By Dawn Irons, M.A., LPC
It’s been 48-hours since the knock on the door, and yet it seems a lifetime ago. It was a persistent knock that would not go away. I made my way to the door, still in my pajamas, and when I opened the door I saw the people gathered around my daughter and holding her up. I ran to them to see what was going on.
They explained how they had been driving down the road and they saw her collapsed in the middle of the street. Her body was involuntarily shaking and she was unable to make clear sentences. It was something I had recognized before. I made eye contact with my daughter and asked her if she had been abusing the over-the-counter cold medicines again and she nodded yes.
The town people helped me get her inside the house where she was able to sit on the sofa, but then suddenly she began having a seizure. We called 911, rolled her on her belly and made sure she was breathing while we awaited medical intervention.
This has become a familiar scene as we deal with the aftermath of trauma in her life. This is not a story about drug abuse, although the abuse is definitely a symptom of a much larger problem. This problem is what I want us to talk about. As a church, we cannot afford to not discuss this problem.
Sexual Abuse in the Church
My daughter was raped by a children’s church volunteer at our local church when she was 10-years-old, on church property, on multiple occasions. My husband had served on staff as the Worship Pastor and we were unprepared the information we would soon come to understand as we surrounded my daughter and walked with her through forensic investigations with the special victims unit at the Arlington Police Department and Alliance For Children advocacy group.
To this day, my daughter refuses to give up the name of her abuser because he had threatened to kill her father and I, along with her brothers in front of her if she ever told anyone. After the police investigation they told us they were certain that she was not the only victim—just the only one they knew about. Due to her age at the time of the assaults, the police assured us there was no statute of limitations and that at some point in the future she may want to give up his name and they would prosecute to the fullest extent of the law.
I wracked my brain, time and time again, trying to figure out where the break in our protection of our family happened. I worked hard at trying to keep a fairly sheltered environment where we homeschooled and had close relationships with the children’s friends and parents. We were involved in church and the homeschool co-op for sports and elective classes. I was convinced we had done everything we could do to protect the environment and influence that would have affects on our children. It just never occurred to me that a predator would make his way into our church and groom and victimize my 10-year-old daughter while we served as a staff family.
Ignorance is not bliss
As a mental health professional, it became a personal mission to try and educate churches about the dangers of child sexual abuse and the need for awareness and prevention. Most often I was met with complete rejection that it could even possibly be a problem in the churches I spoke with.
Other times, I was told, “This is a small town. If that were a problem here, someone in the community would know about it!” And still the most shocking response, “We have limited resources and a difficult time getting people to serve in children’s ministry. If we required everyone to take prevention and awareness training then no one would serve!”
Maybe I have learned, up close and personal, what collateral damage looks like because my daughter’s life, after age 10, read like a stereotypical textbook case example of what happens to people who are sexually abused. There was high promiscuity, teen pregnancy, self-injury, drug abuse, and the list is still ongoing.
The highest price, so far, is that she no longer trusts the Church or that God has any power to heal or help her. The Church has done a less-than-stellar job of doing what it needs to keep children safe. We must do better. We must talk about it. We must count the cost for future generations. And cost has nothing to do with dollars—it has to do with eternal life and children’s ability to love and accept the free gift of God.
Facing the harsh reality & building a strategic plan
Gregory Love, attorney and co-founder of Ministry Safe, a company committed to helping churches, schools and organizations navigate the multitude of issues surrounding risk assessment, prevention and awareness of child sexual abuse, suggests that conservative studies on the issue show that there are over 747,000 registered sex offenders living in the U.S. Churches are primary targets of sex offenders looking for easy prey.
Studies and statistics show that a male who molests a boy will have an average of 150 victims before ever being caught the first time. The average age a predator begins to abuse is around the ages of 13-14. The average age of the predator being prosecuted is age 35. But girls are targeted just as well. Other research shows that 1-in-4 girls and 1-in-5 boys will be sexually abused by the time they reach their 18th birthday.
We can no longer afford to avoid this issue that must be discussed. As Love reported in a seminar I recently attended in Midland, that was hosted by the Texas Baptists, “This is a BIG problem, this is OUR problem, this is a TODAY problem!”
Remember, churches are volunteer driven organizations that often are lacking in enough help for children’s ministry. They are often quick to accept volunteers without a lot of hassle to bring them on board with our most precious resources. We must begin the difficult dialogue on this horrendous issue—because we know that churches are intentional targets.
We no longer have the luxury of saying, “I didn’t know.” The research bears out the ungodly truth. That knowledge requires intentional and immediate action on the parts of our churches.
Texas Baptists are hosting regional Church Safety Workshops to help churches take a proactive approach to keeping children in their ministries safe. Upcoming trainings will be held in Granbury on Oct. 24 and McAllen on Nov. 2. Click here for more information.
Dawn Irons, M.A., LPC is the clinical director of Hope Harbor Counseling in Denver City, Texas. She received her bachelor’s degree in social work from the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor and her master’s degree in Counseling at Dallas Baptist University. Her husband, Brad, serves as the Worship and Discipleship Pastor at First Baptist Church of Denver City.