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Preying in church: Confronting sexual offenders who come to church

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The Houston Chronicle investigated within the Southern Baptist Convention, focusing on sexual abuse among leaders, both on staff and volunteers. The results were appalling. In a three-part series the paper found that since 1998 there have been at least 700 victims of sexual abuse perpetrated by 380 Southern Baptist leaders and volunteers. The victims were mostly children.

As a pastor for almost four decades, I have faced my share of storms in ministry. However, in October of 2007 a pastor’s worst nightmare took place. A man we all loved and trusted who served as one of our volunteers in student ministry shocked us. He had used his volunteer position to groom and lure young men into his web of sexual deception. We had done three separate background checks all of which came back clean. I can’t begin to tell you the devastation this man’s actions caused. There were times in this process that I didn’t think I was going to make it. I was in despair at the damage this pedophile had caused. Interestingly enough; some people ran to the man’s defense because of the swift and strong action taken against him. I realized his wife and son were victims too.

Living in Florida, we are accustomed to hurricanes. I remember saying to the press, “This is a category -five storm.” Pedophiles are targeting churches because we are people of compassion, mercy and forgiveness. I learned more about this subject than I ever cared to. We had to create a new normal and we would never be the same.

The offender attempted to manipulate the system and blame everyone else—the victims, the church and the pastor. He pleaded guilty, but on the day of his trial he was going to rescind the plea and let it go to trial, making the victims live through this suffering again. He walked into court, saw all the victims who were willing to face him and tell the truth, and then folded. He went to prison for a long time, not long enough in my opinion. I want to insert here: I believe God can heal anyone and I believe a pedophile can change IF he truly repents and does whatever necessary to seek God’s help as well as professional help. I rarely, if ever, however, see this happen. I do not discount God’s grace and power, but I do question whether most sexual offenders really want to change.

10 Commandments for Weathering the Storm of a Sexual Offense in the Church Where you Serve.

I pray this never happens to you as a pastor or Christian leader, but if it does, you need to be prepared to walk through what will no doubt be the worst thing you have faced in ministry:

1. Learn from what Happened and Put Policies and Practices in Place to seek to Prevent it from Ever Happening Again.

If it has not happened to you, begin now putting these principles in place. We learned so much.

1) Review your Policies concerning Volunteers and Strengthen them

This is a preemptive strike. You can assume nothing. Sexual offenders know how to groom their victims by being kind, giving gifts and spending time. They attempt to build trust among people so no one would believe anything negative about them. Have a background check system in place. Although background checks are not fail-safe, they do help. Run background checks on staff members and volunteers who work with preschoolers, children and youth. When someone moves into your community and comes to your church, before you allow them to volunteer with preschoolers, children or youth, call the church from which the person came. Check them out! Trust any check in your spirit. Don’t dismiss too quickly a feeling that something is not quite right concerning another person. It may be the Holy Spirit warning you or others. Also, publicly share your policies. Go on record that you will not tolerate inappropriate behavior, attitudes or words.

2) Communicate with the people you serve that if anyone does anything suspicious or says something questionable, they should report it immediately to the pastor or staff member in charge of that area of ministry.

Follow up on anything suspicious. It IS better to be safe than sorry. You need to create an atmosphere where people have the freedom to share any concerns they have about others.

3) Develop a Code of Conduct for workers involved in preschool, children and student ministries

Specifically, spell out what is appropriate and inappropriate behavior.

4) Ask Law Enforcement to assist you in setting up a safety net

We asked law enforcement to come and meet with the parents of our youth and to answer any questions. They are more than willing to help.

5) Never let your guard down—ever. Satan is looking for one opportunity, and he will wait as long as he must to make his move.

6) It is better to have a few people upset over your volunteer policies than to compromise the policies to keep the peace.

7) Periodically have speakers come in and deal with this subject

8) Keep the lines of communication open with the area of ministry that was most affected.

Always take every step possible to protect the people within the church.

2. Stay on Your Face Before God and Seek His Grace, Wisdom, Strength and Discernment

You will need much discernment to know what to say and not say. In anger and frustration, there will be many things you will want to say, and you simply cannot. You will experience criticism from those who don’t know all the details. You must trust God to be your defense. Just keep doing the right thing.

3. Be Proactive in Communicating with the Church you Serve

Do this quickly. The sooner the better, but make sure you are prepared. Share everything you can without compromising the investigation., the victims, or the family of the offender.

4. Retain a Good Attorney and Follow the Advice Given Concerning Legal and Media Issues

With every statement you make, run it by your attorney. Ask your attorney how to deal with the media. You don’t want to say something that would further hurt the victim(s) and the church. You aren’t getting an attorney to defend what the sexual offender has done, but to protect the church from further pain.

5. Be Proactive with the Media. Get out there as soon as possible.

Take the initiative to make a statement to the media. Let them know you are not trying to hide something. Seek to handle this in such a way that even those without Christ would admire the way you are handling this tragedy. When dealing with the media, script what you are going to say and stick with the script. From the onset, appoint one person whom you thoroughly trust to be the point person to make statements and address the media.

6. Provide Immediate Support for the Victims and Families—Make this your Priority

Provide counseling for the victims and families. The church must bear the financial cost of the counseling. Seek to protect the victims and their family’s privacy. Have a point person who deals with the victim(s) and families.

7. Let People Know what you say Publicly is the Only Time you will be Discussing the Matter

Refuse to discuss the situation with anyone who wants to bring it up. You can speak in general terms based on what you said publicly but be very discerning here. Provide a printed statement of what you have said publicly.

8. Cooperate Fully and Completely from the Onset with Law Enforcement

This sounds elementary and obvious, however, law enforcement told us that many churches will not cooperate because they don’t want the publicity. This will destroy the witness of a church. Let is be said of you and your church that you cooperated fully and enthusiastically with law enforcement.

9. Stay Away from Social Media

It will do you absolutely no good to post on Facebook, tweet or blog about the incident. Don’t add to your grief by reading everything the critics have said. Just keep doing the right thing consistently.

10. Remain Humble

If this happens in the church you lead, you will be surprised not only about those who come to your defense and by those who become your critics. Remain humble. Don’t attempt to defend what has happened.

I pray this never happens in your ministry. However, you need to begin today to implement practices and policies that seek to prevent this from happening and to act quickly and decisively if it does.

This is a major wake-up call to every SBC church and pastor and churches and leaders of all denominations to do whatever is necessary to protect our children now and in the future.

Dr. Jay Dennis is former pastor of First Baptist Church at the Mall in Lakeland, Florida and Co-Founder of Wingman Nation Men’s Ministry and author of Pornography In The Church: A Resource Guide for Pastors and Christian Leaders.

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