We only need eyes to see and ears to hear their pain
— and then the courage to act when children are sexually
They are in our midst, although often nearly invisible. They may
act out. They may withdraw. They may cover up as they try to laugh
and fit in with other kids.
They’re children who’ve been, or are being, sexually abused. They
are there, often unnoticed, without help, without hope…not
because we don’t care about these innocent children, but because we
don’t see and may not want to hear about the horror of sexual abuse
in our midst. We need to face the reality of child sexual abuse and
find ways to effectively reach out with love, hope, and healing to
the children and families wounded by this abuse.
Sexual abuse is a problem in every community and every church. The
statistics are horrifying — one in every four girls and at least
one in every 10 boys is victimized by sexual abuse.
It may seem more comfortable to think that people who harm
children in such a hideous way are monsters and certainly not
anyone we’d know. Unfortunately, experts tell us that an abuser is
usually someone close to the child such as a parent, grandparent,
aunt, uncle, friend, neighbor, teacher, cousin, or older sibling.
Abusers look like regular people. They can be people who are
well-liked and respected in our communities. They can faithfully
attend church. They can be wealthy or poor. They’re usually people
no one would’ve thought could possibly hurt a child in such a
SIGNS OF ABUSE
While it’s not possible to tell an abuser by outward looks, there
are signs children may show to indicate that they may be an abused
child. Know what to look for and how to help children and families
who are victims of abuse. As you become more alert to signs of
abuse, move with caution. Falsely accusing someone of abuse can
destroy an innocent person’s life. Don’t just react to something
you think you see. Take time to check it out and confirm the truth.
Be alert, but be cautious.
Sexual abuse is criminal behavior that the abuser is solely
responsible for. According to the American Medical Association,
child sexual abuse is “the engagement of a child in sexual
activities for which the child is developmentally unprepared and
cannot give informed consent. Child sexual abuse is characterized
by deception, force or coercion.”
The physical, behavioral, and verbal signs to watch for:
Physical signs may include…
• lacerations and bruises.
• irritation, pain, or injury to the genital area.
• difficulty with urination.
• discomfort when sitting.
• torn or bloody underclothing.
• sexually transmitted diseases.
Behavioral signs may include…
• anxiety when approaching the church or nursery area.
• nervous or hostile behavior toward adults.
• sexual self-consciousness.
• acting out of sexual behavior.
• withdrawal from church activities and friends.
Verbal signs may include the following statements…
• I don’t like name.
• Name does things to me when we’re alone.
• I don’t like to be alone with name.
• Name fooled around with me.
While these are common signs an abused child may show, any one or
even a few signs may not mean a child is being harmed. Keep in mind
that while these signs are common, all of us are unique
individuals, and each child will respond uniquely.
For example, in one church I served a 4-year-old boy arrived in
class every two or three weeks and wanted me to hold him. He would
curl up, say nothing, and look at nothing for the next one and a
half hours. This child was being abused.
Another time we had an older elementary-age boy who would act out,
wouldn’t cooperate, and would try to take younger boys to obscure
places if we didn’t keep a close eye on him. This boy had been
In another church, we had a young girl who was tremendously clingy
and almost never smiled. At first we thought it was just her age,
but as this continued, we became concerned. Fortunately, it was
just part of the child’s personality and finally, as she grew
older, she became less clingy. Thankfully, this girl wasn’t being
One more example involves a young girl who didn’t tell anyone with
words that anything was happening to her, as she’d been told by her
abuser that nobody would believe her and people wouldn’t want
anything to do with her if they knew.
However, the nonverbal signs were abundant. She was anxious and
scared. She isolated herself from others and was completely unable
to trust. She buried the memories and pain for many years as it was
just too much to deal with. She was abused. I know this girl well
because I am that girl.
My grandfather was highly respected in our community and attended
church faithfully, and he abused me for many years. Although I
attended church regularly, no one noticed. It was a different time,
and people didn’t even think to notice such a thing. Fortunately
for children today, we now know the scope of this horror that’s
experienced by so many children and realize the absolute necessity
to be alert and ready to help. We must see and hear.
While you may not be able to prevent a child from being hurt
outside of church, you can take proactive steps to do all you can
to make your ministry with children as safe and secure as possible.
There are four steps you can take to make your ministry safer and
to protect and help kids.
1. Screen volunteers. Require all volunteers to complete
a written application with references. And then follow up on the
references. Get the volunteer’s driver’s license number and Social
Security number. Check with your state police, as many will run
background checks within the state for nonprofits at no cost to
you. Many churches are also taking the next step by having all
volunteers fingerprinted for a check across the entire country. Use
a service such as Accufax that provides these reports: federal,
state, and county criminal records; Department of Corrections
records; and sex offender registry information. For more
information about Accufax, go to www.accufax-us.com or call 800-256-8898.
Require all potential volunteers to be interviewed by two
representatives from your church screening committee. Finally,
require new people in your church to actively attend your church
for a minimum of six months before serving with your kids.
Screening is difficult, but it’s absolutely essential for
providing a safe place for children. You may wonder if all this
screening is necessary, and you may be hesitant to ask volunteers
to go through these screening procedures. While there’s nothing you
can do to absolutely guarantee that abuse will never happen in your
church, these steps will go far to lessen the possibility of abuse
from within your church that could harm children.
2. Supervise volunteers. Always require two unrelated,
screened adults to be present during any church activity for
children. Provide accountability windows on classroom doors, or
leave the doors open. Determine a restroom policy and stick to it.
Require children’s ministry leaders to randomly check nurseries,
classrooms, halls, and restrooms during services.
3. Train volunteers. Make sure your volunteers know your
safety policies and agree to follow them. Check with your area
Child Protection Services or police department to see if they have
a speaker who’s available to come and talk about the signs to watch
for and any reporting requirements your church may be legally
4. Inform volunteers. Finally, being proactive means you
also have a plan for reporting procedures that your volunteers need
to follow when a child reports being abused or there are signs that
indicate a child is being harmed. Determine who volunteers should
report to and the steps that’ll be taken after such a report. For
excellent guidelines, see “Reporting Procedures” on page 80.
Remember, until the abuse is verified, it’s only suspected. Make
sure your volunteers know to keep their suspicions confidential,
except to the person they’re responsible to report to. If
suspicions are incorrect, an innocent person’s life and reputation
could be destroyed by careless and thoughtless gossip.