“GRACE” aims to protect children in Christian communities

"GRACE" investigated Woodlands Church after 2 church members said they were sexually assaulted by a former pastor
Published: Sep. 15, 2022 at 12:43 AM CDT
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PLOVER, Wis. (WSAW) - Religious spaces are often considered sanctuaries, safe places where people can spiritually learn, grow, and heal. For some who have experienced abuse within the congregation, its members, or leaders, that sanctuary can become a recurring source of trauma.

“One of the things that is incredibly important, according to research, as a person adjusts to life after abuse is the ability to put that experience within some type of psychological context,” Pete Singer said. “To, in essence, incorporate it into how I view myself and the world around me.”

Singer is the executive director of an organization called GRACE, which stands for Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment. It is an organization made up of people with backgrounds in trauma, psychology, social work, criminal justice, and law. The organization started in 2004 and its mission is to empower Christian communities to recognize, prevent, and respond to abuse.

“What research has shown is that one of the key factors as a person does that (put their abuse into a psychological context) is faith and spirituality,” Singer continued. “And when abuse happens in the context of a faith community, either because that faith community is who perpetrated the abuse or because that faith community was involved in silencing, in minimizing, in shaming and blaming related to the abuse, what we have just done is we’ve taken that key component, that research shows is a huge source of healing, a huge source of developing that psychological context... we have in essence, for many people removed the healing, removed the beneficial safeguarding.”

He said this, among a mountain of other reasons is why his team does the work that they do. GRACE provides Christian faith communities and organizations with independent investigations, assessments, and preventative support services. Many of the team and board members have personal experiences, whether directly or through close relationships, with this abuse as well.

“I went to a church and Christian school that had rampant and pretty extreme abuse throughout the organization. At times that was known and actively condoned by leadership within the organization,” Singer recalled, adding that it was all types of abuse imaginable.

He went on to state religious scripture is often used to justify abuse or coerce someone into silence. It happened to his best friend’s family.

“The pastor’s response to the mom who came forward was, ‘The problem here is clear. You’re not adequately submitting and when you adequately submit the abuse will stop,’” Singer conveyed. “That didn’t happen, and that dad ended up killing his youngest son, and the mom ended up killing him to try and save the rest of the kids.”

When he moved to a new Christian school, he found abuse there too. He explained a known sex offender was put in charge of taking boys on mission trips abroad where he continued to sexually assault students.

“I dream of a world where GRACE doesn’t have to exist.”

Last year was the organization’s busiest year yet. More than 500 churches, survivors, and ministries reached out to GRACE in 2021, which resulted in more than 200 meetings to help in the immediate aftermath of abuse or disclosure. It conducted 13 investigations and assessments, including one at Woodlands Church in Plover. GRACE had nine more ready to begin this year before 2021 ended.

While Woodlands Church declined to interview about its experience with GRACE, Senior Pastor Brian Berg told 7 Investigates that their association of churches, Evangelical Free Church of America, brought in GRACE to provide training about sexual abuse, supporting survivors, and creating safe environments for children several years ago. So, when two church members told them about alleged past sexual abuse by their former long-time youth pastor, they knew who to contact to have an independent investigation done.

“We also wanted independent and experienced eyes to assess our church and help us and train us to do everything we can to keep children safe,” he said in an email.

“A GRACE investigation is absolutely never a replacement for a law enforcement investigation and never a replacement for a child protections investigation,” Singer stated.

In Woodlands Church’s case, a law enforcement investigation was conducted first. Singer said GRACE does not want to obstruct any investigations done by law enforcement of child protective services, so it will pause or delay its investigation to allow those legal investigations to happen first.

GRACE investigations

Singer explained a GRACE investigation typically begins with an identified individual being accused of doing something to a specific person. Sometimes a church leader may be arrested for something like possession of child pornography and GRACE is asked to do an investigation despite not having an accusation of abuse or inappropriate behavior towards children or other church members.

In both cases, GRACE will send out a survey to the church congregation, at times sending it out to past members if necessary and other relevant individuals as well. It will identify the accused and ask people about their interactions with that person, along with questions about the overall culture of the church.

Singer explained there are a few reasons they name the perpetrator.

“There may be some people, if you don’t say the name, who think that they’re alone, that there’s no way that that person might be abusing others and so they wouldn’t step forward.”

The other reason is that people taking the survey may fill in the name themselves, assuming someone who has not been accused of anything.

GRACE will ask the church for documents and evidence that could confirm or refute accounts. It will ask the church to waive any nondisclosure agreements it may have made so GRACE can talk to people. They will interview certain members of the church leadership, alleged victims, alleged perpetrators, and any other people who are identified through the survey or interview process and believed to have important information related to the matter. Then, they follow where the investigation leads. Sometimes, they find more victims and GRACE continues digging into those accusations and accounts.

