Approximately ten percent of Protestants below age 35 and about one-third of Catholics have either left the church or contemplated leaving because they do not see the church as a safe place for children. That shocking statistic was shared by Victor Vieth at “Promise to Protect,” a seminar on making churches and schools safe places for children. Some 75 lay leaders, teachers, and pastors from fifteen WELS churches and schools attended the event at Eternal Rock, Castle Rock, Colo., in August 2019.
Victor Vieth, a WELS member and former prosecutor, gained national recognition for addressing child abuse in rural Minnesota. He has trained thousands of child-protection professionals on child abuse investigation, prosecution, and prevention. In 2017 he earned an MA in theology from Wartburg Seminary.
While many do not see churches as safe spaces, predators view them as easy targets. Vieth explained: “Sex offenders report that Christians are extremely trusting and easy to manipulate. Sex offenders who grew up in a church body are given the most slack and are rarely suspected of nefarious conduct. Since they often select children who may have already endured trauma or have behavioral issues, it is easy for sex offenders to convince the church that the child is not telling the truth. Without better education, faith leaders and parishioners will continue to be easily fooled by child molesters.”
As believers, our motivation to protect children comes from our Savior. “In contrast to the ethos of his time, Jesus said that children were messengers from God and how we treat children reflects our attitude toward God (Mark 9:36-37). In the Gospels, Jesus harshly rebuked anyone who would hurt a child (Matthew 18:6-9). Some scholars believe this was a specific condemnation of child sexual abuse. Jesus scolded his followers for keeping children away from him (Mark 10:13-16) and promised to cast aside religious leaders who turned a blind eye to those who are suffering (Matthew 25:45).”
Lay leaders, teachers, and pastors agreed that 1) it was eye-opening that so many have suffered sexual abuse within churches, and 2) the seminar was very helpful for making crucial changes in their schools and churches. Mr. Vieth distributed sample policies and encouraged every congregation and school to implement a robust Youth and Child Protection Policy. He cautioned that policies produced by insurance companies or law firms may have different goals.
Although the church has fallen short on this issue, Vieth sees reason for optimism. “Across the country, I increasingly encounter church leaders eager to learn more about child abuse and to minister compassionately to those who are hurting. We need to nurture and grow this faithful remnant until the church is once again a powerful force in the fight against child abuse and neglect.”
Tim Spiegelberg is pastor at Carbon Valley Lutheran Church, Firestone, Colo.
Visit Standing Up for Children to learn about “A Christian Response to Child Abuse and Neglect.”
Freedom for the Captives is a WELS ministry to protect children and empower abuse survivors. Their website is freedomforcaptives.com.
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