Friday, 26 February 2010

Would you preach differently if there were an abuser or victim in the congregation?

My unit estimated that 70-80% of people on the sex-offenders' register attend church. Most sex offenders are never even reported, so those on the register are only the number reported and convicted. It would be nice to think they were seeking redemption, but that simply is not the case.  Third Way Magazine
The above caught my eye on the Church Times Blog.  I shook me up a little.  As part of my training I had been on the appropriate Diocesan courses, and we had talked about how to deal with a sex offenders in the congregation, but I had assumed that this was the exception.  Our diocese has 969 registered sex offenders (source here p2), which is not the same as paedophiles, which means that potentially 775 are church attenders - with  just over 800 churches that means that, on average, there is 1 registered offender in each.  Of course, there are likely to be many churches that would not attract an offender for the wrong reasons - so those churches with large children's ministries may well have more than one registered offender attending.

The article also included:
The NSPCC figure is 1 in 6 children suffer from abuse - that is all abuse, not just sexual - but those are just the reported cases.
This didn't surprise me as a while ago I read this excellent report on Childhood Sexual Abuse:
Current estimates of prevalence, from random surveys in communities, suggest that, when CSA is defined as sexual contact, ranging from fondling to intercourse by someone at least five years older than them, between one-fifth and one-third of all women, have been sexually abused either as a child or as an adolescent.
So, in this diocese it is quite likely that there will be an abuser in the congregation - and an almost racing certainty that there will be someone who has been abused.

If you preach will that change what you say on these topics?  It certainly gave me pause for thought.


  1. Clergy should actually be trained in these areas. Many abusers and abused are church goers - I believe abuse is as common, if not more so, in Christian families.

    In particular churches should be careful when preaching on forgiveness as this is such a difficult area for survivors of abuse. They should also be aware of the difficulty of the concept of God as father for women abused by a father and that many people have been abused by priests or church leaders and this may make their relationship with church difficult.

    I don't know how churces reach the "invisible" abusers in their congregations Because the pastoral care and concern for the abused and the protection of children has to be paramount, reaching or responding to unknown or known abusers is an issue fraught with difficulty.

  2. My Daughter was abused by a member of our Church where I am curate, a young man whom we had asked to babysit. We thank God we caught it before it got too serious, but the effects on my bright, sparky little girl have been devastating. Compounded by the subsequent police investigation and court case. (Really how is an 8 year old meant to come to terms with having to testify in a court room, even if it is via video). In our Church the support from our vicar and diocese was phenomenal but the whole experience has left us shaken and I have deep concerns about how we handle abuse and abusers, but the most difficult parts where dictated to us not by the Church but by ineffectual legal and social policies.

    When my tenacious little girl told us what happened we obviously acted quickly to highlight the issue. The Church, Social Service and the Police were all informed (in that order). Social Services dragged their feet and took 2 weeks to get a statement from us and daughter, then informed the police CP dept who wanted statements etc. this took another 2 weeks. In that time we were not permitted to deal with the matter internally, and were not permitted to address the young man involved. As a result I was required to lead services and run groups with my Daughters abuser in attendance. When this came to a head with an event at my own house, where I refused to allow the man to come, we were given a line to feed him from Social Services, which meant as a leadership we were required to lie in order to avoid the confrontation. During this time we were not allowed by the police to stop him coming to our main service which has 50+ under-18s each week, including my little girl.

    After the arrest, some bail conditions eased this situation, but we were still unable to stop the guy attending a certain huge Young-Persons festival in the summer as part of our Church party. Indeed we were threatened with legal action if we did stop him attending.

    Once charging and the trial had taken place we found that despite a guilty verdict that bail conditions were lifted and that we are unable to ban him from attending our services, although we have certain measures in place that will not allow him access to anyone if he does attend. The law and social services have no recourse to action, the Diocesan policy is to bring into place a voluntary contract, however if the person says they no longer wish to worship regularly here then the contract cannot be made, while still leaving the door open. Also this requires a certain amount of honour from someone who has failed to show honour in other areas. But actually as a Church we are doing everything we can with in Church and civil law to protect the people for whom we have pastoral responsibility .

    My experience is not that the church fails victims (although in the past this clearly has happened and each case is tragic and we corporately need to repent of our failings) but the legal process. My daughters abuser has more rights under law then my daughter does. Even his parole officer was recommending he should be permitted to return to our priciple services.

    However I do feel that the Church has swung the other way in many cases. We are left as the only people in our church leadership that are pastorally concerned for the abuser. We feel he is a victim in this, and suspect he was enacting learnt behaviour. We also feel the church has let him down. Where as I struggle to see how he can worship with us, and certainly NEVER where children are worshipping, we have failed to support him, to reach out in the love that Christ has for him. My family cannot be the people to do this, but the rest of the Church and Diocesan seems to have decided to cut him loose. Who is going to be Jesus to this hurting, confused young man?

    How are we meant to strike the balance between protecting victims and other young people and 'being Jesus' to those who abuse?

  3. Anonymous - thank you for sharing your comments - I was staggered to hear the way that the legal process treated you. Thank you too for your challenging questions at the end of your comment.

  4. Anonymous,
    I'd like to echo Alan's comments and thank you for sharing this painful experience. I am afraid it is true that victims of abuse are often let down by the system!

    As for the "balance" between protecting children and ministering to abusers - there is no doubt in my mind, the protection of children comes first, each and every time. That does not mean that there should not be those who minister to abusers - but I agree that in your case it is not your place, your role or your concern. I think your generosity is truly Christian.

  5. Posted on behalf of Stephen Barber

    As the Safeguarding Children Adviser for the Diocese I was distressed to read the comment by Anonymous. I don't know when or where her daughter was abused but I would hope that nowadays there would be a proper strategy meeting to manage the investigation, at which the points she made would routinely be considered. In this Diocese we have good relations with the police and local authorities and are frequently in contact about the best way of managing these difficult situations.

    Formal agreements with convicted offenders are useful. If the offender adheres to them then they, children and others are protected. If the
    agreement is breached the offender is reported to the police. The police can apply for an additional order or in some cases the person can be returned to prison.

    We also refer appropriate cases to the Independent Safeguarding Authority to consider placing the person on the lists of those barred
    from working with children. This is particularly useful when the matter is not a criminal offence but nevetheless shows clearly that the person
    cannot be trusted with children.

    The system is not perfect and never will be, but we take the issue with great seriousness. I also work in the statutory sector and know how much
    effort also goes on there into trying to manage these cases well.

    Stephen Barber
    Safeguarding Children Adviser
    Diocese of Oxford



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