I know this is a tough topic to contemplate during the holidays, but since Jesus came to earth as a little child, I can think of no better time to be thinking on how we can prevent and reduce child abuse in His church.
I cannot tell you how grateful I am to Pastor Bill Shishko, the elders of The Haven, OPC in Long Island, and my church family for supporting my ministry. The following is a presentation I delivered to the OPC Presbytery of Connecticut and Southern New York in the fall. The video is a shortened version, but you can read the presentation in its entirety below.
Of course, this is a sensitive topic, and I do share traumatic stories of real abuse cases, so please use discretion as you watch and read. If you have little children nearby, please use headphones.
My presentation today is going to be in three parts:
- What is an Abuser? A Biblical basis for understanding abuser psychology.
- Real cases of abuse mismanagement in NAPARC churches and what we can learn from them.
Just a reminder, if you have children in your home, please be sure to use headphones, as we will be discussing a difficult and sensitive topic, and I would not want them to overhear.
What is an Abuser?
There are three main categories of abusers which I go over more in-depth in my Shepherd’s Guide. You can download for free on my website at www.JenniferGreenberg.net, or I’d be happy to email it to you.
For today, I’m going to give you a crash course in abuser psychology, based on:
- Personal experience.
I am a survivor of over 20 years of child abuse, domestic violence, sexual abuse, and psychological abuse. My father taught Sunday school in both OPC and PCA churches. I currently work alongside church leaders and law enforcement to identify, report, and handle abusive situations.
- Bible study.
If you study the lives and characters of people like Pharaoh, King Saul, Jezebel, Judas, and the numerous false teachers mentioned in the New Testament, you’ll have a pretty good understanding of how these people think and the patterns in which they behave.
Abusers, by Definition, are Not Repentant
If I tell you, “I ran 8 miles this morning,” what’s something you know about me? Did I just wake up able to do that? No. I started small with 1 mile, then 2, then I upped my pace, then I achieved 3 miles, etc. It took several years to be able to run 8 miles.
Paul encourages Christians to train like an athlete; to be disciplined and spiritually fit so we may run the race set before us. But just as Christians practice godliness, abusers practice sin and are disciplined in evil.
Nobody wakes up one morning mentally capable of raping their child or beating up their wife. This level of evil is something they’ve practiced at repeatedly to achieve; it began as smaller sins in their heart such as lust or malice, and they’ve built up to a greater and greater capacity for evil over a long period of time. They did this intentionally and knowingly.
Abusers are like sin addicts. You’ve heard of gateway drugs? Well, they use these smaller sins like arrogance, jealousy, and selfishness like weed or alcohol. Once the abuser has developed a tolerance for one sin, they increase the dosage and blend it with other sins to achieve the carnal high they desire.
An abuser then, by definition, is someone who has lived in unrepentant sin for a long time. Probably years, possibly decades. Once people around them start noticing they’re abusive, the sin has already advanced and escalated to a malignant degree. It’s already become their way of life, their practice, their identity.
This is what Paul is talking about in Romans 1, when he says, “Furthermore, just as they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, so God gave them over to a depraved mind, so that they do what ought not to be done. They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, slanderers … haughty, boastful, inventors of evil … faithless, heartless, ruthless.”
The same thing happened to Pharaoh, back in Exodus 8. When Moses told Pharaoh, “Let my people go!” what did God do? He hardened Pharaoh’s heart. He gave Pharaoh over to his own depraved mind over and over again, resulting in Pharaoh digging in his heels, increasing in wickedness, and earning God’s wrath.
Every abuser was once a regular person like you or me who felt temptation, but instead of resisting it or repenting of their sin, they gave into it. They rebelled against God over and over, and so God gave them over.
When you see an abuser, I want you to remember Proverbs 4:23, “Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.”
An abuser’s wickedness isn’t a one-time isolated fluke. It isn’t a misunderstanding or an accident. It is perversion and violence and cruelty which has festered like an infection and flows directly from their innermost heart.
