Innocence Robbed: Ending Child Sex Abuse in the Black Church

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With a childhood spent mostly inside a church, I can’t think of one time I ever talked about sex there. Not once. I especially do not remember ever discussing sexual abuse. And I wasn’t alone. I asked many of my friends and colleagues and they all said the same. Sex, of any kind, was never something discussed among young people in church.

As a friend began to question my inquiry, I told him I couldn’t help but wonder if the Black Church’s silence has allowed the underworld of child sex abuse in our religious bodies to exist. His look went from one of curiosity to complete disdain. Yes, we all hate when children are victimized. And the Black Church had to confront the issue last year with the controversy surrounding one of its most prominent voices, Bishop Eddie L. Long, who recently announced that he would cease preaching at his megachurch New Birth Missionary Baptist Church to focus on family matters. Also, in the wake of the Penn State child sex abuse controversy, many victims of child sexual abuse (now adults) are becoming vocal about their experiences and perpetrators. On any given day on social media, when the topic of conversation has shifted to this very subject, it is painful to hear people speak of being sexually abused by many in positions of religious authority. And even if their victimizers did not use their positions to attract and seduce them, many of them worked in their local congregations in some capacity.

What hurts, and continues to hurt, is there was virtually no outcry from African-American religious leadership when this issue hit the proverbial church fan last year. The few pastors who talked about it were seemingly vilified. At the most, the majority of pastors spoke of praying for embattled leadership and not getting involved in gossipy attacks. While their silence then seems hypocritical given how loud they are now regarding the issues of Jerry Sandusky, Joe Paterno and Penn State, it is just symptomatic of the blind eye Black churches are willing to turn when it comes to sexual violence against youth. In 2009, close to 10% of confirmed child abuse cases involving African-American children were due to sexual abuse, according to an article in The Root. When taking into account the number of unreported cases, sadly that figure will increase. Why do we believe we can continue to ignore this issue?

There is no easy answer to ending abuse of any kind, especially that which is carried out against children. Many suggest the abuse children suffer is deeply rooted in the effects of inequality on the life of the victimizer. While that may be true, we have to begin to look for ways to protect our children while we fight the systems that may create an abuser. Here are five ways Black churches can work to fight against child sexual abuse in the African-American community:

Acknowledge the sexual exploitation of children

Pastors need to acknowledge that sexual abuse exists in the Black community and it must be stopped. Many do not realize that when issues like this surface, and they do not talk about them, it yields the perception that leadership does not believe the reports. Child sexual abuse victims and survivors exist among us. If there is belief that the pastor or religious leadership will not speak to such issues, it prolongs silence and healing and continues the cycle of abuse.

Educate leadership on how to recognize, respond to and report abuse

Churches need to partner with organizations committed to end violence against children to learn how to protect them. There is a wealth of agencies willing to provide training to pastors and youth workers on the signs of abuse. Most importantly, when allegations of abuse are brought to leadership, it is imperative that they not choose to keep things “in house” and contact the proper authorities so an investigation and criminal action can be taken if warranted.

Educate parents on protection measures

Youth workers can then educate parents and the congregation on best practices for safeguarding their children against abuse. Within our community, much abuse happens at the hands of someone the victim knows- a family member or a caretaker. Many parents may rely on these same family members for child rearing support. Churches who don’t have the capacity to offer these services directly can align with agencies that can provide those same measures of support (child care, financial assistance, etc.) to their members at reduced rates or churches. Most importantly, churches must empower parents to create a safe environment where their children will be able to inform their parents of abuse or any strange behavior when it occurs.

Utilize relevant and age appropriate curriculum that addresses issues

Sunday School, Bible Study, Vacation Bible School and now Youth Church are excellent places to begin to incorporate a biblical curriculum that addresses the issues that children face from a perspective they understand. Kids need to know that fondling, touching, suggestive words and play are all wrong. Well-developed curriculums can not only speak to sexual abuse but to physical violence, bullying, teen sex and sexuality, peer pressure, body image and the host of issues facing teens today.

Join the fight to end the sexual exploitation of children globally

The Black Church is one of the greatest economic powerhouses in the African-American community. Black Churches should begin sowing into the fertile ground of those entrenched in the fight to protect our children at all cost. As an ally, the Church can provide resources that can sustain vital organizations and initiatives that are often under-funded, under-staffed and under-valued.

A few weeks ago, I met a beautiful 15-year-old girl who was sexually abused by an uncle, who was a deacon in her church. Though her pastor was informed, her uncle continued to serve as a deacon until he was convicted of sexual assault and sent to prison. This bright and articulate young lady told me she doesn’t believe the Black Church will do anything to stop the sexual abuse that happens within its walls. It is my sincere hope that we can prove this little girl, robbed of her innocence, wrong.

For more information on child sexual abuse, visit www.preventchildabuse.org.

Candice Benbow is the host of Divine Dialogue, an iTunes podcast that discusses social and religious issues in the African-American Community. A writer, Candice is currently at work on her first book.