Most child molesters ‘religious,’ often target church members

By Paula Schlueter Ross (

ST. LOUIS — It’s not unusual for “hard-core” child molesters — with more sexual-offense convictions, more victims and younger victims — to be well-respected members of Christian congregations, and to be actively involved as church leaders, warns Victor Vieth, executive director emeritus of the Gundersen National Child Protection Training Center in Winona, Minn.

In one study, 93 percent of convicted sex offenders described themselves as “religious.” Perhaps surprisingly, many sexual predators consider churches as “safe havens,” Vieth said, with trusting, forgiving adults and easy access to children.

Victor Vieth, executive director emeritus of the Gundersen National Child Protection Training Center in Winona, Minn., addresses the Synod's first Workshop on Domestic Violence and Child Abuse, Sept. 30 in St. Louis. (LCMS/Frank Kohn)

Victor Vieth, executive director emeritus of the Gundersen National Child Protection Training Center in Winona, Minn., addresses the Synod’s first Workshop on Domestic Violence and Child Abuse, Sept. 30 in St. Louis. (LCMS/Frank Kohn)

Religious people can be “easier to fool” than most people, say researchers, and, even when an accusation of child sexual abuse is made, will often stand with the offender, vouching for his good character and even showing up in courtrooms for support.

Sadly, congregation members seldom show up in courtrooms for the young victims, noted Vieth, a child-protection attorney for 26 years and lead speaker at The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod’s first Workshop on Domestic Violence and Child Abuse, held Sept. 30 at Concordia Seminary here.

More than 50 people — pastors, deaconesses, church-work students and laity, in addition to a number of students via “live stream” — attended the free, daylong workshop billed to help them “identify, understand and intervene” on behalf of victims of domestic violence and child abuse. The event was sponsored by the Synod’s Domestic Violence and Child Abuse Task Force, under the auspices of the LCMS Office of National Mission (ONM), in response to LCMS convention action asking for programs and resources on the topic.

Also presenting at the workshop were Dr. Stephen Saunders, speaker, author, professor of Psychology and director of the Clinical Psychology Program at the Klinger College of Arts and Sciences, Marquette University, Milwaukee, and Sandra Ostapowich, conference executive for Higher Things.

In remarks prior to the opening session, ONM Executive Director Rev. Bart Day thanked participants for their “willingness to listen and to learn” about what he called a “difficult topic” that’s usually not talked about at church but nevertheless “happens in our own families, to students in our schools and even in families of church workers — none are immune.”

Noting at the start of the workshop that “this will be a difficult day” because of the unsettling subject matter, Vieth, a member of a Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod congregation, shared stories of child physical and sexual abuse and played several videos that addressed those topics, including a “48 Hours” segment of “Searching for Angela Shelton,” in which a young filmmaker confronts her abusive father who refuses to acknowledge any wrongdoing.

Most abused at home

Most abused children — 60 percent of those sexually abused, and 91 percent of those who experience physical abuse — are abused in their own homes, Vieth said. And those “adverse childhood experiences,” or ACEs, can ultimately lead to obesity, alcohol and drug abuse, depression, sleep disturbances, and job and relationship problems as well as cancer and heart disease.

Since child victims typically don’t want to talk about their abuse — and there are “enormous pressures on kids who do tell” — it is not unusual for them to deny it. In one study of 116 cases of documented abuse, 75 percent of the children initially denied it happened.

Boys are more reluctant than girls to reveal abuse because they’re afraid of being labeled “weak” or “gay” by family members and peers, and it can take 20 years or more for them to tell anyone about it, said Vieth.

And most, if not all, victims believe they’re at least partly to blame because they didn’t stop it, even in cases of abuse by clergy and other church leaders who may invoke God to justify their actions (“God made me this way” or “God wants this”).

Saving children

Saving children from abuse “is really our moral obligation,” Vieth said, “and, in my opinion, defines whether or not we are Christian.”