Sometimes they find that there are more perpetrators, which causes a different response.

“Then we have to talk to the church and they get to decide whether to expand the scope of the investigation so that now we’re looking at somebody else, or whether they choose not to expand the scope of the investigation, they are going to remain with their original scope,” Singer explained. “If the church decides to go with their original scope and not expand, then we are typically going to make a recommendation that they conduct a subsequent independent investigation into that new allegation.”

He said they typically will not name the new alleged perpetrator(s) since they would not have done any level of assessment into the credibility of those accusations.

In addition to investigating what facts are available around the alleged abuse, GRACE will ask the church about when, how, and what church leaders knew and how they acted once they knew.

“Some situations we’ve got a church that finds out and immediately acts and responds by providing incredible support to the survivor. In some situations we’ve got a church that finds out, blames the survivor, tells them to repent, and leaves the alleged perpetrator in a position where they have access to all the vulnerable people that they want.”

Once the investigation is complete, GRACE creates a report with findings and recommendations. They analyze the credibility, giving a degree of certainty that the alleged action happened based on the evidence.

“We’ve found in our investigations, consistent with research, that most allegations have a significant amount of credibility.”

They also review policies and procedures to focus on protecting the vulnerable ahead of the organization. Throughout the report, they also educate based on the latest trauma and abuse-related research, like that having a false allegation is rare, happening 2-10% of the time.

Singer said seminaries and Bible colleges have not been set up to teach future church leaders how to protect church members against abuse, about power dynamics within the church, or how to support survivors of abuse. In fact, he said they have seen some policies or heard church leaders say that they were taught that they needed to be aware of abuse so they could be prepared to protect the church or themselves against false accusations.

“I can’t tell you the number of people... who have said something to the effect of, ‘the abuse was horrible, but how the church handled it was just as bad or even worse.’”

The report also makes recommendations, citing research combined with scripture, to address what has happened in the past, what is currently happening, and how they can make the future safer. That includes six trauma-informed practices that guide GRACE:

  • Psychological, physical, and theological safety - Is it safe to question God and the Bible or will people be condemned if they do so?
  • Trustworthiness - Is church leadership acting in a manner that is trustworthy?
  • Transparency - When, what, where, and how is information shared?
  • Peer support - Is the church setting up mechanisms to allow survivors to support each other?
  • Collaboration and mutuality - Are church leaders collaborating with survivors? With each other? Are decisions made by one person or collaboratively? Are church leaders collaborating with people with expertise outside of their group, like pastors seeking out someone who has trauma-informed training to help fully support survivors?
  • Empowerment, voice, and choice - Abuse often removes those elements; how is the church helping the survivors take some of that back?

Church leaders receive a copy of the report and known survivors also receive a copy. Each recipient can decide to do what they want with the report, but GRACE makes some recommendations. In cases that involve child survivors, GRACE will work with appropriate agencies like child protective services if necessary.

For cases with adult survivors, GRACE strongly encourages the church to consult with those adult survivors to help determine how to handle how publicly to disclose the report. If the alleged perpetrator is no longer with the church, depending on the circumstances, GRACE may recommend making contact with any organization where the person may have access to vulnerable people.

GRACE assessments

Like in an investigation, GRACE will look into a church’s culture to see how abuse can occur or inhibit a survivor’s ability to heal in an assessment. However, the culture is the focus of a GRACE assessment, rather than an accusation.

Often, Singer stated, churches look to have an assessment done after abuse occurs but the church is confident that the abuse happened and does not need an investigation. Instead, those churches typically tell GRACE that they believe something in their culture caused or contributed to the abuse.

“We do the assessment and what we find out is 60-70 years ago there was abuse and it was never dealt with. And the historical impact of that has just seeped into every aspect of the church.”

He explained historical factors such as the mistreatment or marginalization of particular groups of people, cultural differences, and social and gender factors, also play into the overall culture that can foster an abusive environment. He said GRACE seeks out cultural consultants, for example, from the beginning as they design their survey, form interview questions, and write the final report so as to not neglect those factors.

Some of the things GRACE will ask in the assessment is how is power viewed and used? How are women viewed and treated? How are children viewed and treated? What are the church’s theological beliefs?

Singer stated all theological beliefs carry risks, including a core belief of Christianity -- that not only Jesus is God, but Jesus is the only way to God and Heaven.

“Now you just opened up a lot of risk right there,” Singer, an evangelical Christian himself explained. “Right, because then you’re (those who do not believe that) just going to hell. Well, since you’re going to hell anyway, why do I need to really worry about how I treat you now? Since you’re going to hell, obviously God didn’t choose you because you’re not as good as I am.”

