Bible Studies

Sexual Abuse of Children:
It’s Real and Widespread

I read a couple of very disturbing stories: one was written by a man named David Holthouse, “Stalking the Bogeyman: Coming to grips with the killer inside me.” It was first published in Westword, a Denver alternative news weekly. Along with an interview with his mother, it was printed in the Anchorage Daily News, on May 31 and June 1, 2004: “Raped as a 7-year-old, a former Anchorage resident decides 25 years later to seek a murderous revenge . . . Anguished mother is convinced there are other victims, wants to find them.”

“She believes in a lot of things she once didn’t. She believes it’s dangerous for males to be baby sitters or for kids to have sleepovers, because there’s no way of knowing who might show up at the house.

“She worries whether children in public schools are getting the information they need to stay safe. She worries if children in private schools and those being home-schooled are getting any information at all. She worries about single moms with new boyfriends and coaches and cousins and ministers and neighbors and people who endear themselves to parents because they’re so good with kids.

“‘It’s not the strangers to beware of, although you need to do that, too. But it’s the people you know. They live among us. And with us.

“‘There’s obviously no way we can prevent the existence of pedophiles. There are a certain number of them, they are always going to be among us, evidently. The only thing we can do as parents is just to become almost paranoid about it.’

“Being raped at 7 and terrified into secrecy has affected her son in more ways than she can know. One way she does know is that David had planned his own suicide. If what the experts say had come to be—that those abused are likely to become abusers—David’s plan was to die in the mountains. He had couloirs on Flattop and Ptarmigan Peak picked out.”

Long ago I imagined that the sexual abuse of children was rare. Now, after several decades as a pastor, I can testify that it is far more common than most of us would imagine: people do abuse children and steal their sexual innocence; they bully them and rape them. It happens. Sometimes the bullying is physical; most of the time it’s psychological. The perpetrator may be a relative or a trusted friend of the family; sometimes it’s a person in authority, a teacher, scoutmaster, counselor, older brother—even a minister. Now, after all these years, I cannot even count up the number of people who have talked to me about it. It’s that common. Almost all the people who have talked to me are the victims, oftentimes a now mature woman who’s trying to exorcise the ghosts from her childhood. They haunt them at unpredictable times and rob them of many of the pleasures of life.

But on more than one occasion, the perpetrator talked to me. A couple of decades ago, a man came to see me. He wasn’t a member of our church; he was a Roman Catholic—that’s not significant, because those who molest children come from all kinds of religious backgrounds: Catholic and Pentecostal, Baptist and Presbyterian. He had been charged with the crime but not yet found guilty; he was free on bond. An hour or so before he came for his second appointment with me, I got down on my knees and begged God for the truth. I needed to know whether he was guilty or innocent, because this would radically impact how I dealt with him. That afternoon, after praying with him, I simply said, “You did it, didn’t you?” And he broke down and confessed. 

I did three things: I called his attorney and told him that his client had told me something very significant and was now suicidal. “He needs to be watched and treated in-house, and I cannot do this. Since he is your client, I am giving you this responsibility.” Then I tracked down his priest and asked him to come to my office and meet his parishioner. I told him it was an emergency. I then asked the man if I could get him something while we waited, and he told me that he could really use a drink. 

“What would you like?” I asked.

“Brandy.” he replied.

I went down the hall and told our youth minister to go to Pearson’s pharmacy: “I want you to buy a small bottle of cheap brandy and bring it to me. You can charge it to me. Please don’t ask me any questions.” The brandy arrived, and a couple of minutes later so did the priest. About an hour and a half later, the man’s attorney came and got him. I never saw him again, but he was dealt with by the criminal justice system. That priest and I worked with his wife and her two sons for several months . . . you see, the child he raped was his step son. After an abusive marriage and the relief of divorce, the poor woman finally met her “knight in shining armor”—only her new husband was no knight; he was every parent’s worst nightmare, because he raped her son, causing physical damage. That could be easily fixed surgically, but what about the inner scars?

I don’t know if I handled that situation the right way. As with many of my sermons, even with those that anger a lot of people, I don’t know. Indeed, I can’t know until I am with the Lord Jesus. (1 Corinthians 4:3-5.) Should I have sent the youth minister to buy brandy? Does Proverbs 31:6, 7 have something to say? “Give strong drink unto him that is ready to perish, and wine unto those that be of heavy hearts. Let him drink, and forget his poverty, and remember his misery no more.”

I don’t believe that auricular confession to a priest is required for the forgiveness of sins; I believe that there is but “one Mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself a ransom for all . . .” (1 Timothy 2:5, 6.) But that afternoon, I wasn’t as concerned with forgiveness of this man’s sins as I was with keeping him from committing suicide. He needed to repent of his sins and come to Jesus alright, but I didn’t think that he could comprehend much of anything, the state he was in.