Among his recommendations for preventing child abuse, Vieth urged LCMS congregations and schools to:

  • develop a written child-protection policy — defining what is allowed and not allowed, such as no one-to-one adult-child contact and prohibiting children’s events at adult workers’ homes — and share it with all current and potential church workers and volunteers. (See “Preventing Child Sexual Abuse” guidelines produced by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.)
  • thoroughly screen all potential church workers and volunteers by checking references, arrest records and social-media posts, but be aware that most sexual predators are never caught.
  • not hesitate to dismiss a worker or volunteer who breaks any part of your child-protection policy, and call the police if an offense occurs.
  • provide personal safety training for children that also involves parents, workers and volunteers. The basic message: “If someone touches you [inappropriately], you should tell and keep on telling until somebody helps you.” (Vieth suggested God Made All of Me: A Book to Help Children Protect Their Bodies, by Justin and Lindsay Holcomb, as a good resource for children.)

Talking with victims

Among his suggestions for talking with child-abuse victims: help them get professional medical and mental health care, listen to their accounts, don’t require them to forgive their abusers and “stay within your field of expertise” (in other words, pastors may provide spiritual care but should not counsel if they’re not trained for this specialty).

Many child-abuse survivors are “waiting for a sermon about child abuse” because they feel “abandoned and neglected by the church,” especially if a church worker was the abuser, Vieth said. And if that’s the case, “listen to the survivor and figure out what you can do to help” him/her heal.

In addition to “what survivors want,” Vieth addressed topics such as how a victim’s spirituality is damaged by abuse, how to meet the needs of offenders and how to respond when they confess — including policies for sex offenders who ask to join your church — and applying Law and Gospel when ministering to victims and abusers.

In a segment on physical abuse to children, he described “suspicious injuries” and showed photos of bruises caused by abuse. Half of all physical abuse to children, he said, involves corporal punishment, “a risk factor” that can damage children both physically and mentally.

Among resources Vieth recommended were:

‘Fear, intimidation’

In their presentation on identifying and understanding domestic abuse — and helping victims — Saunders and Ostapowich noted that the majority of abuse is inflicted by men against women.

Domestic abuse is not a sudden, anger-induced loss of control, Saunders stressed, but instead is a “deliberate pattern of behavior” that is used to “gain control over a person.” Domestic abusers, he said, choose when and where to inflict abuse as well as their victims; they’re able to stop, when necessary; and they can direct blows “where they won’t show,” such as shoulders, thighs, the stomach.

From left, Emily Cave and Jenny Wallach practice asking questions and "active listening" in a role-playing exercise during the Workshop on Domestic Violence and Child Abuse. Cave is a deaconess intern at Immanuel Lutheran Church in Washington, Mo., and Wallach is a member there. (LCMS/Frank Kohn)

From left, Emily Cave and Jenny Wallach practice asking questions and “active listening” in a role-playing exercise during the Workshop on Domestic Violence and Child Abuse. Cave is a deaconess intern at Immanuel Lutheran Church in Washington, Mo., and Wallach is a member there. (LCMS/Frank Kohn)

Their overriding goal, he said, is “fear and intimidation,” and victims often believe they’re the cause of the abuse because their abusers tell them so.

Ostapowich shared “staggering” statistics on domestic abuse, including that one in four women experiences it — usually by a family member — in her lifetime, so “25 percent of women, statistically, in your congregations, have been abused,” she said.

Abuse, she noted, is the leading cause of injury to women — more than car accidents, muggings and rapes combined — and most victims never seek help.

There are many types of domestic abuse, said Saunders: In addition to physical violence, it can be sexual, verbal, psychological, emotional, spiritual, economic and social. He advised workshop participants, “Don’t ever excuse abuse,” which is “not about anger,” and refrain from expressing sympathy to the abuser because “he will hear permission.”

Likewise, never attempt to help the abuser change, since that “happens only with the help of a professional,” and even then, the “research [for successful outcomes] is not encouraging.”