He continued to list possible views someone could have if they hold that belief and they believe it in an extreme way. He said, of course, some beliefs carry more risks than others, particularly beliefs that reduce power for another person or encourage silence.

“We agree with a lot of theological beliefs that we encounter, but we disagree with a lot of theological beliefs that we encounter. GRACE’s role Is not to tell a church, ‘change your theology.’ However, theology does become a very important piece many times in the culture that develops in that organization, specific to abuse prevention and response.”

Like in his previous example where his elementary school church held the belief that the wife needs to submit, which had deadly consequences. He gave another example of beliefs where women are not allowed to preach or speak in church, “you’ve just taken away a person’s voice. You run the risk of having that person be seen as less than, be seen as not being able to be trusted.” Or if the belief is that homosexuality is wrong, a sin, that can reduce power and promote silence among people who identify as such and cause people to question their worth if they have been sexually abused by someone of the same sex.

With any chosen belief, he said it is that person’s and church’s responsibility to understand there is a risk with that belief and to proactively address the risk.

“So that means if I’m going to from the pulpit, preach that sex before marriage is wrong, then I’m going to specifically say, ‘And if you were abused, this is not what I’m talking about because you were abused. You were not having sex outside of marriage, you were being abused; that’s something being done to you.”

He continued, “if I’m going to have a theological belief that forgiveness is a good thing, then I’m going to make sure that at the same time that I talk about forgiveness being a good thing, I’m going to talk about what forgiveness is not. That means that if I have a belief that God can redeem even the lowest, most despised person and that I believe that repentance carries incredible power, I’m going to talk about what repentance actually is and what it’s not. Repentance isn’t, ‘I’m sorry, cry, cry, now can I please get out of any consequences?”

He notes GRACE runs into that last example frequently as churches determine whether to keep an alleged abuser in the church or involved in any leadership role. He said perpetrators are often really friendly and likable people as they work to groom not only their victim but the community surrounding them. He cited Anna Salter’s book Predators: Pedophiles, Rapists, And Other Sex Offenders stating that she found after interviewing convicted offenders that they targeted faith communities.

“They described, ‘you know, it’s just easy because Christians, church people, they just, they want to believe you. They want to believe this redemptive narrative, and so all you have to do is cry a few tears and they’ll forgive you, and they’ll put you right back into whatever position you were in before that gave you access to the kids that you were abusing.’ So we need to recognize this dynamic that if we create such a vulnerability, offenders will exploit it; perpetrators will exploit it.”

GRACE safeguarding

Noting these risks and how they can contribute to a culture of abuse is one piece of GRACE’s proactive safeguarding services, in addition to providing training about abuse and trauma, as well as diving into Bible interpretations.

Singer gave the example of the story of King David and Bathsheba, which is often referred to in sermons as an “affair.” He said given the context of the story and the power dynamics between a king and his subject, that was actually the story of a sexual assault. He points out that God blames David for his actions, not Bathsheba.

He added that the Bible speaks more about other topics like protecting the vulnerable, feeding the hungry, etc. than it does about sexual immorality for example, so GRACE asks preachers to analyze why they focus on particular subjects over others.

He also charges church leaders to confront scriptures that they may not have a good explanation for, like when rape is justified in certain stories like the story of the Israelites conquering the land of the Moabites.

“How do you get past the fact that it flat out says the women were responsible for the men having sex with them? I don’t have an answer for these things. We can’t just shove them under a rug and pretend they don’t exist because a survivor is going to read that. Because the victim is going to read that, and if the victim doesn’t read it, then the perpetrator is going to make sure that he reads it to her and says ‘you see right here, even God says it’s your fault that I abused you.’”

He urged church leaders to acknowledge these difficulties or unknowns with their congregations and to safeguard against abuse by assuring that “if you were abused, you are not to blame. What I can guarantee you is if you were abused, God does not hate you.”

He said the training, safeguarding, and the creation of protocols and procedures cannot be check box items, they must be genuine to protect vulnerable people as best they can and provide as supportive an environment as they can for survivors when abuse does happen.

Singer ended by saying, “even in the midst of all of this darkness, there is some hope and there’s some light. I think churches are beginning to recognize that it is not about a checklist. I think churches are beginning to realize this is about our very identity in Christ. I think that this change is happening in very large part because survivors are raising a voice.”

While GRACE focuses on Christian-based organizations, Singer acknowledges these practices can be applied to any faith. A resource he recommends to learn more about how to do that is the Keeping the Faith course by the Zero Abuse Project.