When someone abuses a child, they’re revealing to you what’s in their innermost heart. This is who they are on the inside, no matter what they claim or how friendly and remorseful they may try to appear on the outside. These wicked, perverse, violent deeds flowed from their heart.
So, by definition, an abuser cannot be a genuine Christian. Christians repent. Abusers do not. If they did, they wouldn’t be abusers. In order to achieve this level of evil, a person must be chronically unrepentant.
That doesn’t mean God can’t save them, but it does mean he hasn’t yet. Generally speaking, if a person has spent years attending church, reading the Bible, praying, and fellowshipping with other believers, yet still lives a double-life in secret and egregious rebellion against God, they are reprobate. They are Absalom. They are Judas. They are Saul. They are Cain.
Right now, some of you are probably thinking, “But what about David? He got Uriah killed and stole his wife! David was saved! What about Paul? He persecuted Christians, but then became a Christian!”
But most people aren’t David or Paul, are they? David and Paul were anointed and chosen by God. Their cases are extremely rare, and I think that’s part of the point. If the Bible were exclusively written by genius-level do-gooders, it wouldn’t be nearly as compelling, would it?
But because we know that God miraculously worked through the worst of the worst – the most unlikely, unexpected, and unqualified authors – we can be 100% certain that the writings of David and Paul are inspired. Why? Because sociopaths don’t usually become saints. Narcissists don’t usually become humble.
These stories were not given to us with the intention that we’d trust evil people. Rather, they were given to us to guarantee, to assure, to put God’s stamp of approval, on the authors who wrote verses like:
Psalm 7:14, “Behold, the wicked man conceives evil and is pregnant with mischief and gives birth to lies.”
Romans 1:32, “Although they know God’s righteous decree – that those who do such things deserve death – they not only continue to do these very things, but also approve of those who practice them.”
Let’s not give approval to those who practice abuse. Because without an undeniable miracle from God, David and Paul would have gone straight to Hell.
Expecting the average abuser to repent and have a total character-change the way David and Paul did, is like expecting the average cripple to rise up and walk. It can happen, if God wills it, but it’s not something you should expect or trust without a great deal of caution.
Abuse – including Sexual Abuse – is Motivated by a Desire to Control and Destroy Others
Most sexual abusers aren’t sex deprived, lonely, or confused. This idea that if they only had a more active sex life, they’d be able to behave themselves, is bunk. They can behave themselves right now. They just choose not to.
Rather, sexual abusers have achieved a level of Total Depravity in which they are entertained or even aroused by their victim’s pain, fear, and trauma. They are spiritual arsonists. They enjoy watching their victims suffer, and when their victim expresses fear and confusion, it makes them feel clever or powerful.
While the initial sex act may be entertaining to them, ultimately, sexual abusers are voyeuristic and sadistic. They want to watch their victim struggle, grieve, and most of all, self-destruct. A victim’s trauma affords them years of pleasure.
An example of this. When I was 5-years-old, my dad taught me how to commit suicide. Over the years, I watched him expose me and my siblings to violent porn. He pressured me to date men in their 20’s when I was just a minor teen girl. Not long ago, he gave one of my siblings a gun as a gift, even knowing she’d previously been hospitalized for suicidal ideation. That very gun was later used in a suicide attempt.
My father is many things, but he is not stupid.
Abusers don’t want their victims to heal and recover and become credible witnesses against them. Rather, they want their victims to be psychologically, spiritually, and emotionally devastated.
When you see child abuse survivors rejecting Christ, leaving the church, succumbing to drug abuse, suicidal ideation, sexual sin, and other self-destructive behavior, you need to understand that this is exactly what their abuser wanted.
They did not hurt the child hoping the child would be OK. They did not sexually abuse them all-the-while wanting them to grow up to be an emotionally stable adult. They abused the child in the knowledge, with the expectation, and with the desire, that the child’s life from that point on would be wrecked.
Abusers are Con Artists; They Can Appear Trustworthy and Even Remorseful
Never forget that Abel willingly walked into that field with Cain. Cain seemed trustworthy. On that day, Cain wasn’t a raving lunatic, waving a cudgel around, spitting violent threats, was he? No, otherwise, Abel never would have gone with him. Cain probably acted like he wanted to talk, and maybe even ask his brother for advice on how to please God better. And then, Cain murdered Abel.
