This is a question that is not uncommon for me to get. Minister friends of mine desperately ask what they should do when a known pedophile is in their congregation. One friend told me, “We have two known pedophiles in our small church and we have a very real threat of several families leaving as a result. What do we do?” To compound the problem, I ask the question: “What should we do about the unknown pedophiles in our churches?” The real threat is not whether those families will leave the church. No, the real threat is that the church, if no policy to protect children is in place, is at great risk of having children sexually assaulted. The statistics are alarming, no matter which study you look at. People who molest only have about a 3% chance of ever getting caught (Dr. Gene Abel). They are hiding (quite well) and offending in our churches. And there are lots of them. But wouldn’t a victim tell if he was being abused by a trusted church member? Most likely not. A 2005 study (London et al.) which surveyed 10 other studies shows that only 12%-18% of sexual abuse is ever reported to authorities. Of those 12%-18% cases that are reported, most will never be investigated.
At any rate, what of the pedophiles, rare as it may be, who repent of their sins and ask for forgiveness? Isn’t that enough? Doesn’t the Bible simply tell us to forgive and move on? Why dwell on the sins of the past? When leaders are faced with this issue, should the pedophile stay or should he go? Too many well-intentioned church leaders have been conned into believing that pedophilia is as benign as dropping the occasional “f-bomb.” Or they have a significant deficit of knowledge and experience in understanding how serious pedophilia is. They simplistically view it as a “wrong vs. right” issue, as if they were dealing with someone who cut another off in traffic. And when the offender asks for (or sometimes demands) forgiveness, it’s suddenly treated as an issue that’s as simple as asking the offender to not commit that sin anymore. This is most notable with known offending priests who are put into sex rehab then transferred to the next diocese and given more unguarded access to children. It’s strange to me when strong sympathies lie with the offender instead of the victim. I once had a therapist tell me how pedophiles get a bad wrap, and to a large degree this is true but they also have worked very hard to get themselves there. He went on to tell me that they are mistreated by having to register as sex offenders, marking them for life. “Pedophiles,” he lamented to me, “are not welcome in churches either.”
But what about the victims, I thought? In my entire conversation with him, ironically he never mentioned how bad of a wrap victims of abuse have it. He never mentioned that they are marked for life, and that many victims of child sex abuse often become victims of teen and adult rape, prostitution, drug abuse, depression, PTSD, guilt, sexual displeasure or dissociation during sex, shame, failed marriages, or worse. He never mentioned that many victims are plagued with affective flashbacks–where a trigger such as a certain smell, noise, or touch on the shoulder can inadvertently cause them to remember their young bodies being violated as if they were actually experiencing it in that moment. Affective flashbacks can happen at any time–at the dentist’s office (a dentist opening the mouth often triggers affective flashbacks for victims who were repeatedly forced to perform oral sex), in the shower, at church–and most often the survivor doesn’t even know why she is having vivid and grotesque images of her childhood abuse. There is no controlling it. There is no “snapping out of it.” There is no “just getting over it.” It just happens. And it haunts the mind. Victims and survivors of abuse are the forgotten souls. To be sure, since my father’s arrest and subsequent sentence of 30-60 years, I’ve had many concerned people ask me, “How’s your dad doing?” Oddly, I’ve been asked once, “How are your dad’s victims doing?”
Worse, still, are the stories I hear of churches quoting Matthew 5:39 to victims of abuse: “But I say to you, do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also.” The minister goes on: “Young lady, God says that to the measure you forgive you will be forgiven.” One pedophile bragged online of his biological daughter, “She loved it (the stimulation of her genitals) so much that her face turned blood red! She looked like she was about to pop!” His daughter was 2 years old. How, church leaders, do we expect survivors of abuse to sing “God Is So Good” while we tower over them and demand that God will judge them if they don’t “forgive and forget” their abuser?
So what do we do when a known pedophile is in our congregation? It depends. I’m talking here of pedophiles who make it known, or it becomes known by some other source, that they have already been investigated or convicted. Should an accusation come up about a suspected pedophile in the church, always report it to authorities for them to investigate the allegation. It’s the law. Never do an internal investigation. But in dealing with already-convicted pedophiles who find their way to your church, this is a deep theological question that cannot be reduced to a few bullet points. I’m still wrestling with finding proper tension between the abuser and the abused. Each congregation is different, but the one constant that should remain the same is this: Do what is in the best interest of victims and/or adult survivors of sexual abuse in your congregation. If they are able to speak, listen to their voices. Learn from them. Try to understand what they have been through and that many of them may have been severely traumatized. This was not a slap on the cheek. It was abuse. Gross abuse of the worst kind. And it probably didn’t happen just once. Victims in our congregations need to hear from the pulpit that we preachers don’t stand for abuse and that they are safe in our congregations.
Second, have a clear safety policy in place. Should the known pedophile stay, absolute conditions need to be placed upon him unapologetically. Pedophilia does not go away simply because one has publicly repented. There is no cure for it. Pedophilia can be controlled. It can never be cured. There need to be crystal clear boundaries. The pedophile should never have any access to any children whatsoever–this includes outside church activities as well. And this is for the remainder of his life. One friend told me that at their church they have designated men who escort a known pedophile anywhere he goes in the church building. He is not allowed to sit in a pew with children or have any physical contact with children. This is a good policy, and one that first takes the protection of children into consideration. Other people may judge this as overkill, but other people have not had their children brutally violated either. Churches are very high risk places for sexual abuse because most people are trusting and would never dream of someone abusing a child in broad daylight, especially at church.
Third, assemble a group or committee to research abuse. Know the signs to look for in an abuser. Know the signs to look for in a victim. Education is a great beginning because we cannot be vigilant if we don’t know what we are watching for. I’ve read about 30 books and countless articles on the subject so far and have listed some of the most helpful books in my resources page. This would be a great starting place.
Finally, never mistake forgiveness with trust. Forgiveness should never be demanded of victims of abuse. They have been to hell and back and it may take years and years until they are ready to begin forgiving. If others in the church can forgive an offender, they should never equate forgiveness with trust. They are two different things altogether. And the one who can forgive (especially a non-victim) should never expect a victim to forgive just because he was able to. To do so will only lead to revictimization.