Sex abuse in churches preventable, say experts who counsel victims


By Erik Tryggestad
The Christian Chronicle

June 1, 2007

The Pitman church in Sewell, N.J., came under a media spotlight in March when its 33-year-old former youth minister, Paul Glover, was charged with aggravated sexual assault.

Authorities said Glover had a two-year sexual relationship with a member of his youth group. The relationship came to light when the girl, now 17, became pregnant.

One month later, the leader of a campus ministry at the South College church in Tahlequah, Okla., was arrested in a sting targeting sexual predators.

An indictment claims that Charles Shaffer used the Internet to discuss his desire to have sex with a person he believed to be a 13-year-old girl. Shaffer drove to Walters, Okla., more than four hours from Tahlequah, to what he believed was the girl’s home, where police arrested him, according to the indictment.

Similar incidents impact religious groups across the nation, said Linda Oxford, clinical director for Agape Child and Family Services in Memphis, Tenn.

“It’s happening across denominations,” she said. But, in Churches of Christ, “one of the things that makes us vulnerable is our autonomy.”

Congregations have limited means of reporting sexual offenders to other congregations, so “many of these ministers disappear from one church and appear at another.”


Some congregations, including the Memorial Road church in Oklahoma City, run criminal background checks on potential ministers and any adult who signs up to teach or help in a children’s Bible class, said Barbara Price, the church’s early education director.

But “a background check is good today. It’s useless tomorrow,” Price said.

Steve Vann agrees. A licensed counselor for Agape of Middle Tennessee in Nashville, Vann has worked for 22 years with vicims and perpetrators of sexual abuse. He estimates that 90 percent of active sexual offenders have no criminal record that would show up in a background check.

Vann, a member of the Pegram, Tenn., church, and Gregory Sporer recently launched Keeping Kids Safe Ministries. The program teaches church leaders and youth workers to identify and deal with suspicious behaviors, how to avoid false accusations and build communication skills between youth workers and children.

“Sexual abuse is preventable,” said Sporer, a counselor who has specialized in church sexual offenders since 1989. “Sex offenders actually give off a lot of clues.”

Most offenders know their victims, Vann said, and begin abusing them by “breaking small rules with the child to see if he or she will tell.” Often this is seemingly innocent touching or hugging.

Church members need to recognize this behavior — whether it’s a youth minister spending a lot of time with one teenager or a Bible class teacher being overly affectionate toward a particular student — and confront it, Vann said.

“If people would be willing to address things that don’t look quite right, that would put a stop to that grooming process,” Vann said.

But in many cases, church members convince themselves that suspicious behavior is innocent and don’t address it. Victims do this too, Oxford said.

“Sometimes sex abuse is so subtle and ambiguous, the victims react with, ‘Surely that didn’t just happen. Surely that was incidental,’” she said. “They feel that something is wrong and dirty about them in response to (the offender’s) self-serving behavior.”

Breaking the “don’t talk” rule is essential for identifying abuse, and potential abuse, in children, said Richard Blankenship, director of the North Atlanta Center for Christian Counseling.

Parents should give children a vocabulary for discussing inappropriate contact, said Blankenship, a member of the North Atlanta church. Being able to talk about potential problems can help stop or prevent abuse. “This is a problem you can do something about,” Blankenship said.


If a church leader is caught in an inappropriate relationship, the congregation itself should seek professional help. “Call someone not emotionally ripped up,” Oxford said.

The offender should be removed from his position immediately, and other church leaders should address the congregation, making a strong statement that the offense will not be minimized.

Offenders should be in recovery programs, and counselors should be open to the needs of all the congregation’s members. Many struggle with — or even lose — their faith when a trusted minister is caught in sexual sin.

Church members also must remember that “God is a God of redemption,” Blankenship said, and ministers who fall can overcome sexual addiction.

He once counseled leaders of a congregation who, though they were angry at their fallen minister, genuinely wanted to help him get better.

After a two-year restoration process involving his entire family, the minister returned to the pulpit. Huge crowds were waiting for him, Blankenship said.

“When people seek treatment, it makes church a safer place for people who are also struggling with sexual integrity issues,” he said.

June 1, 2007