In 1 Samuel 20, David tells Jonathan that his father, King Saul, is abusive and there’s murder in his heart.
How does Jonathan respond? He couldn’t believe it. He basically says, “I know my dad really well, if he was wicked, as his son, I’d know.”
Sound familiar? This is exactly what many well-intentioned Christians and church leaders tend to tell abuse victims about the abusers we know and love.
“Pastor So-And-So? I’ve known him since seminary. I’m sure this is all a misunderstanding. Mr. Child-Care-Volunteer? Yeah, he’s really touchy-feely, but he loves little child. You must be mistaken.”
It’s not until Saul hurls a spear at Jonathan that Jonathan realizes his dad’s sin has grown to a level where it’s metastasized. It’s taken over. It rules him.
Saul’s character had become defined – not by love for God – but by love for ego and evil. Sin had developed into his identity.
You and I – we find our identity in Christ. Wicked people find their identity in their wickedness. We’re seeing this play out glaringly in secular culture and so-called identity politics.
Remember Judas. Jesus saw through him because Jesus is God, but all the other disciples were completely taken in. They were conned into thinking Judas was a faithful disciple, and I’m sure they felt stunned and betrayed by his deception. And these were men chosen by God to be Apostles and Biblical authors. So, do not expect to be able to identify an abuser any better than they did.
Do not gamble the safety of children based on your intuition. Just because your heart wants to believe the abuser is sorry and safe, doesn’t make it real.
If faith without works is dead, (James 2:26) what is faith with evil works? It can only be hypocrisy.
Jesus says in Matthew 7:16-18, “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit.”
If someone has abused a child, that’s their fruit. They’ve born bad fruit. They may tell you they’re sorry; they may tell you they love Jesus; but believe the hands that raped their baby; believe the fists that punched their wife. Do not trust them.
Learning From Past Mistakes
Example 1: We Believe in Grace
Back in June, I attended a meeting between a pastor’s wife and her church’s session. She recounted how her pastor husband had violently injured her, broken furniture, and driven drunk.
She said, “He’s choked me and he’s choked the children.”
I urged the elders to report these crimes to the police.
They responded, “We believe in grace,” and did not.
What went wrong here?
- Well, on the bright side, church disciplinary action is being handled well; the pastor is no longer preaching and charges are pending.
- However, should the wife ever need to acquire sole custody or a restraining order, it may be difficult without a police report documenting abuse.
Note: Abuse victims are often too distraught, overwhelmed, or fearful to file police reports. It’s vital for church leaders to step in and report, or help the victim report.
Example 2: Breaking the Law
In another case, a church abuse cover-up involving numerous child victims was exposed. An internal church investigation found that the pastor and elders knew that the pastor’s minor son was sexually abusing children. However, they did not report it in a timely manner. They neglected to warn parents or follow their state’s mandatory reporter laws. For as long as seven months, they didn’t even tell some parents that their children had been abused. Nevertheless, that pastor remains in office, continues to preach, and the elders continue to serve as his session.
Due to this egregious mismanagement:
- Parents weren’t informed and so were unable to protect or care for their children.
- Because information was withheld, more children were placed in danger and may have been abused.
- The abuser, a minor boy, did not receive the care he required in a timely manner.
- The pastor and session committed many sins, including lying by omission.
Note: Usually, when a child sexually abuses other children, the child offender is themselves a victim. They’re imitating or acting out something they’ve witnessed or experienced. The existence of a minor offender should tip you off that there’s an adult abuser nearby.
Example 3: Thwarting Justice
After an in-housed investigation which took years, one presbytery finally placed a pastor on trial. Around 10 people, both men and women, had accused him of sexual harassment, sexual abuse, and stalking. Despite the criminal nature of these allegations, they were never reported to police. When asked why, one victim said she feared being retaliated against. Unfortunately, her fears proved founded. The pastor is now suing her and several others for talking about his behavior.
