Dangerous Volunteers: Understanding Signs of Sexual Abuse in Youth Ministry
He was supposed to be safe, or so she thought.
He listened to her, calmed her fears about life, and made her feel important. Nonetheless, as he slid his hand up the back of her shirt, she felt intensely frightened. Why was he doing this? Things like this should never happen at church.
Sadly, things like this do happen at church. Prevention strategies do exist that leaders can employ to stop these things from happening. Unintentionally, youth groups afford predators opportunities to access vulnerable students. Students believe they are safe at church, so they let down their guard. It is essential that every youth pastor and church leader seek training on how to identify the warning signs of sexual abuse, so as to avoid the long-term damage of sexual abuse to the ministry, and more importantly, the student.
Inappropriate adult behavior can be a warning sign of abuse, though these signs are often subtle. Most church leaders desire to give pastors and volunteers the benefit of the doubt; yet, ignoring indicators could lead to great trauma. Leaders who display these inappropriate behaviors could be intentionally or unintendedly engaging in a process called grooming. While grooming begins as innocent behavior, it subtly shifts into something more dangerous by ignoring personal boundaries. Grooming relationships lack three important traits.
- Lack of Public Emotional Transparency: Leaders are human. They experience heartache and loneliness in relationships. While transparency is required for effective ministry, an emotionally healthy leader will establish boundaries with students, limiting the scope and depth that they share. On the other hand, a predator will set the stage differently, by sharing secret heartaches, and unmet emotional needs beyond what is appropriate. This confidence makes the student feel important and trusted. The student, in turn, opens up to the trusted relationship, creating a secret emotional bond.
- Lack of Physical Boundaries: Youth leaders can act as parent figures to students but when this behavior includes brushing of hair or buying clothing, repeated physical horse-play, giving of overly personal or expensive gifts, frequent alone time, comments on sexuality, or frequent touching, the warning signals should sound loudly. When a predator grooms a victim, he or she forms a personal emotional bond and establishes trust, but overtime pushes past common personal boundaries.
- Lack of Inclusion: Eventually, this leader will begin spending large quantities of time, secretly or publically, with one student, and excluding other students. The leaders will allow the student to believe that the relationship needs to be kept private, in order to protect the position of the adult leader. Now that all boundaries are removed, the abuse can occur an anytime. Once abuse ensues the leader will often convey to the student that the abuse is the student’s fault. The student then feels trapped by shame into keeping the secret.
For many reasons, only about 28% of victims of sexual abuse report the abuse to adults or authorities (http://cachouston.org/child-sexual-abuse-facts). Despite this discouraging statistic, prevention is possible. The US Department of Human Services published a list of policies and procedures that youth organizations can use to prevent sexual abuse within the church. While challenges will always arise to implementing a systematic procedure about such taboo subjects, the well-being of our students is paramount. Three activities can provide a wall of protection for both the students and the ministry.
Screening volunteers carefully is a crucial first hedge of protection. All adults who work with students should be screened with a professional criminal background check and a written application. Face to face, personal interviews should be completed on all adult and juvenile volunteers. Because abuse is often perpetrated by older juveniles, these student volunteers should also proceed through an application and reference process. Drug and addiction issues are often present in predators, so these behaviors should be analyzed carefully, and communicated transparently by applicants.
While It is difficult to have an overabundance of youth adult leaders; the organization should institute a two-adult accountability procedure so that leader behavior can be monitored. This monitoring is both for the protection of the student and the protection for the leader. This procedures mandates that no student is alone with one adult for any reason. When in the presence of students, two adult leaders must be together at all times. Infractions should be dealt with decisively and systematically so that all leaders understand that this rule in non-negotiable.
Training leaders and educating students is critical to the prevention of leader sexual abuse. Because the topic makes people uncomfortable, the issue of sexual abuse is often avoided. A culture of shame and silence on this issue perpetuates the idea that it should not be discussed. Instead, youth leaders should be proactive by teaching volunteers about appropriate emotional and physical boundaries. Further, students should be educated about owning their bodies and their sexuality. It is possible to celebrate and encourage abstinence while at the same time, empowering student to understand consent. Training students about the meaning of consent and how to take appropriate action if consent is ignored is paramount to student safety.
Several non-profit organizations, such as Darkness to Light, and Stop It Now, exist that can offer on-site and online training to volunteers and leaders in order to both build comprehensive processes and procedures to screen and monitor leaders and to also train leaders on appropriate interactions with students.
Finally, if you do discover or suspect that a volunteer is sexually abusing a student, it is mandated by law that you act. All 50 states require that if you interact with minors and have reasonable suspicions of child abuse, you are obligated to report it.
Links and Resources:
You can find out more information here about reporting abuse here:www.childwelfare.govor by calling the ChildHelp USA National Child Abuse Hotline: 1-800-422-4453.
US Department of Human Services, Preventing Child Sexual Abuse Within Youth-serving Organizations: Getting Started on Policies and Procedures, http://www.cdc.gov/ViolencePrevention/pdf/PreventingChildSexualAbuse-a.pdf
Child Abuse facts: http://cachouston.org/child-sexual-abuse-facts
Prevention and Training:
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.