My good friend Marv Penner wrote this timely guest post. Sadly, this is the world we live in and we need to be ready to respond. The Jerry Sandsuky case has sparked all kinds of discussions and reactions. As youth workers, we need to be ready when kids come to us to ask for help. Thanks Marv, for helping us help kids.

Childhood sexual abuse….a subject that has typically been shrouded in secrecy, silence, and shame has been suddenly thrust into our collective consciousness. The perpetrator-a beloved and benevolent community leader. The victims–kids hungry for relationship…trusting, and innocent. Sexual abuse of children continues to occur at an alarming rate and for at least this moment in time we can’t pretend it doesn’t. As men and women who care for young people we have no choice but to pause and ask ourselves why and how we ought to respond.

The crippling outcomes of sexual abuse are well documented and were powerfully illustrated in the testimonies of the eight courageous young men who were willing to expose their deepest wounds in front of the world. Deep feelings of betrayal, powerlessness, personal defectiveness, sexual confusion, and abandonment are further complicated by the belief that justice is impossible. This story demonstrates that at least at some level justice can be done, although the wounds of sexual abuse are so deep that true justice is an impossibility. Nothing will ever make it go away! As the mother of “Victim 6” said after the verdict was read, “We all lost.”

There is so much to say, but let me give you some immediate and practical insights to consider.

Be a trustworthy person and provide students with a safe place to disclose. At the end of Linda Kelly’s (PA’s Attorney General) passionate and profound summary comments she pleaded with victims everywhere who have remained silent to come forward and tell their stories. One of the reasons victims don’t tell is that in many cases they have been convinced that what happened was their fault. Let students know their hearts are safe with you. Model gentleness, kindness, patience, and openness to communicate to your students you are willing to go to dark and scary places with them, should the need arise. I’m anticipating a flood of disclosures as the media picks up on Kelly’s appeal and the taboo of telling diminishes. School’s out, so the typical reporting routes of a guidance counselor or campus chaplain aren’t available. Be available! Even better-open up the conversation and proactively let students know that you’re open to talking about it.

Believe kids. When a teenager chooses to reveal the deep secret they have carried silently for years the last thing they need is a skeptical, doubting response. EVERY disclosure of abuse must be taken seriously. I’ve been working with kids for 40 years, and I have stories, like you might, of that kid who made up a wild story that turned out to be exaggerated or blatantly false, but believe me, they are the exception. On the other hand, I can’t count the number of times I’ve had a teenager say to me, “I went to my pastor”…. “I tried to tell my coach”… “I told my friend’s mom…and they didn’t do anything about it.” Imagine the additional wounds to the soul of a deeply shamed young person who agonizingly musters up the courage to disclose to a trusted adult and receives the message that they are not believed (or worse–that what they’ve disclosed doesn’t matter)

Know your legal responsibilities and err on the side of following them explicitly. Reporting sexual abuse is simply not a judgment call. The law is clear and it is in place for good reason. It is a rare perpetrator who victimizes only one. The law is designed to protect children, to ensure justice, and to create a way for victims to receive the kind of support and help they can get from people who deeply understand the issues around sexual abuse. Anyone who works with minors is obliged to know the protocols around reporting. There are some minor variations in different regions–i.e. who must make the formal report, to whom the report must be made, and the allowable time frame between disclosure and reporting but there is no place in the civilized world where reporting is not mandatory! If you are the point person in your ministry, review the legal protocols and your own ministry’s policies and make sure everyone understands them fully. If you don’t have a policy- write one this week…and if you need help with that contact me.

Learn all you can about the dynamics and impact of sexual abuse. The emotional, psychological, spiritual, relational, and sexual implications of childhood sexual abuse are enormous. Every aspect of the victim’s humanness is impacted by this primal invasion of one’s soul. One of the best resources I’ve found to help people understand the complexity of this subject is Dan Allender’s book “The Wounded Heart.” Also, watch for local training events, often sponsored by the mental health professionals in your area and be part of the conversation. Just for the record, I’ll be addressing this subject at some major youth ministry conventions this fall and winter.

Review the recruitment, vetting and training procedures of your ministry. We simply cannot be haphazard about placing children and teenagers in the care of adults. Recruit purposefully rather than randomly. Vet candidates carefully with thorough reference and background checks. Use a probationary period to identify any unhealthy relational patterns. Train your staff intentionally on what is appropriate and what is not in terms of private encounters with kids, having teenagers in your home, driving teenagers in your car, etc. Again–if you need help thinking this through, be in touch with me and I will point you to a range of resources that can help you.

Sorry–but I have to say it! If you have a vulnerability in this area please voluntarily step away from youth ministry. You may be watching the events of these past weeks in Pennsylvania unfolding with a knot in your stomach, because you know that you have a predisposition to inappropriate relationships with kids yourself. What we saw in Jerry Sandusky’s story was that what appeared to be a sincere love for young people, an enjoyment of their energy, and a desire to help them. . . but it was all a thin veil of social acceptability camouflaging a deeply troubled heart that quickly got out of control. Over the years I’ve had to work with too many church youth workers, camp staff members, mentors and small group leaders who fit the same profile. In virtually every case enormous damage was done before they were removed from positions of trust. I plead with you today…if you know that you struggle with inappropriate sexual thoughts and fantasies about kids, if you have a problem with child pornography, if you have crossed a line in the past and have told yourself it will never happen again, if you feel like you are getting close to acting on an impulse that you know will cause immeasurable harm… PLEASE voluntarily step away from your role as a trusted adult in the life of a teenager. Get the help you need before more damage is done.

There could not be a more sacred trust than caring for children and teenagers. May God find us faithful in providing sanctuary that ensures the safety of every young life we encounter and in creating a community of hope and healing for those whose souls have been broken through the destructive, self-serving choices of others.

Isaiah 61:1 – He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted…

If you would like to learn more about having Marv Penner come and speak at your church or in your community, click here.

3 thoughts on “What the Sandusky Story Means to Youth Workers. . .

  1. I wholeheartedly agree with Marv that if a person recognizes he or she is vulnerable in this area the right thing to do is to step out of ministry voluntarily and seek help. The challenge is, to whom and where does a person turn? Our culture, including many in our churches, may not be safe places to turn without being labeled and shamed. I can only imagine what an individual who has never crossed a boundary would have to go through in terms of being questioned and “cross-examined” by someone they may have turned to for help. And, God help the individual who has looked at child porn and confesses that to a pastor or other person in leadership. What plans and procedures are in place to provide a redemptive response to this individual?

    Unfortunately, whether or not an individual has crossed boundaries, the shame experienced may lead to a belief that says, “I am a monster for having such thought or struggles.” This belief is only fueled by a culture…and by some Christians…who label a person with such struggles a “monster.”

    So, where can people who struggle in this way find a safe place to understand why they struggle as they do and experience hope that they can experience freedom?

  2. Walt & Marv,
    Thank you for reminding everyone how important this issue is! I had a mix of emotions watching the trial unfold but the highlight was hearing Linda Kelly proclaim “Who would listen to a kid? WE WILL!” I cheered for all of the victims who heard that cry around the nation!

    I pray that her words shed a ray of hope for the women, men, boys & girls who never felt they could be heard!

  3. As a survivor, I know that even when youth workers aren’t thinking about abuse or sexual abuse, it still continues and effects that teen every single day.

    I am still emerging from the ashes of my childhood.

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