As the presbytery plodded through pedantic judiciary proceedings, Statutes of Limitations expired.
“By dragging things out past the Statutes of Limitations,” she said, “they’ve destroyed my chance at justice. I’m afraid they did it on purpose.”
Example 4: Stop Talking
One survivor told me, “As a child, I remember attending church with black eyes, bruises, and welts from being beaten. The session offered pastoral counseling to our parents, but as far as I know, never reported to law enforcement. During college, at a chapel event, I shared my testimony. For the first time, I publicly recounted suffering domestic violence and child abuse. I hoped for support, but an elder from my church took me outside and reprimanded me for talking.”
The fallout from this neglect was catastrophic:
- Child abuse was allowed to continue unchecked for decades.
- Several of the children became suicidal and now struggle with emotional and mental health issues including PTSD.
- Several of the children lost their faith in Jesus and left the church.
- Several of the children grew up to become abusers themselves.
Example 5: A Predatorial Pastor
In a teary March 1, 2020 video, a dear sister in Christ recalls drinking liquor and cutting herself when she was only 14.
“I grew up in a toxic household,” she says, “with an abusive sociopath father who was a sexual predator and a pastor. My mom … couldn’t wrap her mind around the fact that someone can know so much about the Bible and also be so evil … I slept with my bedroom door locked at night, as a teenager, so my dad wouldn’t come creeping in.”
This woman’s father was an OPC Regional Home Missionary, and he also propositioned me when I was a teenage minor, asking, “What would it take to get you to spread your legs for a man?”
I told my parents about this, but instead of contacting law enforcement, they invited the abuser over for dinner and had me sing him a song afterwards.
The fallout from this situation was that:
- Child abuse, sexual abuse, and domestic violence were allowed to continue.
- An abuser remained in authority in the church and had oversight selecting new pastors, managing church affairs, and handling other abuse cases. As you can imagine, abusers are prone to cover up abuse for each other, and based on other accounts, that’s exactly what happened.
Example 6: Submit to Your Husband
August 27, 2019 court records disclose how one OPC pastor abused his wife. During proceedings, he made admissions regarding the use of restraint, causing sexual injury, pushing her, and threatening to cut off her “titties” and throw them in the trash. Some of his violence occurred in front of their children.
The pastor testified, “I made one rash statement about cutting off her breasts. Your Honor, that was not a threat.” He also noted, “A wife should be submissive to a husband.”
His now ex-wife testified, “Leaders in our church who I had been seeking help from spoke to my husband and he … said he was sorry … They suggested that I should return to the home, so I did.”
Upon heeding the advice of her session, the pastor’s violence escalated. His wife and children fled again, but he continued to stalk her, resulting in multiple restraining orders.
After the divorce, the wife and mother remarried. On her wedding day, the pastor posted on Facebook, “So then if, while her husband lives, she marries another man, she will be called an adulteress” Romans 7:3
Due to the tragic lapse in judgement by this church session:
- Domestic violence was allowed to continue and escalate.
- Children were hurt and traumatized.
- It is a blessing from God that no one was murdered.
- However, the OPC and the church of Jesus Christ was made to look like a den of wolves in court.
Example 7: Crossing Boundaries
In early 2020, I learned that a man convicted of “Continuous Sexual Abuse of a Child” was attending church around children. Concerned, I emailed the pastor. He replied that, while the offender was guilty of “crossing boundaries with some of his own children,” he’d apologized. Subsequently, they’d decided to let a convicted child predator attend church around children.
The pastor emailed me, saying, “There were many people who threatened to leave our church if [the sex offender] remained. This was due to the great pain many of them had suffered … in their past … People tend to like that Jesus was a friend of sinners, until it is a sin like this one that reminds us of something atrocious in our past. We [meaning he and his session] decided that the church had to remain a place for repentant sinners, even if others decided to leave.”
Due to this session’s stance:
- Multiple families left the church out of fear for their children’s safety.
- A sexual predator is being allowed to watch children during corporate worship, and familiarize himself with God’s most vulnerable image bearers.
