Christian News Northwest
Protecting the innocent
By JOHN FORTMEYER
Plaintiff alleges sex abuse during his stay there in the 1970s
A Salem man has filed a $5 million lawsuit against the Children’s Farm Home and its parent Trillium Family Services, claiming he was sexually abused as a child there in the late 1970s.
It happens. Even once is too often, but tragically, it happens – and all too frequently. It most certainly breaks the heart of God.
And the staff of this newspaper dreads anytime it must be reported on these pages.
But the days of ignoring that sexual abuse of youths can take place in churches, ministries and Christian schools is over. In the past few years, the number of reports of abuse – whether from recent times or surfacing after many years or even decades – seems to have multiplied greatly.
Locally, perhaps no one has become more knowledgable about the growing epidemic of abuse than Portland attorney and former Oregon state legislator Kelly Clark. Clark last month visited Christian News Northwest in Newberg to discuss what can be done to better protect children from sexual abuse.
Whether by accident – or, as he ponders, whether it might be by divine direction – Clark’s extensive work on such cases has made him a noted and visible expert on the subject.
"In the last 10 years, it’s probably been 50 percent of what I do," he said. For nearly 20 years Clark has been one of Oregon’s leading advocates for victims of child abuse -while in the Legislature co-authoring Oregon’s child abuse statute of limitations and the ban on child pornography, and since then representing more than 150 individuals abused as children by trusted adults, including priests, other ministers, coaches, Scout leaders, and teachers.
For more than a dozen years he has been one of the Northwest’s leading lawyers working on behalf of the victims of the Roman Catholic priest abuse scandals. More recently, he represented three girls who had suffered sexual abuse at a Christian school in New-berg by two coaches who were eventually fired by the school; a confidental settlement in the girls’ lawsuit against the school was announced in May.
Clark is an adjunct professor of political science at George Fox University, and is also a candidate for the master’s degree in theology from Australia’s Melbourne College of Divinity.
He also readily acknowledges that he is a recovering alcoholic who has "been through my own struggles with relationship and sexual brokenness." In the early 1990s, an alcoholic rampage and a guilty plea to a sex offense involving an ex-girlfriend ended his climb up the political ladder.
But Clark believes God is able to take his past failings and use them today to help victims of abuse.
"It’s given me an understanding of the world of mental health, the world of addiction, and the road back, which is an incredible thing to offer to these clients," he said.
Clark says he feels a sense of calling to assist victims of abuse. "I’ve come to accept that in some ways, this has been given to me as something I’m supposed to do."
Awareness of sex abuse increased greatly with the "explosion" of reports in the Catholic church, said Clark.
"Child abuse survivors feel incredibly isolated," he said. "They feel nobody would ever understand. They feel like it was their fault. So when all those courageous men and women came forward in the Catholic context … one of the great blessings that came out of the Catholic scandal was that people felt freed up to talk about it."
"But it’s not just a Catholic thing," Clark quickly added. "Not just a Christian thing. Not just a religious thing."
Yet when it happens in churches or other Christian settings, it not only attracts increased media attention, but it also potentially greatly multiplies the pain for the victims, because the abuse is often perpetrated by people who hold roles as representatives of God. Clark cited an article he once read that described abuse by clergy as a "murder of the soul" for the victims. It is an apt description, he said.
The biggest tragic mistake a church or ministry can make when such a problem surfaces is to pay more attention to the needs of the institution than to the needs of the victims, Clark said.
"The only response that is worthy of the Lord who said, ‘Suffer the little children who come unto me, the kingdom of heaven belongs to them,’ is to say we are most centrally concerned about the kids, and then everything works out," said Clark.
"If we take care of the kids, God will take care of the church."
Among the wide range of Protestant churches, some denominations have responded by putting good hiring and operational policies in place to help prevent abuse from happening, said Clark.
"The more networked the churches seem to be, the more that churches have those systems in place, and we know there are things that work, in terms of screening and policies," he said.
But for independent churches that don’t have those kinds of networks in place, the risk of abuse taking place appears to be greater.
"The smaller institutions that are on tighter budgets, they cut corners," said Clark. "Smaller churches are operating with stretched resources.
"For instance, some of the best policies are those that say it is not wise for any adult to be one-on-one with any child. But if you are a little bitty church and don’t have a lot of (staff) resources, you ask yourself, what are you going to do? It’s not just an organizational dilemma. It’s a legal and moral dilemma."
Clark said he has found a "slightly different dynamic" in some of the so-called "megachurches." He said they sometimes are less inclined than smaller churches to acknowledge the potential for sex abuse problems.
"They have all the resources they need," he said, "but there is a certain spiritual pride or naivete that says ‘It can never happen here.’ ”
But even small or independent churches should not have to go far to find good, solid resources to help them avoid sex abuse problems, according to Clark.
"There are resources out there,’ he said. "You don’t have to reinvent the wheel. My guess is that any Christian denomination that you ask will loan you a copy of their polcies. There are organizations that are set up to train churches in this. Insurance companies will come in and train your staff in how to avoid this. You can contact any child abuse survivors’ network. The FBI has policies. So do the Boy Scouts. You just have to look for it."
In his work, Clark experiences a full range of reactions from victims. Some carry such anger toward the church that they lose their faith and don’t want to hear any mention of God. But others are willing to give the church – and God – another chance if the church responds correctly.
"From the victims’ perspective, most of my clients don’t want to go to trial," said Clark. "They want a fair settlement. But most of the time, there are things that can be gotten beyond money, that matter to people. They want to hear an apology from the pastor, or the bishop, who could say ‘Maybe we didn’t know about this, but we failed you. Forgive us, we are sorry. What can we do to make it right?’
"Survivors of sex abuse really need to hear that."
Years of being so immersed working on the subject of sex abuse within the church does take a personal toll, Clark acknowledges.
"It does tend to cause spiritual cynicism, emotional burnout," he said.
But while Clark’s own faith in God has been challenged by what he has seen and heard, it hasn’t been eroded. He sees sex abuse as a reflection of the sin nature that every person must confront.
"I believe more than ever what (Alexander) Solzhenitsyn said, which is that the line between good and evil runs not through nations, not through ideologies, but through every human heart," he said.
Yet as a Christian, Clark admits it has been disappointing to see the church all too often failing to reflect God’s love and justice in matters of sex abuse.
"At a faith level, sometimes I do wonder if the Holy Spirit is asleep at the switch. For those of us who love the church and are called to be part of a body, it has shaken me up.
"But my anger is mainly directed at people that are supposed to have been watching out for this kind of thing."