Churches, ministries, and youth-serving organizations today must recognize that child sexual abuse is a critical issue. The prevalence rate of people who are victims of child sexual abuse is estimated to range from 1 in 12 to 1 in 7 (8–14%) for men and from 1 in 6 to 1 in 2 (17–51%) for women. Estimates of abuse within organizations and institutions are not available, but media, lawsuits, and anecdotal information suggest it is significantly higher. Child sexual abuse is now the number one reason that churches are sued.
I know that reality only too well. For 11 years, I was the Deputy General Counsel and then General Counsel for the Boy Scouts of America (BSA). I saw first-hand the cases of child sexual abuse and how devastating they can be on children, families, and even organizations. Organizations and institutions have historically focused on protecting children in their care from sexual victimization from “external threats” (e.g., “stranger danger,” such as breaches of facility security, intercepting children traveling to or from locations or activities, and so on). Particularly because of the experiences of BSA, it has only been over the last two decades that the attention has been turned to the victimization of children from within an organization by those inside, or affiliated with, that organization.
There are many lessons that churches and ministries can learn from the failures of BSA to protect children and protect ministries from the devastating consequences of child sexual abuse.
Lessons Learned the Hard Way
Acknowledgement and awareness of the threat: Data from the Centers for Disease Control in 2006 indicated that 1 in 4 women and 1 in 6 men were sexually abused before the age of 18. BSA had thousands of reports of boys being sexually abused by volunteers, but continued to view them as “aberrations” not worth review and analysis because the number was such a small percentage of BSA’s total membership. Plaintiffs claimed that BSA ignored these reports primarily because it was concerned its image might be damaged. Even law enforcement and government officials ignored the reports despite awareness of the incidents. It was not until decades later, and a punitive damages verdict of some $20 million in the case brought by six “Jack Does” (anonymous plaintiffs) against the BSA in Oregon, that BSA commissioned a detailed analysis of the more than 7,000 incidents of child sexual abuse in an attempt to determine the magnitude, root causes, opportunities for prevention, and reporting deficiencies.