Note: An important thing to understand – child predators don’t usually commit crimes at church. While they’re at church, they behave themselves, but they observe the kids, they pick out a child or two who may seem insecure, troubled, or overly trusting, and then they stalk that child, groom them, and strike elsewhere when your elders and upstanding congregants aren’t around to notice. Basically, they’re using your church like a take-out dinner menu. This idea that, “Oh, we’ll have Elder Bob walk Pervy Pete to the bathroom and make sure he’s never alone with kids when he’s at church,” doesn’t work if Pervy Pete figures out your kid’s bus route, or just “happens” to encounter one of your teenage boys at the basketball court and strikes up a conversation, or starts sending one of your daughters’ texts, builds a secret relationship with her, and sets up a rendezvous. That’s why these people are called “predators.” They do not strike while you’re watching, when you expect it, or when it’s risky for them to do so. They plot, they fantasize, they watch, and they wait.
Example 8: Wolves Protecting Wolves
In a May 14, 2021 Facebook post, Lois Cummings Takemura, accused her father, an OPC and PCA minister, of child abuse.
“I had moments of darkness and depression,” she wrote. “When someone at school became aware that I was considering suicide because of my father’s inappropriate touching, they approached my parents. My father’s reaction was to confront me, angrily … ‘How could you endanger my reputation by telling people at school?’”
Back in 2009, her father faced church disciplinary charges. His own children alleged that his controlling behavior contributed toward their mother’s suicide. Among other things, documents allege his “oppressive control of family members,” alleging he “reprimanded [his wife] for not being submissive,” after she sought counseling, because “he, as the head of the home, did not believe it was necessary.”
His presbytery dismissed the charges and he remained a pastor.
Takemura laments, “It’s a system of wolves protecting wolves … the idol of reputation being more important than the well-being of the people under their care.”
Example 9: Repent of Your Divisiveness
Recently, Amy Rowe began collecting anonymous accounts from victims to help church leaders understand the prevalence and patterns in which abuse occurs.
In response, one pastor tweeted, “This is promoting a blatant violation of 1 Timothy 5:19 … You need to repent of your divisiveness … Anonymous allegations don’t deserve the time of day and belong in the trash.”
I contacted the pastor for comment, but he declined.
“How are victims supposed to feel safe getting help from the church?” Rowe asked. “I’d love it if the OPC was a safe place for abuse victims, but when we speak, we’re often accused of sin, placed under church discipline, or blackballed. I’m hoping anonymity gives victims a safe place to speak without fear of being thrown under the bus.”
I have other examples of abuses in NAPARC churches, but in the interest of time I’ll close with on final and very brief example.
10-15 years ago, OPC and PCA church leaders believed my dad was repentant. They did not report him for child abuse, even though they knew he had kids at home. When one of my little sisters was in high school, an anonymous social media account propositioned her for pornography. She refused. They sent her money through PayPal. She still refused.
One day, she came home from high school, and saw my dad’s laptop open to their conversation. He was the anonymous account. He had propositioned his own child for porn. That day, my little sister was forced to run away from home.
Had OPC and PCA pastors reported my dad as soon as they learned about his crimes, it’s possible she and my siblings could have been spared years of abuse and severe trauma. They might not have struggled as severely with PTSD and suicidal ideation. They might not have left the church. They might still have faith in Christ.
After reviewing the situation, this year, PCA Pastor, Todd Gwennap, reported my dad for child abuse. Pastor Gwennap concluded (and he gave me this quote to share with you):
“It’s essential that church leaders report crimes of abuse against children and vulnerable adults. This is not only a matter of submission to governing authorities (where mandatory reporting laws apply), but of faithfully shepherding the people entrusted to our care. The church is competent neither to investigate nor adjudicate such matters, and the consequences of such attempts can be catastrophic for the spiritual, emotional, and physical well-being of people made in God’s image.”
Thank you for your time and attention as we tackle this difficult and painful topic. This is not a fun or pleasant thing to think about, so I want to acknowledge and honor this presbytery for your faithfulness, compassion, and desire to protect and serve Christ’s littlest lambs.