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Sexual predators within sacred spaces

Sexual predators within sacred spaces

Mike McCarty is a former police officer and detective and is an Advisor to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. | Courtesy of Mike McCarty

I have heard it time and again. That can’t happen here, we know everyone . . . We need to think the best about people and not assume the worst . . . He may have a problem, but he is going through a restoration program . . .

As a violence prevention expert, as well as a former police officer and violent crime detective, I can tell you that most sexual and violent crime victims’ perpetrators were people they knew and trusted.  As a Christian, I have a deep concern for the safety of ministries and churches, not only from external dangers but from internal threats as well. Sadly, internal threats are not only becoming more common, but they are often happening because church or ministry leadership failed to take the steps necessary to protect the people that come through their doors.  And in some cases, leadership has even known there was a problem but believed that their “restoration program” did not need to be balanced with removing that person from ministry.  

Just in the past two weeks, we have read about a revered Menlo Park senior pastor who allowed his son to continue ministering to children and youth within the church, even though the son confessed to his dad that he was sexually attracted to children. There is now an active investigation taking place at the church.

In Indiana, a church knowingly hired a man who, just five years ago, had been fired from a school due to inappropriate and lewd conduct with minor girls. The church hired this man to be its new senior pastor. 

At Cedarville University (a Christian college), the president was fired (and then incredibly, reinstated) after he knowingly hired a man for a teaching position who had been fired from pastoring a church due to sexually immoral and illicit conduct. The president of the university hired the man because he had been a former student and had presented a restoration plan that the university president accepted. 

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Unlike other institutions or organizations, churches and ministries welcome everyone that walks through their doors — and rightly so. Yet, when it comes to volunteering with children and youth or being hired as staff, a far more robust recruiting process that includes quality background checks, authentic reference checks, and an educated knowledge and understanding of a sexual abuser is vital in order to help keep everyone safe.

We — the church — have to separate restoration and protecting children. Sexual abuse is one of the most under-reported crimes and it is not uncommon that a single perpetrator will have a long trail of victims before they are ever caught. Can God heal a sexual abuser? Yes. However, after decades of secular reformation programs, the research is clear and disheartening — these programs have yielded very little success in changing abusive sexual behaviors. 

Recently, while at a speaking engagement, a director of a state department of corrections sexual offender management program came up to me and boldly stated that he does this work every day knowing that there is no proven model that works.

So, what should churches do?

1. Pastoral staff need to be wise as serpents and understand the red flags and signs of a predator. Sexual abusers are master manipulators and can be very engaging and personal. They literally can be a lion in sheep’s clothing.  

2. A criminal background check is not enough, especially if it is using a single source, rather than a multiple database check. Our assessment of many churches across the U.S. has found that most of the criminal background checks that churches use will not always find sexual convictions. Quality reference checks are a must.  There are software tools that can do this inexpensively and anonymously.

3. We have a Biblical obligation to be transparent and to protect our children.  Selecting a safety and security partner should not be based solely on price or ease of use. Since there is no standard definition of a background check or requirements for who can offer these services, do your homework and find a qualified partner that both understands the church space and also has the professional background and experience of prevention versus, namely, reactive response.

When it comes to kids, we often worry about “stranger danger” without really comprehending that the greatest danger they face in life is that someone close to them, such as a family member, a trusted teacher, or youth pastor, will harm them. Our kids' greatest threat comes from internal danger, not external.

A pastor told me recently that there are two things that will destroy a ministry: a moral failure by the pastor/leader and harm coming to a child from within the church.  It takes just one occurrence of these things happening to bring life-long scars and ruin to children and families, the collapse of a once-thriving ministry, and damage to the witness of Christ.

The time is now for churches and ministries to take preventive action for the sake of their congregants and for the sake of the Gospel.

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As a former police officer and detective with the Metro Nashville Police Department, Mike McCarty spent 25 years in the violent crime division/violence prevention program. He is regarded as the nation’s leading expert on violence prevention and is an Advisor to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Mike is CEO of Safe Hiring Solutions,


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