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How to Protect Kids From Sexual Abuse in Your Church

Last week a local Fox News Channel aired a story that hit a little too close to home. The story was titled “Child Porn Investigation: His Charisma Can Fool You.” It was about a family who are members of my former church and a 14-year-old girl who was stalked by a pedophile.

The really scary thing is this man was not some stranger but a fellow staff member. He was a really nice guy.

A few months ago there was a children’s pastor arrested at another influential church in Twin Cities for propositioning kids on the Internet.

In my opinion, this problem is only going to get worse, and most of our churches are not prepared.

I think we create a false sense of security in our churches. We advertise that we have a safe environment for kids because we have done background checks on volunteers and we have a computerized check-in system, but what if the pedophile is on staff and has no criminal history? What if the pedophile is the guy you eat lunch with every day?

The truth is that only 10 percent of victims are abused by a stranger, while 60 percent of victims are abused by someone they trust, like a teacher or family friend.

The challenge for us who work in churches is that we want to create a culture of trust and acceptance, and pedophiles know this.

So what does a pedophile look like, and how do I recognize one?

You definitely don’t want to falsely accuse someone, but there are some red flags to look for.

In most instances, a pedophile is not some creepy homeless guy. He typically is male and a very like-able person. The experts say that pedophiles will go through a “grooming” process to gain the trust of their victims, so look for signs of this.

Over the course of months or even years, a pedophile will increasingly become a trusted friend—giving gifts and offering to babysit, take the child shopping or go on trips.

Child molesters look for children who lack emotional support or aren’t getting enough attention at home. Sometimes a child pedophile will attempt to step in as the “parent” figure for the child. Some prey on the children of single parents.

Be aware of common behaviors demonstrated by child molesters. Here are some examples:

  • Pedophiles often don’t display as much interest in adults as they do in children.
  • They may have jobs that allow them to be around children of a certain age group, or they contrive other ways to spend time with children by acting as a coach.
  • Child molesters tend to get their social needs met from relationships with children and treat children as though they are adults.

Can we do more to protect our kids without starting a witch-hunt? Yes we can, by understanding how a pedophile works and creating a system that frustrates them.

Here are some suggestions you may want to consider:

  • Be on the alert for adults who seem to get their social needs met by kids or who always seem to be the center of attention.
  • If you see an adult leader who is giving too much attention to one child, this should be a red flag.
  • Consider making a policy that adult volunteers are not to give gifts to children. The church may give gifts to children from time to time, but everyone will get a gift, not just one child.
  • Do training for parents and volunteers on how to protect kids from pedophiles.
  • Do not solicit hugs from kids. There are always kids at church who want a hug; if a child initiates the hug, then give them a hug. Train your volunteers on how to hug kids and about the “no touch” zones.
  • Instruct your volunteers not to ask children to sit in their laps (especially preschoolers).
  • Adult leaders should not be contacting kids by email or on the Internet.
  • Adult leaders should not be contacting kids outside of organized church activities. For example, if the small group leader of fifth-grade boys asked to do a special party at his house, I always said no. We would organize special events for kids, but I was always the one planning these events.
  • Consider banning any pictures of kids at your church except by a professional photographer who you hire. (This way you are in control of any pictures taken.) A few years ago, I was participating in a tour at a local megachurch. I tried to take a picture of a classroom of kids, and they stopped me. At the time, I felt their policy was too paranoid, but now I understand.
  • There should always be at least two volunteers in every classroom. No adult should find themselves in a room where he or she is alone with a child.
  • Be extra careful about who you take to camp as a counselor. If you get a bad feeling about someone, say no.
  • Do criminal background checks on all staff and volunteers every year…not just on those who work with kids.
  • Listen to the Holy Spirit. Some people should not be working with kids. If you get a red flag about someone, move him or her to a different area.

Someone should be in charge of enforcing these guidelines and observing the behavior between adults and children. I put my Head Coaches in charge of this, so that I can be free to communicate with parents.

Do not accuse someone of being a pedophile if you see this behavior. (Most people who work with kids do so because they like kids.) The goal here is to establish safe boundaries that apply to all of your volunteers and make it difficult for pedophiles to operate. Make no exceptions to the rules.

Most parents will be appreciative of your efforts to make church a safe place for their kids.