Updated and revised May 31, 2012
He loved children.
The man and his wife had parented 75 foster kids in their suburban home encircled by a white picket fence. He worked in marketing for three Chicago ministries, going on to establish a support network for foster-care families.
"Long before we got married ... we agreed we wanted to have large families," the man told a Christian publisher in 2009. "We thought it would be fun to have a lot of children."
And then, the man was arrested in February on charges of sexually assaulting two of his foster children, one 6, the other 12 at the time. Journalists present at a court hearing report that a prosecutor said that this individual confessed verbally to police of nights spent drinking before coming home to engage in sexual contact with these two children, now young adults.
We at Christianity Today recognized the mug shot. For nine years, he was our coworker in a non-editorial role.
The story came to us right before another: a Wheaton College Christian education professor arrested for possessing with the intent to disseminate pornographic images of chidlren under 13, a very serious felony.
And now today comes another tragedy, with the news that Voice of the Martyrs executive director Tom White, a source, partner, and friend to several of us here, apparently committed suicide to avoid an investigation into an accusation that he had molested a young girl.
These events brought a sickening dose of reality to our hallways. These stories don't signal a trend, and the cases are unrelated. The accused foster parent and former professor separately appeared in their respective courts and pleaded not guilty to all charges. The defense attorney for the foster parent has said there is no signed confession. We affirm the presumption of innocence and the right to a fair trial as soon as possible.
But these cases also signal that faith-based institutions can no longer assume that predators are somewhere "out there," over the clean Christian rainbow. They are not just in college locker rooms and Catholic rectories either. They are on our evangelical faculty and work in our community nonprofits, and we must respond to them in a way that bears the judgment—and mercy—of the gospel of Christ.
To this end, with the counsel of experts in sexual health, we offer two principles for the Christian community in responding to child sex offenders and preventing such offenses.
First, we must prioritize protecting innocents. In recent years, we've witnessed a movement among churches discerning how to include ex-offenders into the community of faith. No doubt many lives have been transformed in the process. Still, when the well-being of children and the inclusion of offenders conflict, we believe a gospel-shaped community should prioritize protecting the most innocent among us, whose violation invites drowning by millstone (Luke 17:2).
"There is something about exploiting children that even our sexually permissive culture gets: that you don't touch children—even murderers in prison get it," observes William Struthers, a neuroscientist at Wheaton College. Our culture's prevailing response tells us something true about child abuse: Not only is it biologically abnormal (prepubescent children aren't capable of relating sexually), it's devastating for those who endure it.
Practically speaking, all this will require more proactive preventive measures than many ministries are used to. Parents can help children develop clear physical boundaries, recognize inappropriate behavior, and strengthen that feeble "no" into a shout. Faith-based institutions are wise to develop a strategy of, "If an employee reports observing danger signals from a coworker, here's how we will respond." A clear policy for network and computer scans is wise. Background checks for all who interact with minors are obvious. Most important, it means teaching that working with children is not a "right" or an unchecked "calling." If a former abuser insists on ministering to children, their request should be denied. "The truly repentant person is not likely going to apply to be restored, because he doesn't want to fail again," notes Mark Laaser, who works with abusers at his Minnesota-based recovery ministry. "If a person is humble, the restoration question becomes moot."
But how we answer the restoration question is paramount to our theology.
Second, we must extend the gospel to child sex abusers. This is a monumental task. A 2011 Slate report titled, "Are molesters really the most hated people in prison?" answered, simply, "Yes. Convicts who have committed crimes against children, especially sexual abuse, are hated, harassed, and abused." Even Christians instinctively feel that child abusers should "rot in jail" when they imagine a fellow Christian fondling a child or masturbating to such images. So when we begin preaching that such "monsters" are known and loved by Christ, it will horrify the watching world. And even us.
Yet if we let the gospel seep into our imaginations, we have no other choice. "Christ died for the murderer and the thief—did he not also die for the child molester?" asks Struthers. "Or am I going to create categories of people who are no longer able to be saved by the blood of Christ?"
Hear us rightly: Restoring molesters doesn't mean full or automatic inclusion in community life. It certainly means jail time, psychological testing, and an intensive recovery program. It should mean complete barring from children's ministry. But for the gospel-shaped community, it will, by God's grace, also mean holding on to hope that the lives destroyed by the molester—among them his own—will be made new on the Final Day by the loving judgment of Jesus.
Copyright © 2012 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
See also today's report on Tom White's death.
Church Law and Tax Report,, a Christianity Today sister publication, will will present a live, free, one-hour webinar on child abuse reporting laws and child protection policies that church leaders should use on Wednesday, May 2, 2012.
Previous Christianity Today articles on sex abuse include:
Sex Offenders in the Pew | How churches are ministering to society's most despised. (September 17, 2010)
Don't Shoot the Messenger | What all Christians can learn from the Catholic Church abuse scandal. (May 27, 2010)
Modern-Day Lepers | Churches try to balance grace and accountability toward sex offenders. (December 3, 2009)
Recent CT editorials include:
How Pastors' Ponzis Affect Our Gospel Witness | A rash of pastor-endorsed fraud taints our gospel witness. (April 16, 2012)
The Supreme Court's Religious Freedom Reality Check | A recent unanimous ruling reveals deep commitment to our 'first freedom.' (March 13, 2012)
You Can't Worship Here: Evicting Churches from New York Schools | What will really happen this weekend when churches gather in school buildings for the last time? (February 8, 2012)
Thou Shalt Not Abuse: Reconsidering Spanking | Misuse of biblical teaching on discipline can have deadly consequences. (January 16, 2012)
No Taxpayer Is An Island | Elizabeth Warren is wrong, and right, about the role of government. (December 6, 2011)
Fighting Famine Isn't Enough | Some 2,000 Somalis die of starvation daily. Drought isn't the reason. (November 4, 2011)
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