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More on #ChurchToo — Our expanded Q&A with Jimmy Hinton on sexual abuse in churches

'Survivors care for and support one another because they feel abandoned and betrayed by the church,' Hinton says.

For Jimmy Hinton, there was no question: He had to do the right thing, even though it meant turning in his own father.

In 2011, a woman confided to Hinton that his father, John Hinton — who spent 27 years as the preacher at the Somerset Church of Christ in Pennsylvania — had sexually abused her when she was a young girl.

Related: #ChurchToo: Sexual abuse victims ‘fed up’ with silence

Jimmy Hinton preaches for the Somerset Church of Christ in southwestern Pennsylvania.

That report prompted an investigation that resulted in the pedophile preacher, now 69, pleading guilty to sexually assaulting and taking nude photographs of four young girls, ages 4 to 7.

While his father serves a 30- to 60-year sentence at a state prison, Jimmy Hinton works to create awareness far beyond Somerset.

In an interview with the The Christian Chronicle, Hinton discussed social media advocacy, the sexual abuse problem and steps churches can take to prevent abuse:

Question: How has social media changed the overall landscape for survivor recovery, advocacy and activism?

Hinton: Social media can make survivors visible and feel validated where they are otherwise emotionally invisible and silenced. In the past two years, I’ve seen more survivor support groups cropping up, which encourages me that they are finding alternative avenues for help.

Survivors care for and support one another because they feel abandoned and betrayed by the church. They understand each other because they all know the depth of wickedness that was perpetrated on other survivors.

In stark contrast, church leaders tend to minimize their pain and tell them to forgive and “move on.” Survivors lived the abuse, so they have the credibility to nurture each other. I don’t know the actual percentage, and no studies have been done on this to my knowledge, but a very large number of survivors I interact with have left the traditional church for good and have turned to online support groups instead.

It saddens me that the church has turned its back on the very people Jesus radically defended. Most people don’t realize that many, many victims are double survivors. They survived sexual abuse, were revictimized by church leaders and have now become survivors of the very church that was meant to protect them. I think that until the church learns how to care for and defend abuse survivors, our churches will continue to shrink while social media groups will thrive.

As far as advocacy and activism, social media is a good platform for making people aware. I use it all the time to share my blogs, Bible verses, information about training and just offering public support and prayers for survivors and their families. Social media also allows advocates to all stay connected with each other. There aren’t a lot of us out there, so the world becomes a very small place in the field of child sexual abuse. I’ve met a lot of really incredible people over the last few years, and it’s mostly been through social media.

Q: Is sexual abuse really a sweeping problem in the churches — including Churches of Christ — or are we just more alert because of publicity such as #ChurchToo?

Hinton: Sexual abuse is an epidemic. There are an estimated 43 million survivors of childhood sexual abuse in the United States alone. I’m blown away at the number of survivors who contact me to tell me about people in the Churches of Christ who are sexual abusers. I know of at least two full-blown pedophile rings in the Churches of Christ where children were being trafficked among church leaders. I’m seeing a growing trend, too, with church leaders who are involved in sexting scandals with church members.

We notice it more in the schools because it gets more publicity than the churches. Investigations into improper teacher-student relationships jumped 36 percent in Texas in the 2017 fiscal year from the previous year. All states are seeing an increase in the number of school teachers arrested, and the top reason churches end up in court is abuse of minors.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve personally made reports to the FBI, state police, National Center For Missing and Exploited Children, U.S. Marshals and even the Department of Homeland Security. Most of my reports have been within the Churches of Christ. The FBI estimates that a sex offender is living in every square mile in the U.S.

Of the dozens of Churches of Christ I’ve trained or consulted with, 100 percent of them had a minimum of one known sex offender in their congregation. And those are just the sex offenders these churches are aware of. I estimate that over 90 percent of churches, including the Churches of Christ, have a minimum of one child sexual abuser in their congregations.

Q: If sexual abuse is so common, why is it so difficult to detect?

Hinton: There are a combination of factors. First, sexual abusers are highly skilled at deception. I learned, after several years of studying pedophiles, that they are using a host of techniques to abuse children in broad daylight.