It’s much easier for the abuser to find a new victim than change his behavior, added Ostapowich.

Always refer

Trying to change an abuser or confront him about his behavior will put the victim in danger, said Saunders, so don’t do it. And if an abuser confesses to a pastor, the pastor should offer absolution but always refer him to a mental-health professional with expertise in the field.

Many victims don’t leave their abusive situations because they’re afraid of what their spouses will do (“I’ll kill you”) and they don’t want to lose their marriage, friends or financial support. She may believe she has no option but to stay, or that she “can do better” in pleasing her abuser. She may not want to face the “shame” and “embarrassment” of having a failed marriage, and she may believe that staying together is better for the children because during custody visits with an abusive father she wouldn’t be there to protect them.

When an abuse victim shares her story with you, believe her. “Be respectful of her choices” and “listen to her,” Saunders advised. “Be patient, kind, understanding and encouraging,” but don’t tell her what to do — the decision has to be hers.

Domestic abuse is “not a couples or relationship issue,” he added: It is misbehavior on the part of the abuser, and it is a tragic situation on the part of the victim. So “couples counseling” is never appropriate in cases of domestic abuse, and pastors who conduct couples counseling are obligated to meet with each person individually to ask about domestic abuse. Individual meetings should include a sequence of questions such as “How are things with your spouse?,” “How are disagreements resolved?,” “What’s it like when you get angry with each other?” and “Has there ever been physical violence?” These can be helpful in starting conversations about abuse, he said, and workshop participants practiced these exchanges in role-playing exercises.

Saunders and Ostapowich also discussed safety issues and safety plans for victims, including having a “grab-and-go bag” with medications, copies of legal documents and other necessities for those who decide to make a quick escape. But these need to be worked out with a qualified mental-health professional with expertise in helping victims of domestic abuse.

The goal of pastors and other church workers who become aware of an abusive situation is to assist the victim in obtaining appropriate help, Saunders stressed. Trying to help directly, without expertise in doing so, will endanger her and her children, he said.

Helpful conversations with an abuse victim might include:

  • You believe her.
  • You are concerned.
  • Abuse is always wrong.
  • Information about local laws and resources are available.
  • Experts can help.

Pastors might want to have a ready list of resources and referrals to give abuse victims, Saunders noted, and offer to continue to provide spiritual care.

‘People we know’ carry pain

Kim Sherwin, a second-year deaconess student at Concordia Seminary, attended the workshop to learn more about reaching out and ministering to people impacted by abuse — something that’s “vitally important, whether you’re a pastor, professional church worker or the person in the pew.”

Sherwin said the workshop was “very valuable. First of all, outlining the various forms abuse can take helped me to recognize that abuse is more than physical violence. Hearing the statistics and seeing the research about how past abuse impacts current lives made me realize that abuse isn’t like a bruise that fades over time. These are deep, enduring issues that will likely impact the victims for their entire lives.

“As the church, we are all called to love and care for all people,” she said. “The workshop did a good job of introducing us to many of the issues and ways we can give support to those struggling with past or ongoing abuse.”

Seminarian Chris Jung called the workshop “extremely valuable” and said it gave him “tools such as awareness, signs to look for, what is usually normal/abnormal [and] ways to bring the message of Christ’s healing love” to those who are hurting.

Jung said he believes domestic and sexual abuse “are much more prevalent than we would like to believe, even in our churches. There are people we know who are carrying the weight of pain and suffering every day of their lives” and he wishes all church workers could “be trained, at least with this one-day workshop” so that they can “care for those whom the Holy Spirit has placed in our lives in the best way possible.”

The Rev. Peter Ill, senior pastor at Trinity Lutheran Church in Millstadt, Ill., attended the workshop because “domestic abuse and child abuse are serious problems in our world, and unfortunately, in our congregations. Pastors need to be equipped to recognize abuse and to speak God’s Word of comfort to all victims of abuse.”