What about contacting his attorney? Why not simply call the police or child protection? First of all, I have contacted child protection a number of times; I’ve even had them remove a child out of a home in more than one situation. But fundamentally I believe that what people tell me needs to be between God and us: people need somebody to talk to without fear. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t go to work on guilty people, doing my best to get them to step forward and deal with their crimes by talking to others, if that is what is called for. It is only in a case where I discern that people are not going to stop or where the victim is being deprived of help that I ever go further. Anyhow, I did go further; I contacted the man’s attorney, and I have no regrets about that. I believe in the basics of the American system of justice; I believe that even people who are guilty of murder should have their basic legal rights honored: the right not to be coerced into a confession, the right to a presumption of innocence, the right to an attorney.

Can a man who rapes a child ever find forgiveness? If we doubt that, we don’t understand either the seriousness of our own sinfulness, or the gospel itself.

While God is altogether just and holy, he is also loving and kind. While his holy nature dictates that sin must be punished, he himself provided the way for sin to be punished and sinners to be saved. God himself, without ceasing to be God in any sense whatsoever, became a real human being, just like us, except that he did not have a sinful nature, and he never sinned. He died on the cross and took the guilt and the consequences of our sins—we receive the benefits of what he did, not by following a set of rules but simply by trusting in him and what he did for us.

Before we can truly place our trust in the Lord Jesus Christ, we must take full responsibility for our sins; we must recognize the guilt that is ours, because it is we who have chosen to commit those sins of our own will, and nobody forced us to do them. We must confess that we deserve to suffer the consequences of our sins both in this life and in the world to come, and that whatever comes our way is less than what our sins merit. We must sincerely choose to turn from those sins to God, even though the fruit of that choice will never be perfect in this life.

In the gospel we understand that our Lord Jesus Christ took on himself all of the curse and condemnation due for our sins, having become a curse for us as he took both the guilt and the consequences for our sin. “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us.” (Galatians 3:13.) What does it mean that Christ became a curse for us? It means that he fully bore the just consequences of our actions, the curse and judgment of a holy God. We receive the benefits of what he did for us by means of faith; we are justified by faith, by faith alone, but by a faith that is never alone.

What is justification? It is a legal declaration, not unlike what happens in a court of law; it has to do with our legal standing before God. As some godly pastors and teachers put it so well over three centuries ago: “Justification is an act of God’s free grace, wherein he pardons all our sins, and accepts us as righteous in his sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and received by faith alone.” (The Westminster Shorter Catechism, Answer 33.)

Justification is not that God makes us good and then declares what he has done. Rather, God declares sinners righteous solely on the basis of what Christ did for them: “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8.) This gracious declaration is without any reference to anything in me. This is what the Apostolic Church has ever maintained: “For we maintain that a man is justified (declared righteous) by faith apart from observing the law.” (Romans 3:28.) We can NEVER come under condemnation, regardless of what we do. Yet, in spite of this absolute, impeccable, imperishable, irrevocable standing that we possess before God, which is in no way subject to the vacillation and vicissitudes of our personal walk—as an expression of our gratitude, we strive to keep the law because we have been embossed with the restored image of God in Jesus Christ—after we believed, when we were sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise. (Ephesians 1:13, 14.)

Those who have been born again do reflect this in a changed way of life. They have not been saved because they live a new life; they live a new life because they have been saved. Dead sinners are effectually called by the Holy Spirit working through the preaching of the gospel. The moment these sinners believe, their sins are forgiven, having been fully paid for by Christ, and Christ’s perfect obedience—the very righteousness of God himself—is put to their account. Just as our credit card charges and payments are reflected in a monthly statement, so Jesus takes our whole debt, and he credits us with his completely righteous record. But, as I said, believers are also immediately sealed with the Holy Spirit who begins the life-long process of changing them into the restored image of God, making them more and more like the Lord Jesus Christ, a process not completed until death. As Paul says, “In whom you also trusted, after you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation: in whom also after you believed, you were sealed with that holy Spirit of promise, who is the earnest of our inheritance until the redemption of the purchased possession, to the praise of his glory.” (Ephesians 1:13, 14.) 

There will always be the fruit of a changed life in everyone who believes—always imperfect, but always there. “No one who is born of God practices sin, because his seed abides in him; and he cannot sin, because he is born of God. By this the children of God and the children of the devil are obvious: anyone who does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor the one who does not love his brother.” (1 John 3:9, 10.) In other words, a person who is born again can fall into serious sin, even adultery or murder, and never lose his salvation: “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” (1 John 1:8.) But a born again person cannot live on and on in sin without turning away from it and back to God. Why? Because the Holy Ghost will not allow a born again person to live in sin. He convicts us, and if that doesn’t produce repentance, he disciplines us—gently at first, then more severely if necessary. If all else fails, the Holy Spirit will take us home to heaven.

Yet all who believe are fully righteous in God’s sight the moment they believe: “For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law.” (Romans 3:28.) “But to the one who does not work, but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is reckoned as righteousness, just as David also speaks of the blessing upon the man to whom God reckons righteousness apart from works: ‘Blessed are those whose lawless deeds have been forgiven, and whose sins have been covered. Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord will not take into account.’” (Romans 4:5-8.) And, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” (Romans 8:1.) 

God’s grace is greater than all human sin:  it pardons, cleanses, changes human nature and heals.

Bob Vincent