Ironically, I’m a preacher who specializes in deception. We have to know how deception works if we are going to learn abusers’ techniques — how they keep us all blind to their abuse.

Much of the abuse happens while we are talking with the abuser. They use a combination of very similar techniques that magicians use. It’s frightening to know how much abuse is being perpetrated right in front of us.

Second, abusers hack our belief system, and they know exactly what they can and can’t get away with for every individual. Christians are the easiest targets because we teach people to believe the best in others. Abusers exploit this belief system to get away with the unthinkable. And it works. Anyone who has spent time with survivors knows that their abusers were incredibly brazen, and the church folk were naive.

Finally, abuse victims are either too young to describe what happened to them or they are too ashamed, embarrassed or scared to tell anyone. Most abuse survivors believe that they are the only victim of the abuser and that they bear responsibility for the abuse. A lot of victims are either threatened by the abuser or they respect him or her and think if they tell that they will be responsible for ruining their “friend’s” life.

Q: Why do so many Christians and church leaders hesitate to believe victims?

Hinton: The short answer is that they don’t want to believe them. Abusers are not nameless, faceless people. They are our best friends, our peers, parents, preachers, elders, deacons, siblings and spiritual mentors.

To believe a victim is to admit that the person who we are closest to has lied to and deceived us for as long as we’ve known them. That’s a horrifying truth to accept, and most of us falsely believe that the way we perceive others is who they truly are.

When my father’s victim disclosed to me, I felt like the world’s biggest idiot. It’s a humbling thing to admit that we are not as perceptive as we think we are. Sadly, some of the most prideful people I know are in church leadership. When victims disclose, it’s usually church leaders who humiliate the victims, say that they are “mistaken” or ask what they did to invite the abuse.

If church leaders were more humble, victims would be treated far better than they are, and more felon abusers would be behind bars where they belong.

Q: Many Christians report they feel abandoned after making claims of abuse.  What needs to happen to change this response?

Hinton: The most important thing is to believe the victim and take immediate action to protect them.

Larry Nassar was reported by eight different victims dating as far back as 1997.  His abuse continued until his arrest, and over 260 victims have since come forward. We can wag our fingers at Michigan State, Penn State, and others. But the reality is that when the majority of church leaders are faced with an allegation of abuse, they talk about how it was “in the past,” that the victim “needs to move on,” that they are praying for the victim, etc. They literally come up with every excuse to not report the abuser.

Most states have laws that make clergy and other church leaders mandated reporters. It’s illegal for church leaders to not report when a victim discloses or if they have reasonable suspicion that a child is being abused.

Believe me when I say that a lot of church leaders are criminals because they have failed to report abuse. They could face fines or prison time for failure to report. There is good reason for Christians to feel abandoned after making a claim of abuse.

We need to have better training for people going into ministry on the university and graduate levels. Most church leaders have no idea that they are breaking the law when they fail to report abuse because they’ve never been taught.  They also need to be trained for how to navigate a church through the aftermath of abuse.

I know of at least a dozen Churches of Christ in the past two years who have silently told a church leader or volunteer to resign or step down when allegations of abuse arose. This is both criminal and immoral. Those abusers always move to another congregation, where they are free to reinvent themselves and abuse more victims.

Q: What steps can we take to prevent sexual abuse in the church?

Hinton: We need more training, but we need proper training. I talk a lot about the safety record of flying. It’s safe to fly because the training for everyone in aviation is top-notch. Training manuals are constantly being rewritten and updated.

Our safety record for children in the church is embarrassing. Sexual predators are not average, ordinary people. They are highly skilled, and they adapt quickly. To prevent abuse in the church, we need to train all leaders and volunteers how to think like a predator. We need to teach them the specific techniques abusers use so they can see it in real time.

We need to teach people how to intervene when boundaries are crossed. We need to develop excellent protection policies so that all the boundaries are in writing as well as the consequences for violating those boundaries. And we need to train our children so that they know if they are being abused. They need to be trained to report abuse if it happens, whether at home, at school or at church.

Prevention is not as complicated as we think.  Churches and universities just have to make an effort to train more people.

Q: You are an expert in the field of child sexual abuse, and you helped walk your church through the aftermath of your father’s abuse becoming public. Are churches eager to reach out to you for help?

