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Spring 1986 · Vol. 15 No. 1 · pp. 60–72 

Child Sexual Abuse in the Church

Irene Loewen

That’s ridiculous! Christians don’t engage in child sexual abuse! You’re sensationalizing the issue to make a point! These are the responses one expects when the high prevalence of sexual abuse in Christian homes is discussed. Society began to research the problem a decade ago, with the shocking discovery that the majority of offenders attend church regularly (Batman, 1983). Others report that the majority of offenders are fundamentalists (Brandon, 1985). The purpose of this paper is to raise the awareness of our denomination to child sexual abuse. The hope is that victims will recognize that the church will believe them and assist in their healing, and that offenders will get additional support in their treatment. Finally, the hope is that through preventive teaching, we can decrease its incidence.

. . . highly traditional, fundamentalistic, devout, authoritarian families are most at risk for child sexual abuse, . . .


Contrary to popular myth, child sexual abuse is usually not brutal though its effects frequently are. It generally develops over a long period of time, begins by fondling {61} and more loving touches, and may or may not develop into aggressive sexual intimacies (Rape Counseling Service, 1984). When a child is used to sexually stimulate an offender or another person by touching, is forced to masturbate self or others, to have vaginal or anal intercourse or oral copulation, sexual abuse has taken place. Also included is unwilling exposure, or being forced to show one’s genitals, or having one’s breasts fondled.

Statistically, the abuser is well known to the victim 75-85% of the time. Often the abuser is a family member, a trusted family friend or a child care provider (Brown, 1979; Rape Counseling Service, 1984).


It may be, for the very young child, that there is no realization that the abuser is doing anything wrong. Four year old Ryan was discovered to be sexually abused after he tried to show his brother how to suck his penis, saying, “No, you dummy, you can’t do it to yourself; David says you’ll never reach.” The cousin, fifteen year old David, had been chosen to babysit because he was a quiet and well behaved Christian. He felt too inferior to ask girls out, so was conveniently available for child care. Children may not tell because they are threatened verbally or physically. Others think they are the only ones in such a predicament, are somehow to blame, or fear repercussions to the aggressor. One woman reports never telling anyone for over thirty years because the aggressor, a Christian high school teacher, told her the reputation of the school in the community would fall, she would be the center of attention, and it would all be her fault. She had avoided telling her husband because she was afraid he may see her as tainted. Florence Rush (1980) says this fear is real, citing the case of a girl, pregnant by a high school teacher, who was told that no one would seduce a decent girl of 13—she was a vessel of sin. The writer has observed that men, despite their love for their wives, do go through a crisis when they find their wives have been abused. It frequently affects their sexual lives for a time.


Physical indicators include pain, odors, or itching in the genitals. Some may have difficulty in walking or sitting, have sores in the mouth or tears anally. They also have general somatic {62} complaints such as stomach aches and may suffer from eneuresis and encopresis (Anderson, 1981). Infrequently, a child becomes pregnant.

Behaviorally, a child may be unusually seductive, have increased masturbation, more sexualized peer contact and more sexual preoccupation (Kaufman, Peck & Tanquiri, 1954). He/she may be unwilling or unable to participate in physical education, have decreased school performance, live in a world of excessive fantasy, or be quiet and withdrawn. Some children decrease their eating or have odd behavior, such as running when the doorbell rings. Poor peer relationships and depression can also be an indicator (Riggs, 1982; Rosenfeld, Nadelson, Krieger & Bockman, 1977). Other children act out more overtly by engaging in self-injurious behaviors or delinquency (Becker, Skinner & Abel, 1982).

The short term emotional feelings of victims include feeling used, rejected, trapped and confused. Children should be able to expect protection and warmth from the home. When this doesn’t happen, the child feels rightfully betrayed and fearful. The disgrace most carry, often secretly, is not rightfully theirs (Vander Mey & Neff, 1982).

The equilibrium of abuse often vanishes at adolescence, when a daughter becomes interested in boys (Brown, 1979). Often the father restricts her activities excessively, as his jealousy mounts. A thirty year old woman states, “Everyone thought daddy was strict because he was a deacon and very pious. Only I knew that he was strict (about dating) because he wanted me for himself. One day, when he wouldn’t let me go out, I screamed out the reason in anger. My parents’ only response was, “You have to keep this quiet, because of daddy’s position in the church. We can’t have the family break up over this!” Thus a tragic secret was kept, as it is for 50-80% of sexual abuse cases (Rape Counseling Service, 1984).

In adults, sexual abuse is often discovered as a result of seeking help for other problems. Courtois (1982) describes problems of identity and self esteem, physical difficulties, sexual dysfunction, and relational difficulties as being typical of adults who were victims. There is evidence that the appearance of multiple personality and of dissociative response are increased in the profile of incest victims (Swan, 1983).

