I lead Bible studies for the women at our local jail, and during the course of my ministry, I have come to the conclusion that most of the women there have been abused in some way, whether physically, verbally, or sexually. Some have experienced all these forms of abuse.
We expect that in a jail. Of course those things happen coming from a setting like theirs, we think. Harder to identify and admit is abuse that happens within our own ranks, with people we know and expect to trust. Abuse in the church? God forbid! But abuse in the church or among church members does happen. Because it so often remains shrouded in silence, the extent of it can be difficult to gauge.
Sexual abuse especially is a subject we as conservative Anabaptists almost never talk about in a public setting. I believe this is to the detriment of those we are trying to protect. Abuse, like a mushroom, grows in shaded places, on the underside of things.
Trudy Harder Metzger was a child victim of sexual abuse in her Old Colony/conservative Mennonite family. Today she counsels sexual abuse victims among the conservative Mennonites, as well as other groups. She states, “I would suggest that the numbers are higher in ‘closed culture’ churches…because there is no accountability and less conversation/education, not to mention a lot of opportunity (close relationships and frequent interactions).” Metzger says that in her experience, rates of abuse are high in congregations where authority figures control and dominate. In congregations where authorities allow a greater interchange of ideas and where there is an effort to teach about abuse, the rate seems to decline.
Ninety percent of children who are sexually abused know their abuser.1 This is true in Anabaptist settings as well as any others. As I grow older and more familiar with the topic of sexual abuse, stories of adults in my life who have been impacted by it trickle down to me. One Mennonite man I know was abused as a child by his parents’ hired man, another by an older boy at school. One young girl was touched inappropriately by her grandpa, and another grandpa molested a number of his grandchildren. Traditionally, we have taught children to beware of strangers. More realistically, it is time for us to acknowledge and take action on the fact that the stranger is most often found within.
National statistics indicate that one out of ten children are sexually abused, but only about a third of those children will tell someone. Of the children who talk, many tell a close friend rather than an adult.1 Children might not speak because, even though they do not like what is happening to them, they do not realize it is abnormal or they do not visualize an authority as being able to help them. Often, they are groomed to believe the abuse is normal, that it is their fault, or that they will be hurt if they talk about it.2
Therefore, knowledge is an important protection we can give our children. Teachers in an Anabaptist school setting are not expected to give sex education. Such education, rightfully, should come from the home. However, a public discussion on how children should handle sexual abuse if it does occur would be a tremendous help to children who may otherwise not know what to do in an uncomfortable situation.
Consider holding such a discussion at the beginning of a school year. It is a good idea to let students know that if they are inappropriately touched or exposed to inappropriate material, they should tell an adult immediately. Let them know it is okay to scream and kick and run if they are ever sexually assaulted. Especially, let them know that you are trustworthy and that they don’t need to be embarrassed or ashamed to talk to you about any sexual issues that arise. Although this can feel like an awkward subject, a thoughtful teacher can keep the discussion comfortable, happy, and age-appropriate. The purpose of such a discussion is to make children safe, not to worry them.
Take seriously children who tell you they have been mishandled. Children seldom invent instances of sexual abuse,3 and for an abused child who turns to an authority figure for help, to be disbelieved is extremely damaging. In that case, they lose trust twice over.4 In the rare event that a child does make up a story of sexual abuse, that child is likely dealing with deep emotional issues and should be given care, consideration, and the space to speak without being condemned.
Be aware of your state reporting laws and, in dealing with abuse, act accordingly. Throughout North America, teachers and other caretakers are mandated by law to report child abuse to authorities. In Canada and some U.S. states, this mandatory reporting extends not only to caretakers but to all adults.5,6
As teachers, we should also be discerning on how we handle the interactions between young children and older children at school. In many of our small Anabaptist schools, adolescents interact with young children at recess, and while a mix of ages is a beneficial and good preparation for real life, it is also wise to monitor those interactions to ensure that they remain healthy. Be cautious about allowing children to play unattended, and be especially wary of sending one older child out alone with several young ones.
If you are dealing with sexual abuse in school or outside of it, below is a list of resources that may help. Many of these resources were suggested to me by people more knowledgeable in the subject: John Coblentz, a pastor and former counselor who has written on the subject of sexual abuse; Estalee Martin, a counselor with Deeper Life Ministries; and Joshua Strickler of Life Counseling Ministries.
Editor’s note: you may also find the article below (from Lucinda’s blog) relevant.