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What You Need to Know About Spotting and Stopping Child Sex Abuse

We need eyes to see and ears to hear when spotting and stopping child sex abuse. We only need eyes to see and ears to hear their pain — and then the courage to act in the face of sexual abuse.


They are in our midst, although often nearly invisible. They may act out or they may withdraw. Maybe they 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.

Epidemic Proportions

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 and can be wealthy or poor. They’re usually people no one would’ve thought could possibly hurt a child in such a horrendous way.

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…

  • nightmares.
  • 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.

Understanding the Signs

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, 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 faced sexual abuse.

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 abused.

One more example involves a young girl who didn’t tell anyone with words that anything was happening to her. However, the nonverbal signs were abundant. She was anxious and scared, and 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. This girl 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.

6 Ways to Help the Child

Josh McDowell and Bob Hostetler in Josh McDowell’s Handbook on Counseling Youth offer an intentional approach to helping those who’ve been through this type of traumatic experience.

1. Listen.

Be slow to speak and quick to listen.

2. Empathize.

Don’t lecture, but rather be someone the child can cry with, hurt with, and mourn with. Offer love unconditionally.

3. Affirm.

Help the child understand that you believe him or her, and affirm that the child is an individual with infinite worth.

4. Direct.

Point the child to God as the source of healing and wholeness. Help the child turn the responsibility of the abuse from him- or herself onto the perpetrator and to realize this process of healing and recovery will take time.

5. Enlist.

Allow the child to choose caring people who can encourage and offer a fuller support system. In most states, you must also enlist the involvement of law enforcement and social services. Rather than fearing these people’s involvement, understand that they’re trained professionals who, for the most part, care deeply about children.

6. Refer.

Bring a professional Christian counselor into the situation. It’s imperative to invite professionals into this very sensitive situation.

How to Minister to the Family

Too often our response is simply to pretend sexual abuse doesn’t exist and to never deal with it. This forces those wounded by abuse to continue to struggle on their own, and never finding the hope Christ wants to offer them. Instead, your church can help the children and families who’ve gone through such a traumatic experience.

An abused child and his or her family need others to come alongside them to provide support and encouragement as they begin the difficult journey of dealing with the abuse and learning to trust again. Abuse shatters trust. If the children who’ve been abused and their families don’t find help and hope in the church, where will they find it?

In his book Caring for Sexually Abused Children, R. Timothy Kearney identifies a number of struggles families and the church must deal with.

Communication

Church members’ gossip about the situation can be very painful for the family, so encourage the church to interact with the family and faithfully pray for them while not taking sides.

Isolation

Some families isolate themselves because sometimes those trying to help may have the tendency to overcompensate and treat the family as special or different. The family needs to be treated as normally as possible while receiving whatever attention is needed.

Shame

Help the child and family deal with feelings of shame and guilt by first identifying the difference between true guilt and false guilt. A victim and his or her family have no reason to feel guilty. The true guilt should lie solely on the shoulders of the perpetrator. Help the family to understand that the child did nothing wrong.

Love

It’s critically important that children and families affected by abuse have people who are willing to take the time to listen intently to their story as they feel able to share it. These families need to be believed without skepticism or judgment. They need people who’ll lovingly pursue them and initiate contact with them, recognizing that simply offering to be available may not be enough.

Patience

The help offered will need to endure, just as the pain and struggles do. Abuse has physical and emotional consequences that can be tremendously devastating and traumatic for the child. These can be lifelong and include things such as sexually transmitted diseases, damage to the genitals, bladder control problems, issues of guilt and shame, feelings of low self-esteem, lack of ability to trust others, depression, anxiety, and anger. Families need people who’ll be patient as they work through the physical and spiritual ramifications. Ultimately, they need the church to be real and to become educated about how to properly reach out and effectively care for them.

The horror of child sexual abuse is far too real for so many children in our churches, but thankfully the reality of our God, who loves and cares about us, gives the strength we need to face the truth and provide real help and healing for those who’ve been hurt. We must do all we can to make our ministries as safe as possible, and be alert and ready to help those who’ve been wounded —they are in our midst.

Allie Hayes is a freelance writer and is involved in children’s ministries. Nate Wagner is a pastor of student ministries at Sparta Baptist Church in Sparta, Michigan.

Protecting the Innocent

A few years ago, at the urging of our senior pastor, I led our preschool committee to spend six months developing a child protection policy. Within weeks of completing the document, I received an urgent call to come in to the church office to hear a family make an accusation of abuse. We were thankful to have outlined a procedure that transcended the pressure of the moment.