Hinton: Not very many are. It’s almost always survivors of abuse who reach out to me for help because their church would not take action. The churches who reach out to me are usually churches that have had a recent incident of abuse, and one of the leaders has a heart for the victims and wants to do what’s right.

Some churches have reached out because their leaders acknowledge that there is generally a problem with abuse, and they are serious about getting outside professional help to prevent abuse in their congregations.

I’ve had several churches reach out to me after abuse was uncovered, and some in the leadership blow up at the thought of having me come. Some have called me back to apologize because some in their leadership are so opposed to me coming.

When I do get requests, I never know what dynamics will play out, but I never assume anything. Every church who contacts me gets treated the same, whether I know them or not.

Q: What trends do you foresee for churches in response to the #ChurchToo movement?

Hinton: I think the churches who don’t want to talk about abuse will be forced to. There are too many survivors who are calling out both their abusers and the churches who gave them protection.

Rachael Denhollander, the first Nassar victim to publicly come forward by name, took on Sovereign Grace Church for their cover-up of abuse. Sovereign Grace was very quick to publicly dispute Rachael’s claim.

Rachael wrote back with a public response to Sovereign Grace Churches, volunteering to spearhead fundraising for an investigation into Sovereign Grace Churches by Boz Tchividjian’s organization GRACE.

Rachael is not alone. Survivors are fed up with churches who blatantly cover up abuse, and they won’t back down. I think what we’re seeing is unprecedented, and it has the attention of the media. This movement will continue to grow in strength and numbers, and churches will have a much harder time hiding abusers in their pews.

Q: What kinds of resources are out there for churches who want training in this area or for churches to consult when they face allegations of abuse?

Hinton: Michael Hanegan writes a lot and has a workshop specific to helping churches minister to trauma survivors at MichaelHanegan.com. This is an important work because of the sheer number of survivors in our congregations who need to find healing.

GRACE (Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment) recently launched a Safeguarding Certification initiative. I am one of GRACE’s certification specialists. This initiative is unique because a certification specialist is assigned to an individual congregation, and the specialist helps guide that church through the entire comprehensive process from start to finish. GRACE educates through selected reading resources, doing a ground visit training, an assessment of the building and policy development. GRACE does both consultations and independent investigations into abuse allegations.

I do training workshops for churches that are heavy on the prevention side of abuse. I use a predator recognition tool, demonstrate specific techniques child sexual abusers use, conduct a facility walk-through and assessment, meet with church leaders to review protection policies and follow up with online consultation with church leaders. I blog regularly on my website JimmyHinton.org, and also offer consulting for churches who are navigating allegations of abuse.

Steve Black recently began Ezekiel33Project.org and addresses the need to train “Watchmen” in our congregations to look out for imposters who sexually abuse our children.

Q: What should we learn from the Larry Nassar sentencings?  

Hinton: What happened with the Nassar case was unprecedented. At no time in history have so many victims stepped forward, revealing their names on record and showing their faces to the public.

Nearly 200 victims gave public victim impact statements, on record. I urge every single person who is in any kind of church leadership or volunteer position to listen to at least a handful of these impact statements. These survivors were desperate for someone to intervene. Many of them told their parents, reported to the police or told people at Michigan State that they had been assaulted by Nassar.

I urge Christians to listen to how many times Nassar sexually abused his victims with their parents in the same room. And I urge them to listen to the compassion of Judge Rosemarie Aquilina. When I listened to Judge Aquilina’s response to each survivor, I immediately thought that every minister and elder should be mandated to listen to her as part of their training.  This sentencing became one of the most widely chronicled case studies on child sexual abuse in history.  These videos are on YouTube for free.

Q: What else should our readers know about this issue?

Hinton: That every single congregation out there has been affected by sexual abuse. There is a sea of abuse survivors already in our churches who are waiting to be asked to help protect others from ever being abused. I wish I had been made aware of this issue years ago. The average pedophile has over 150 victims by the time they get caught, if they ever get caught. Allegations of abuse need to be taken far more seriously. Prevention is a must.

Filed under: #ChurchToo #metoo Dialogue Jimmy Hinton People Sexual abuse sexual assault

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