Personal Starting Point
Each of us has a set of past experiences that impact how we feel about the topic of child sexual abuse. Some people know someone who was abused or they may have been abused themselves. Others may struggle with an attraction to children or the thought of sexualizing a child simply destroys their sense of a safe world. These are experiences and feelings that could create a lot of discomfort.
That discomfort could even keep you from seeing abuse happening to children in your life, right in front of you. In addition, children may sense your discomfort and therefore not see you as a trusted adult they can confide in, if they do need help.
On the other hand, adults who have participated in training on the topic of child sexual abuse, have past experience supporting friends and family who were abused, or have had extensive therapy for their own abuse may find it easy to discuss. They have probably had a chance to identify and resolve personal barriers that may hinder them from protecting children including the barriers identified by Carla van Dam in our introduction. If you have children of your own, your personal experiences are inherently combined with your spouse's past experiences, creating a family dynamic with yet another set of expectations and experiences to consider. Careful examination will allow you to identify lingering barriers as well as enablers to protecting children. All of this must be taken into consideration when determining your starting point as a faith leader.
Congregation Members' Starting Point
Statistially speaking, twenty percent of your congregation have personally experienced childhood sexual abuse. This number doesn't inlcude the parents, grandparents, siblings, and even children of those who have been abused, who often spend a lifetime supporting their loved ones through the repercussions and healing process. The vast majority of people who have experienced child sexual abuse struggle with shame which often silences them. They may even be silenced by fear instilled by threats of their perpetrator. Survivors and family members alike are looking for someone to give them permission to tell - to call them out of the darkness and the isolation of their secret into the truth of God's enduring love.
You have a platform from which to break the silence and call survivors and their families out of their pain and into freedom. Speaking about the child sexual pandemic from the pulpit provides opportunities to engage your congregation in both the protection of children and in the creation of a safe place for survivors to heal.
If you've been personally impacted by child sexual abuse, it would be powerful for you to share your story as part of your leadership role. It brings the statistics to life and it helps others learn through your story - we call this "Survivors with a Purpose (SWAP)." However, since our intent is to model for the community how to talk about child sexual abuse comfortably, it's important that you don't leave your congregation feeling like they need to save you. You have to work through your own healing first, if appropriate, and always practice good self-care.
Organizational Starting Point
As you can imagine, in addition to your own starting point, the personal experiences and family dynamics of your staff members and volunteers will also have a significant impact on your ability to protect childern and create a safe place for survivors to heal.
Beyond the individuals though, there are also aspects of your organizational culture that should be assessed such as years of tradition, past abuse allegations in your church or denomination, a sense of trust and a culture of forgiveness among the body of believers. It's also crucial to consider the concept of ultimate authority in God and those who represent him, as well as any conerns the organization has about their reputation in the community and their on-going need for financial support from the congregation. Effectively protecting the children in your care must stem from understanding the barriers and enablers created by both organizational culture as well as the individuals who are part of it.
Child sexual abuse is a silent crime and therefore taking a vocal stand against it has not been commonplace, especially for communities that are consumed by denial and fear or organizations that fear the new focus will allude to a safety concern within their organization. So ultimately, evaluation of your starting point must also consider your willingness to change the status quo and your courage to lead.