Here are the steps we took to deal with this issue head-on.

Volunteers

We determined that the first item addressed would be establishing a clear process to recruit, screen, train, and equip volunteers. We had policy statements on diapering left over from a fastidious preschool coordinator in the previous decade, but no method of determining if people were safe around children. Then we established two levels of expectations in the screening process: one for paid staff and another for volunteers. We cleared the application forms with an attorney and refined our process to ensure we were legal while accomplishing a sufficient background check.

Churches fall into a unique area of the law in many instances. We chose to take the high road and exceed state and local laws. A committee member researched state child-care regulations. Another reviewed health and safety issues. I researched the mandatory reporting and civil procedures for addressing child abuse cases.

Compassion

At one point in the process of addressing the type of ministry to take place in very delicate situations, a particularly compassionate lady brought up the need to care for the accused. Lengthy discussion determined that our goal was wholeness and forgiveness for all involved, thus we addressed the concept of caring for the accused in the policy. We established internal procedures to allow for protection in the situation of false accusations. We also involved the elders as a check for ensuring the addressing of spiritual and to hold staff accountable.

Communication

Our church continually seemed to struggle with communication. We required written, published information regarding all activities involving minors. Additionally, we required standard permission forms for off-site trips, and we revised parent handbooks to express the implied permission of checking a child into a caregiving or a Bible study group.

Two-Adult Rule

The pastor tossed in the idea that no amount of screening can filter someone who’s never been accused of a crime. The best answer was to revise our procedures to allow for an ounce of prevention. We required that all activities involving minors include at least two adults. The impact on volunteers was every pastor’s dream. We found that having a need meant more people could be involved in ministry.

Pruning

The church carried on many diverse programs and ministries that had sprouted over the years. Few had training or procedures; most were carried out haphazardly without sufficient support. The work on this child protection policy allowed the church staff to refine and refocus vision and to make each ministry uniquely ours. We set aside some programs as impractical under the more demanding guidelines of accountability. This was healthy for the church, as ministries that no longer had anyone with a passion leading them were jettisoned in favor of ministries that are more effective.

Remodeling

The committee concluded by reviewing our facility and addressing safety issues. We recommended changes to our facility to a remodeling task force the senior pastor was developing. We made some minor changes immediately for safety and protection, such as enhancing sightlines by cutting half-doors in all preschool rooms. A couple of ministry locations were changed to enhance security of the participants. The church was able to begin a major renovation project this spring to update the facility to exceed current standards.

Public Relations

In discussions with a friend in public relations, I learned it’s best to have simple and clear statements regarding internal procedures, such as “We have a child protection policy that outlines the process we’re following.” Additionally, for the protection of all involved, “We have no additional comments.”

Communication

Completing the child protection policy was just the beginning of the work. Upon adoption, the task of orienting the church and the volunteers began in earnest. I wrote articles for the church newsletter explaining aspects of the policy. I designed a parenting newsletter on safety that became a quarterly release on various parenting topics. We included references to the policy in our PowerPoint announcements, on the Web site, and in our welcome materials.

Training

Working with the preschool ministries coordinator, I conducted a series of training sessions to orient volunteers and paid staff to specific procedures of the policy. While we had a captive audience, we took the time to reinstruct on our handbook of health and safety issues. We conducted potential workers training to explain our ministries, the jobs to be accomplished, and the policies and procedures. Adding segments on our mission, vision, and purpose helped turn our orientation into a great recruitment tool to hold on a semiannual basis.

The situation mentioned at the beginning of this article grew to be painful, yet thankfully took place out of the public eye and in a manner that grace and healing could be administered. We involved the civil authorities. The church staff worked to bring healing and minister compassion. We were responsive at an appropriate level, we took immediate steps to continue protection for our children, and we tested our policy. It held and proved valuable. I’ve since begun a new church. Our first action was forming a child protection policy.

Reporting Procedures

The following is an excerpt from the church’s child protection policy.

Inappropriate Behavior

If a volunteer sees any questionable, suspicious, or inappropriate behavior, or if a volunteer suspects any type of child abuse, the volunteer should immediately and confidentially report it to the person in charge of the program or activity. If not possible, report suspicions to a staff pastor. The need for the strictest of confidentiality must be stressed. Upon receiving such a report, the person in charge of the program or activity should immediately and confidentially report the situation to the staff pastor responsible for the area.