Ill described the sessions as “incredibly worthwhile,” particularly “the very practical tips about listening to victims of abuse, connecting them with resources, providing spiritual care, and having policies to protect the members of our congregation from abuse.”

Added Ill: “Unfortunately, this is something that pastors need to be skilled in. Child abuse and domestic abuse are present in our congregations, as awful as that is. It’s also in our communities. As pastors bring the Gospel to hurting sinners, it is an obligation that all pastors be knowledgeable and skilled in connecting the hurting with professional resources and provide spiritual care to those hurt by abuse.”

Response can ‘make or break’ faith

Workshop coordinator Deaconess Kim Schave, chair of the Synod’s Domestic Violence and Child Abuse Task Force and director of Project and Policy Administration in the LCMS Office of the Chief Administrative Officer, said she believes it’s “extremely important that the Synod offer such training opportunities to help church workers and others be better prepared to handle instances of domestic abuse that may surface within their congregations and schools.”

Schave said she’s “heard from countless women and men in the past two years who have shared deeply personal stories about their own experience with abuse. In each case, the church responded in a way that would either make or break the individual’s faith. There were too many cases in which the latter occurred, causing individuals to walk away from the church and the faith altogether.

“The church needs to be prepared to respond in a Gospel-centric manner that emphasizes the healing and restoration that comes by way of faith in Jesus Christ,” Schave said. “It is through Him that individuals who have suffered the effects of abuse can be made whole again.”

Workshops, resources

Similar free workshops are scheduled for next spring — April 9 (on domestic abuse) and April 23 (on child abuse) at Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, Ind.

Training for groups of 30 or more also is available at no charge. Contact Schave at for more information.

Resources on domestic abuse and child abuse — and information on the task force’s Speakers Bureau — may be found at

Posted Oct. 22, 2015

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4 Responses to Most child molesters ‘religious,’ often target church members

  1. alan turley October 23, 2015 at 1:54 pm #

    Churches need to have in place and follow written procedures to screen members and employees who have contact with children. Your liability insurance carrier should be a resource. There is significant legal liability for churches.

    • Timothy Schenks October 27, 2015 at 8:54 pm #

      Our congregation’s insurance carrier wasn’t much of a resource except to tell us that we had to come up with some sort of written policy for all these specific cases (mainly sexual harassment) that may come up otherwise our insurance rates will go up.

  2. Lance Brown October 24, 2015 at 1:52 am #

    “in their presentation on identifying and understanding domestic abuse — and helping victims — Saunders and Ostapowich noted that the majority of abuse is inflicted by men against women.”

    #1 This is NOT true. Men and women engage in violence against intimate partners at equal rates. Men, for obvious reasons, tend to inflict greater damage. Women, again for obvious reasons, are more likely to use weapons. But that’s just the violence. As this piece notes violence is just part of the larger picture of abuse. And women are far more adept at the psychological tactics employed by abusers.

    #2 Even if you refuse to accept and believe number one I would still ask, WHY does this matter? Why does it need to be emphasized in these programming sessions? Why does it need to be emphasized in this piece. How does that serve the goal of “helping victims”??? Does it help male victims to reinforce the idea that women are victims and men are perpetrators?

    I applaud you for including the part about how boys are less likely to report being abused. That’s a gender difference that’s actually relevant to helping victims. It’s useful to know and understand that. But still, the submerged feminism at work here is obvious. It infects the social sciences and the helping professions and now the LCMS as well.

  3. Kim Schave October 28, 2015 at 8:48 am #


    The statistics do, in fact, support the notion that women are victims of Intimate Partner Violence with a greater frequency than men. The current study commissioned by the CDC is the source for this claim noted in the article ( Women tend to report more frequently within the church, as well, for various reasons. However, the training that is offered by the LCMS very clearly delineates that men are increasingly reporting their own status as victims. While this may not have come through in the article covering the workshop, it is very much incorporated into the materials used by the LCMS Domestic Violence and Child Abuse Task Force.

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