Issues of self are manifested by a very negative self image. Feelings of worthlessness arise from sensing that they are different {63} from others. Feeling powerful in a malignant sort of way is described by Jan Frank in her tape. She describes a victim’s false guilt as being so strong that if it rained on a picnic, it was her (the victim’s) fault. Adult victims often display self-destructive behavior, may be suicidal, depressed, overly sensitive, critical and anxious. They often allow themselves to be victimized repeatedly and believe they are getting what they deserve. Several victims have told the writer that they gave their sex away because it was worthless. Others reported that they did so to get back at their fathers.

Physical symptoms of adults include headaches, backaches, stomach and urinary problems, lethargy and the inability to concentrate. Substance abuse may become a problem in the effort to forget. Meiselman (1978) noted that her sample was more obese than her control group. As a 13 year old girl told the writer, “It’s safer to be fat. I keep hoping guys will just be my friends and not pick up on me.” Her abuse happened at 8. Later, her father committed suicide. The guilt she felt was incredible. It is not surprising that by age 14 she was caught in bed in her mother’s home with an adult neighbor. Gross (1979) concluded that hysterical seizures (not under voluntary control) were an unconscious way to get out of the home when the abuse could not be disclosed.

Sexually, adult women discover some strange paradoxes. Those who become promiscuous, and had no difficulty getting aroused when they berated men they were with, could scarcely tolerate a loving relationship and sometimes became tense, anxious, and unable to have orgasms. A woman married for two years stated, “I just can’t shake the image of my father while my husband makes love to me. It’s causing terrible difficulties.” Still others have reported that the scent of a particular cologne, or even semen, has become nauseating. Jan Frank reports that many women have turned their emotions off so as not to feel at the time of abuse, as a way of controlling the pain. They then find it hard to risk turning them on again. Some women, who have seemed to be symptom free and who love their husbands, find the symbolic meaning of pregnancy overwhelming.

Relationally, women who were sexually abused often marry to get out of the home, and choose relationships which are destructive. In general, they tend to overvalue men. Chip Ricks (1983) writes a moving story describing the disbelief and doubt a sexually abused woman feels when God put a good person in her {64} life. Her fear was that not only was she unworthy, but that she would also contaminate him. Forgiveness is difficult for many abused women to accept. True freedom and happiness seems to elude them. Their struggle with God and forgiveness is intense.


Contrary to what one might expect, most aggressors are “choked with self disgust and vowed to stop” (Giarretto, 1978). Giarretto believes that the excitement of sexual play and fantasy, which was forbidden him when young because of moral and religious restrictions, is relived by the adult aggressor as he engages in sexual abuse. Extra marital sex is out of the question for him.

Sexual offenders of children come from all sectors of society, are intelligent, and are most often between 35 and 40 (though grandfathers have been apprehended). They are not the “crazed sex perverts one might expect” (Butman, 1983), but were often physically and/or sexually abused themselves . . . almost always unreported (Groth, 1979). By outward appearances, the majority are good providers, the religious heads of their homes, active in their church, and hard working. Internally, one finds persons who were themselves emotionally deprived by their fathers. Fathers were either absent frequently or preoccupied. The role modeling then was that of a distant, authoritarian father. Thus the aggressor uses a “facade of patriarchal competence to hide a deep insecurity” (deYoung, 1981). Aggressors are frequently described as family tyrants and are weak in upholding the incest taboo. In addition to French and Swedish surveys, American surveys point consistently to such fathers as setting up a patriarchal system by establishing primitive family order (Herman and Hirschman, 1977). The tendency is for such an order to be physically harsh, overcontrolling, and punitive, as a way to prove masculine behavior. Scripture is used to justify a “me first—you submit” attitude toward women.

Socially they are somewhat isolated, though they may take an active part in formal church activities. They seem to lack social skills and, once caught, are frightened, baffled by their actions, and paralyzed with guilt (Butman, 1983). In a recorded interview a man spoke, “I didn’t want to hurt her . . . I just wanted to be close . . . I feel like the scum of the earth” (Tunley, 1981).

Sexually, they are often rigid and, paradoxically, sexually conservative. A therapist who works with aggressors says, “They are {65} victims too” (Brandon, 1986).


Most religious women have been “taught to define themselves by the needs, desires and accomplishments of the man in their lives” (McIntyre, 1981). Mothers who see it as natural to be in the sexual service of men, may see the rejection of themselves and the substitution of the daughter as just punishment. Mothers of victims are often too unassertive to protect their daughters. Others report that they saw signs of it, but didn’t want to think negative thoughts about their husbands. They were too submissive to be discerning. They found themselves in a double bind between being faithful wives who protect their husbands and good mothers who protect their children (McIntyre, 1981).