Civil Authorities

If a staff pastor receives a report of suspected improper action or suspected child abuse, or if the staff pastor suspects an improper action or child abuse, he or she shall take all steps necessary to report any suspected child abuse to the proper state and county authorities. The staff pastor shall use reasonable judgment in interpreting and reporting such suspicions.

Course of Action

If an allegation or suspicion of child abuse involving a volunteer or paid worker in a ministry involving children comes to the attention of a staff pastor, said pastor shall take reasonable steps to confidentially suspend said volunteer’s contact with any children in ministries of the church until the appropriate government agencies properly investigate the allegations. In the absence of such an investigation, the church staff and members of the elders shall review the suspicions or allegations and make a judgment regarding the suspension or restoration of the volunteer.

Support

If an allegation or suspicion of child abuse involving a volunteer or paid worker in a ministry involving children taking place at the church comes to the attention of a staff pastor, said pastor shall promptly report such suspicion or allegation to the church’s insurance company, the church’s legal counsel, and whatever other professional assistance appropriate or necessary to deal with the situation professionally.

Parents

In the case of allegations of child abuse during a program, activity, or event of the church, the church staff shall promptly and confidentially notify the parents or legal guardians of the child involved.

Pastoral Care

In the case of allegations of child abuse during a program, activity, or event of the church, the pastoral staff and appropriate church leadership shall take all reasonable steps to reach out to the possible victim and the accused and their families to provide them grace, love, and support through the difficult situation.

Spokesperson

In the case of allegations of child abuse during a program, activity, or event of the church, the pastoral staff shall designate a spokesperson for the church to deal with inquiries from the media, from the congregation, and to the extent possible, from the appropriate authorities.

Reporting Process Summary

(Involving Volunteers or Employees)

  1. Individual reports observation or suspicion to staff pastor.
  2. Staff pastor reports observation or suspicion to proper state and county authorities.
  3. Parents are notified.
  4. Suspend volunteer or employee from contact with children pending investigation.
  5. Inform elders of the general details of the case.
  6. Designate a spokesperson for the case
  7. Staff pastor notifies the insurance provider and legal counsel.
  8. Extend pastoral care to the victim and the accused.
  9. Civil authorities investigate.
  10. If there’s no investigation, church staff and deacons review the suspicions or allegations and render a judgment.

Reporting Process Summary

(Involving Suspected Abuse to a Child)

  1. Question parents regarding the suspicion.
  2. If there’s reasonable cause, the staff pastor reports observations or suspicion to proper state and county authorities.
  3. Inform elders of the general details of the case.
  4. Designate a spokesperson for the case
  5. Extended pastoral care to the family.
  6. Civil authorities investigate.

Barry Bridges is pastor of a church in San Antonio, Texas.

Want more articles for children’s ministry leaders? Check these out.


5 thoughts on “What You Need to Know About Spotting and Stopping Child Sex Abuse

  1. Avatar

    I am the Relationship Manager for PCA (Presbyterian Church in America) Retirement & Benefits, Inc. I make contact with all our churches and organizations (approximately 2,000), and I send to them information that would be helpful for business and ministry operations.

    I like this article and would ask permission to use this link for a newsletter to our administrators. I would not endorse the magazine or your company (we cannot do this), but many would have the exposure and could make their own decision to subscribe.

    The topic of child abuse comes up at our Administrator Conference every year, and many churches are now adding policies for this behavior (prevention and cure). This article would certainly spur many to take action if they are currently not doing so.

    Can you send to me written permission to use this article and web link? If you have any misgivings, please let me know and any restrictions or limits you want placed on this usage. I probably will not use it until after March 2016.

    Thanks so much for the good article and ministry to children.

    Blessings in Christ,
    Harry Cooksey
    Relationship Manager
    PCA RBI
    678-825-1290

    • Avatar
      Children's Ministry Magazine

      Hi Harry!
      Yes, please feel free to use this link for your newsletter!
      Blessings,
      Rochelle

  2. Avatar
    Inyang Archibong (Ms)

    Hi, I am a Children Church Minister in ABuja, Nigeria. In speaking to children in 9 to 12 years class, a lot about sexuality, sexual abuse is increasingly coming through from my kids and this makes me really scared. I am searching for information on these topics for a 2 days Sunday school camp in my local parish for these children.
    Please permit me to use these information during the camp, i am certain it would really change our kids and other ministers.
    Thanks, again.

    • Avatar
      Christine Yount Jones

      Please search our site. We have articles on these topics that could help you!

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