Members offer advice for coping with – and preventing – sexual misconduct
Charles D. Smith Jr., 44, who had been a part of the church family for 15 years, pleaded guilty in January 2006 to one count of involuntary deviate sexual intercourse with a member of the church’s youth group. Smith was sentenced to four to eight years in prison for the offense, which happened in 2004.
After the 15-year-old reported the incident to police, at least one other victim from the youth group came forward, according to the Allentown, Pa., Morning Call.
The arrest shocked the 130-member congregation, Garrett said. Some members — including those not directly connected to the abuse — continue to struggle with forgiveness. But the church has rallied in the years following the arrest, concentrating on prayer and counseling.
The congregation recently hired a new minister and moved into a new facility. The church held onto most of its members in the wake of the controversy — and even gained about 30, Garrett said.
Garrett and Christian counselors contacted by the Chronicle gave the following advice for churches coping with issues of sexual abuse:
• Be honest: “Don’t hide it from your members or your community,” Garrett said. Leaders of the North Penn church addressed their congregation and the media as soon as the allegations came to light, he said.
Church leaders should make a strong statement to members that the problem will not be minimized, said Linda Oxford, clinical director for Agape Child and Family Services in Memphis, Tenn.
• Appoint a spokesperson: Churches should appoint one person to handle inquiries and make statements about the incident, said Oxford, a member of the White Station church. “Pick someone in the church who is wise, discerning and credible,” she added.
Garrett was spokesman for his congregation, and church members were asked to refrain from speculating about the incident, he said.
• Don’t blame the victims: In the past, victims of sexual abuse often were “simply not believed” and even asked to repent, Oxford said. This was particularly true when the victims were not minors. In recent years, however, church members have come to recognize the role of a minister differently.
“If a minister is having sex with a member of the congregation, that’s not consensual — anymore than an attorney having sex with his client or a psychiatrist having sex with his patient,” Oxford said.
• Get help: Offenders need to be removed from their positions and put into recovery programs. Often, church leaders themselves need counseling, Oxford said. “The leaders managing this are dealing with their own shock, trauma, confusion, guilt, and trying to shepherd all of these wounded people,” she said.
• Realize there’s no quick fix: It takes churches two to five years to recover from a sexual abuse incident, Oxford said, because “the minister has not just violated the trust of the victims. He has violated the trust of the entire congregation.”
Leaders of the North Penn church agree. Victims of sexual crime are at risk of losing their faith, and ministers must realize that they will see the effects of sexual sin for years. “It’s crucial to identify abuse of trust, abuse of the faith and abuse of power as aggravating elements of the sin and crime,” Garrett said.
“There is no way through these situations without people getting hurt,” Oxford said. The only decision churches can make is “what protects the greatest number of people from unnecessary pain.”
Ministers, church workers and counselors also offered the following advice on preventing sexual abuse in congregations:
• Accountability: Addiction to pornography, which often serves as a gateway to sexual misconduct, “thrives in isolation,” said Richard Blankenship, director of the North Atlanta Center for Christian Counseling.
“Every single minister needs covenant eyes on their computer,” said Blankenship, a member of the North Atlanta church.
• Classroom safety: At the Memorial Road church in Oklahoma City, the door of every children’s classroom has a window, education minister Scott Franks said.
“We also have manned welcome centers near every external door in our children’s areas,” he said. “The idea is to ensure that there is nowhere in the church building where an adult can get alone with a child unseen, or behind a locked door, or take that child outside without being seen.”
If possible, youth group trips should be chaperoned by at least one woman and one man, Blankenship said. Before sending children on a church-sponsored trip, parents should ask themselves if it’s possible for their children to be left alone with one adult.
Keeping Kids Safe Ministries
Steve Vann, a licensed counselor for Agape of Middle Tennessee in Nashville and a member of the Pegram, Tenn., church, and Gregory Sporer recently launched this ministry, which teaches church leaders and youth workers to identify and deal with suspicious behaviors, how to avoid false accusations and build communication skills between youth workers and children.
North Atlanta Center for Christian Counseling
This site features additional information about Richard Blankenship, president and director of the American Association of Certified Christian Sexual Addiction Specialists. Blankenship has worked with churches and counseling centers for almost 20 years. He recently authored a book, S.A.R.A.H.: Spouses of Addicts Rebuilding and Healing.
Agape Child and Family Services
This site contains contact information for the Memphis, Tenn., office of Agape Child and Family Services Inc. Linda Oxford is clinical director of the Memphis office. Agape offers consultation, training and crisis intervention services for church leaders dealing with sexual misconduct. Additional offices have different Web sites, including Agape of Middle Tennessee at agapenashville.org.
June 1, 2007