M. de Young (1981) reports that mothers reverse roles with their daughters, in terms of cooking, cleaning and caring for younger children. By letting the boundaries get blurred, the sexual involvement of the daughter and father begins to make sense. Others report objecting in principle, but feel powerless and ineffective as an adult to face the possible financial loss which could come with reporting. Still others are intimidated by their husbands. Mothers who were victims themselves perpetuate the problem cross generationally. One sees the sins of the father visited on the children in a very real way.


The Victim

First and foremost the victim must be believed. There seems to be universal agreement among researchers that children are generally not capable of creating the stories incest victims have to tell. Secondly, the rage, shame, guilt, fear and confusion must be externalized. The counselor must help the victim place the entire responsibility on the adult, and allow the anger at the adults who violated her to surface (Porter, Blick & Sgroi, 1982). Rush (1980) states that what makes anger so difficult to process is that everyone acts as if nothing happened. Thirdly, affection must be differentiated from sex—a concept which has become blurred for the victim.

As part of the move toward wholeness, the reconstruction of the image of God must take place. God as father is usually of no comfort to women who have been abused by their own judging, {66} punishing, and demandingly impossible fathers (Ricks, 1983). Creative use of other images, such as comforter, helper, protector, or mother may prove useful as a way to begin to conceptualize God as someone worth relating to in a positive way. Since the approach of God and religion has usually been intellectual and formal, creative work is needed by the Christian helper.

Many women have great difficulty accepting God’s forgiveness for their reaction to the abuse. They must be reminded that forgiveness is a process and takes great patience. It was not helpful for a victim of five years of abuse to hear from the pastor, “You’re a Christian! You should have been able to forgive by now. Forgive and forget.” Victims will tell you that it is not that easy, even with a lot of prayer. Instead, the pastor/counselor would do well to remind the victim that God loves unconditionally, that He will assume her guilt if the father won’t, and that we, as representatives of the Kingdom, will help bear the burden until it is lifted.

Additionally, skills of self management must be taught (Courtois and Watts, 1982). Weaknesses and maladaptive habits (drugs, food and alcohol) which are a behavioral response to the abuse, must be addressed. Sexual promiscuity or the inability to communicate effectively can be remedied by the teaching of assertiveness skills and lessons of self worth. Hope and a reflection of her strength can always be given by focusing on the fact that she survived!

Groups such as Parents United can frequently help a victim to feel less alone and alienated (Giarretto, 1978). Some Mennonite churches have set up self help groups for their victims. Often they meet in secret, since the stigma attached to the victim is still quite prevalent.

The Aggressor

Ninety-seven percent of the aggressors are male (Herman and Herschman, 1977). For treatment to be effective, researchers agree that helpers must get over their own rage and disgust of the sexual details. After reading the lurid details of a police report which included mutual oral copulation and sodomy at age ten, Giarretto states he felt his compassion slipping and murderous impulses coming to the fore (Giarretto, 1978). Women helpers must watch for overidentification with the victim, while male helpers must beware of the tendency to belittle the offense. Compassion does not mean one condones the act. Forgiveness {67} gives hope to all.

All agree that the first task is to break the aggressor’s first line of defense—denial. The second is to offset any blame on the child or mother. No excuses are tolerated, and personal responsibility must be taken. Pleas of helplessness by being forced into it by the devil, or the plea that one is suffering from an exotic mental disease, must not be tolerated (Giarretto, 1978). The bald fact is that the aggressor is responsible before God and the Christian community, no matter what the extenuating circumstances. He has done more than break a taboo—he has sinned. Giarretto (Crawford, 1981) finds it helpful to make him face both the mother and the daughter with a confession. Only after responsibility has been taken, can the work toward learning self control, social skills, developing self esteem, dealing with any substance abuse and discussing current issues of sexuality begin.

The church could assist by helping the aggressor redefine power and dominance in the home. Women and children must not be seen as objects or property which are at their disposal; instead the aggressor must learn that the grasp for authority, power and dominance is contrary to servant leadership. “The me first” attitudes must be changed to respect for the other.

The marital relationship must be revamped to make it Christ-centered, so as to keep the family in balance. Henderson (1972) suggests that couples reinvigorate their marriage by asserting exclusive possession of one another away from their children. Couples must be taught to model open, appropriate affection—not to be confused with sex.

The church must also be faithful to the aggressor if he goes to jail, where he will fall to the lowest social stratum among prisoners. “Baby-rapers” are seen as despicable by fellow inmates. Giarretto (1978) reminds us that when help and support are greater, confessions come more quickly and healing is speeded up considerably.

