Christians can´t conceive that something like this could ever happen in the church. That naiveté leads them not to take action.
Here are some ways we can help our students be aware if children in their churches have been victims of abuse:
Detecting signs of child sexual abuse:
- Bruises, burns, bite-marks
- The child shrinks or gets defensive when approached by an adult
- The child is frightened of the parents and gets upset when it is time to return home
- Refusing to be alone with a particular person or afraid to go to a particular place
- When parents are asked about bruises, bites, burns the child’s father/mother, respond aggressively and get defensive
- Redness, rash and bleeding in oral, genital and/or anal areas
- Itching or pain in anal and/or genital areas
- Pain or discomfort when urinating. Difficulty in bladder or bowel control. Blood in the urine. Bacterial infections.
- Increased or sudden weight loss
- Use of alcohol or drugs.
- Constant depression, guilt, physical self-harm, suicide attempts
- Sleep disorders (nightmares, night terrors)
- Hyper-sexualized behaviors
- Excessive docility and/or evasiveness
- Aggressive and violent with other children
- Dress in several layers of clothing or night-wear.
- Learning disorders
- Run-away kids
- Difficulties in integrating with their peer group
- Antisocial behavior. Poor performance, school dropouts. Abuse and aggression in human-form dolls, etc..
Please note: A firm diagnosis cannot be made just because some of the manifestations described are present, but these can provide suspicions of sexual abuse.
What are some steps that the church can take to prevent this from happening in our children’s programs? All pastors and church leaders, present and future, should be informed of these steps in order to implement them in their areas of ministry.
1. Selection of Personnel
Everyone selected to work with (teach, minister, or care for kids) should comply with the basic membership of the church, after which the pastor and deacons/board members should carefully evaluate each one with the references submitted.
The pastoral staff along with those in charge of children’s ministry should be the ones to approve or disapprove of those wishing to serve as “volunteers” with children’s ministries.
2. Children’s activities
The pastoral staff should make certain that all classroom or physical spaces dedicated to children’s ministry have clear visibility from the outside and that the access points to such areas be controlled to prevent unauthorized individuals from entering.
- Every room utilized for children’s ministry should have a window in the door and clear visibility into the classroom from the outside.
- There should be bathrooms for each gender and if possible bathrooms that are solely utilized by children and not adults. If the church cannot have exclusive bathrooms for children then, when a child has to use the bathroom, he/she should be accompanied by their parent or an authorized family member of the same sex, or a member of the congregation be authorized to function as the “usher/custodian” who would control the use of the bathroom.
- First, every child who would like to attend children’s ministry activities must have their parents´ permission.
- In all activities performed by the children’s department outside the church, there must be a responsible adult for every five children.
- In all activities with students that include overnight accommodations, there must be separate bedrooms and bathrooms for men and women.
- If it is necessary to have adult in the children’s room there should be at least two of the same sex in the room. This also applies to activities carried out in camps.
- In the outing, if a teacher/volunteer needs to talk to a child alone, the conversation should be held in a place visible to the rest of the group.
- If kids need to travel by cars, there must at least two adults present in each vehicle. If this is not possible then there must be authorization from the person in charge for one person to be the driver.
3. Adult / child interaction
As for private conversations with students:
These should be done within the church building, in an area with clear visibility from outside the room.
On the use of social networks:
Teachers and volunteers shall not interact with the children through social networks. The use of other means of communication should be governed according to the criteria of the church.
4. Implement the program: There is an excellent resource: “International Curriculum to train caregivers of trafficking survivors and sexually exploited people: Hands that Heal” Edited by Beth Grant, Ph.D. and Cindy Lopez Hudlin, Mph. It is used by Project Rescue, Intl. AGWM. This program was recently translated into Spanish and has been approved by SEC.
“Children are often afraid of the people who abuse them. They won’t speak out unless they learn that adults will keep them safe.” A survivor of child abuse.
Child sexual abuse is a sad reality that affects thousands of children in Latin America. As noted, the fight against this evil requires:
1) Awareness and Prevention activities with children and their families;
2) Identification of cases of abuse;
3) Intervention and denouncing cases of abuse to appropriate authorities.
It is the responsibility of everybody in the community to identify and counteract potential risk factors while increasing protective factors. As for our context, church leaders need to implement preventive measures to protect children against any abuse of sex offenders within the physical perimeter of our institutions. Not to do this is not only irresponsible, but also can be interpreted as complicity with the abuser.
Sometimes even if the person in charge of the children’s ministry would be willing to implement measures, such as, investigating the background of volunteers and teachers to protect children, it might be resisted with arguments such as: “we all know each other in this church,” or that the church “is a small community that does not need something like that,” or that “the process is too complicated,” etc.
On the other hand, if the child sexual abuse has already occurred in a church, most of the time it is because there is not an established procedure in place to ensure effective resolution. In either case, the church needs to take seriously the challenge of creating a secure place in its facilities and practice clear and firm procedures for prevention, intervention and restoration.
We must take concrete steps to protect the children who visit or are an integral part of our churches from sexual abuse. This is an indispensable part of submitting to God’s kingdom in a community where we live and experience the righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.
 Although there is no exact profile of the pedophile, 80 to 90% are men, although there are some female abusers. In over 30% of cases it is the father, uncle or grandfather of the victim.