Preventing and responding to sexual abuse: ‘We must get this right’

By Deborah Leuthold, Photos by Lainee Pegelow | Nov 16, 2022

Maricopa County Attorney Rachel Mitchell speaks at the Sexual Abuse Awareness Night.

Protecting the vulnerable in the church is a top priority in the Arizona Southern Baptist Mission Network. A Sexual Abuse Response Team has been working steadily in 2022 to develop plans and resources to help churches prevent sexual abuse and respond appropriately should it happen.

The Arizona Southern Baptist Mission Network held a Sexual Abuse Awareness Night for church leaders Nov. 10, prior to the start of network’s annual meeting, held Nov. 11 at Avondale Baptist Church.

David Johnson, ASBN director, welcomed pastors and guests to Sexual Abuse Awareness Night.

“This is a special night talking about a difficult, but important, topic,” David Johnson, Arizona Southern Baptist Mission Network executive director, said. “We must get this right. There is too much at stake,” speaking of the harm to victims and the shame brought to the Gospel. “Our future responses will bring glory to God.”

Scott Valentine, a counselor with New Life Counseling, a ministry of Arizona Baptist Children’s Services & Family Ministries, speaks at the Sexual Abuse Awareness Night.

Scott Valentine, a counselor with New Life Counseling, a ministry of Arizona Baptist Children’s Services & Family Ministries, said speaking to a real-life human being is the first step to healing for the abused.

“It starts with a caring Christian listening and not judging,” Valentine said. “They need to talk. Your response should be to listen, be engaged — it makes all the difference in world.”
Speakers agreed it was sad and unfortunate to have to address this topic.

“We live in a broken world, but there is hope and healing on the other side for the victim,” Valentine said. “The good news is you don’t have to fix them or their problem, just listen to them.”
Usually terrified to share what’s happened to them, victims need to be heard and believed and to be assured what happened to them was not their fault.

Lauren Belcher, Sexual Abuse Response Team member, talks with Bob McSpadden, pastor of Sandario Baptist Church in Tucson, at the Sexual Abuse Awareness Night.

“It’s part of the grooming of the victim,” said Chad Murrell, a member of the Sexual Abuse Response Team, Zona Camp director and lead pastor of First Southern Baptist Church of Scottsdale.

Predators often tell their victims, “I wouldn’t have done that to you if you had not been where you were or doing what you were doing,” Murrell said. In other words, it’s the victim’s fault.

For too many years, the church has assumed there isn’t a problem, Murrell said, and that must stop. He recommended churches use MinistrySafe, a program created to equip churches to protect vulnerable children and adults from the risk of sexual abuse by providing awareness training, screening processes, background checks, policies and procedures, and oversight systems.

Caring for victims is crucial. Equally crucial are prevention and reporting the abuse when it’s disclosed to authorities. But what does that look like in the life of a church? How does one recognize a predator? Who does one call?

“[MinistrySafe] provides a training protocol for your church,” Murrell said. “Volunteers and staff train to recognize abuse, grooming practices the predator uses, behaviors of victims and offenders, what to say to a victim, and how to report abuse.”

Speakers at Arizona Southern Baptists’ Sexual Abuse Awareness Night were (from left) Lauren Belcher, Dan Sneed, Rachel Mitchell, Scott Valentine and Chad Murrell.

Perpetrators see churches as target-rich environments for access to children.

“If a church has these policies in place and follows through with them, a perpetrator will move on to the next church,” said Dan Sneed, Sexual Abuse Response Team member and member of North Phoenix Baptist Church in Phoenix. “We don’t want to pass the problem on, but we don’t want to be a place of victimization.”

Rachel Mitchell, Maricopa County Attorney, was the keynote speaker. Her career includes prosecuting sexual assault and physical abuse cases spanning more than 20 years.

“A church’s mishandling of cases like this causes a wound deeper than pretty much anything else I’ve ever seen,” she said. “It cuts to the core; it cuts to your spirit. Victims experience guilt, anger, grief, despair, doubt, fear of death and believe that God is unfair. It’s an injury we must prevent.”

Deborah Leuthold, a freelance editor and writer, is a member of Avondale Baptist Church in Avondale.

Lainee Pegelow, a freelance writer and photographer, is communications specialist, missions coordinator and a campus missionary for Christian Challenge AZ. She is a member of Challenge Church, Flagstaff.

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