The Siblings

When one child is singled out for special care, attention and affection (though it be sexual abuse), that child may be seen with jealousy and envy. Resentment and low self esteem may ensue as the “left over” child wonders why he/she wasn’t chosen. Thus, one can expect truancy, runaways, and the development of flirtatious behavior as a way of competing with the “special” {68} child. Some siblings know about the abuse but are too frightened and shamed to tell. They, as their mothers, fear family break-up and financial insecurity (de Young, 1981) and blame the victim if it happens. Brandon (1986) states that when one child observes incest, such as a father molesting her sister who is in the same bed, the trauma can be equally as devastating as for the victim. The fear and lack of control lead to feelings of profound helplessness.

Male Victims

Fewer male victims come to public attention: eight percent compared to the 92% who are female. Since 50-80% of all child sexual abuse is considered to be unreported (especially in the middle classes), the exact number of male victims is unknown (Rape Counseling Service, 1984; Hart & Rotzien, 1983). Male children just want to forget about it, “take it like a man,” or deny it ever happened. Unfortunately such boys tend to become abusive parents. They feel compelled to deny helplessness because this is seen as feminine. Others, if they were passive, equate the passivity with homosexuality. Nasjleti (1980) states the male problem well—if another male abused him, “he asked for it,” if a woman abused him, his masculinity is in question. Certainly more attention must be paid to the male victims, since the likelihood of their growing into adults who sexually abuse children is great (Brandon, 1986).

Groups such as Parents United can frequently help a victim to feel less alone and alienated (Giarretto, 1978). Some Mennonite churches have set up self help groups for their victims. Often they meet in secret, since the stigma attached to the victim is still quite prevalent.


Because child sexual abuse is a felony in many locations, pastors, teachers, counselors and other formal caregivers would do well to learn the laws of their locale pertaining to the reporting of suspected abuse. In California, for example, a caregiver has 36 hours to make a call to Child Protective Services and write a follow up report of a reasonable suspicion of child abuse. The person reporting is protected by law, and laws of confidentiality are waived. Christian caregivers often find it difficult to report abuse. They worry about the impact of reporting on the family unit, the financial implications, and of breaking the trust {69} of the victim. Christians are also concerned with the image and testimony of the church in the larger community. To this the writer would respond that since so many Christians are victims and offenders, the image and testimony of the church would be greatly enhanced by dealing with the issue squarely. There may be rare cases when it would be in the best interest of the victim not to report the offense, when the Christian chooses to live above the law of the land. Christians who make such a choice should do so with full awareness that they must stand accountable before the law, and should do so in consultation with those who know the ramifications of emotional and spiritual development of victims of sexual abuse.

Reporting needs to happen for several reasons. 1) The long term effects of not reporting and, thus, not receiving help may be devastating to all involved. 2) Other children both in and out of the home may be at risk. This writer has seen a father who was protected turn into a grandfather who still molests. 3) Reporting makes treatment available to the offender, the spouse and the child (Boatman, Borkan, & Schetky, 1981). 4) Reporting also puts authority behind the aggressor’s need for counseling (McFadden, 1985). Remember, most aggressors vowed for years to stop . . . and didn’t. There is no statute of limitations for reporting the abuse, because of generational ties. Since so many aggressors are people from within the church, the church has an obligation to help the aggressor, including helping him face the law. The cycle must be broken. Mothers who were abused must model the protection of their children adequately. To do this, they will need help.


The problem of child sexual abuse is brought to our attention in Leviticus 18 and again in the New Testament. The problem is not new. Nor has it gone away. Giarretto (Crawford, 1981) believes it is an epidemic in America. One in four American women will at some time be assaulted by persons they know and trust. Experts believe sexual abuse is 3-4 times greater than is reported for statistical purposes (Sarafino, 1978). The church needs to be involved in prevention.

An important first step is for the church to admit that it happens and that it happens among its own members. The church can be a vital first step in the process toward healing. How a victim is treated in an initial interview has a great impact {70} on whether or not they will proceed for help and, in fact, how the course of treatment goes (Brandon, 1986; McGarty, 1981). The church must help raise consciousness so that more persons can step forward to find healing. Since highly traditional, fundamentalistic, devout, authoritarian families are most at risk for child sexual abuse, the church must address sexuality, affection and intimacy needs of its people. Christian assertiveness and the right to one’s own body as a temple of God must be taught to ensure the personal safety of women and children. Parents must be taught clear generational boundaries, so that the much needed appropriate touching is not denied to the developing child. Though father-daughter sexual abuse account for 75% of incestuous relationships, we must not forget that sibling sexual abuse is also of concern (Kirkland & Bauer, 1982). The sexual needs of our young people must be also addressed. The incest taboo is one of the oldest taboos known to civilized persons, but for the church it is also a moral imperative.

Note: Victims’ and aggressors’ names have been changed.


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Irene Loewen is a counselor at the Associated Center for Therapy, and a counseling instructor at Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary, Fresno, California.

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