Marv Penner is an Associate Staff member of The Center for Parent/Youth Understanding. He is an internationally-known author, professor, motivational speaker, and youth ministry expert. He is currently the executive director of All About Youth and oversees the Canadian Center for Adolescent Research, an organization which conducts research on Canadian youth culture. For more about Marv click here

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. Let’s start by talking about why (in tomorrow’s post…we’ll get more practical).

Wounded hearts can be welcomed in our ministries:
Your youth ministry might be the only safe place a young person has in their broken world. 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.” What an opportunity to be a place of sanctuary for families and individuals who are touched by such deep pain.

We can be proactive and intentional about providing a safe place for disclosure:
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.

The trust-based relationships that mark a healthy ministry mean that kids are believed:
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)

Question: What lessons have you learned about being a safe place for deeply wounded students to tell their stories? Are there things you are doing/would do differently based on experiences you’ve had? Share your thoughts here.

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