Walking beside sexually abused speeds healing

By Noah Jaeger, Photos by Noah Jaeger and Lainee Pegelow | Feb 13, 2023

Lauren Belcher discusses the requirements for mandatory reporting.

When a person has experienced sexual abuse, what they need most is light to see past the darkness. That begins with a caring person who will listen.

Lauren Belcher was a member of the Sexual Abuse Response Team that recommended practices to help Arizona churches prevent, report and respond to reports of sexual abuse. She is also co-statewide director of Arms of Love Foster Care, a ministry of Arizona Baptist Children’s Services & Family Ministries.

“It is important for us to listen, support and hear what [those who report sexual abuse] have to say without assumptions or judgments,” Belcher said. “We must allow them to share the information and details they feel comfortable sharing, but not to press them for more details.

“If the person is a child, then the abuse needs to be reported to the Child Abuse Hotline and/or local law enforcement. If the person is an adult, then it is important to ask them if they would like to report anything and how you can help make them feel safe,” Belcher said.

When such incidents occur, staff must be transparent about their internal investigative processes. A victim of sexual abuse should not be involved in the way a church handles such issues without the person’s consent.

Anyone within the church working with children, including volunteers, has an obligation to report.

“Anyone who has a role caring for children has a duty to report child sexual abuse to the Arizona Child Abuse Hotline and/or local law enforcement,” Belcher said.

Once the initial steps of reporting and care happen, the church must be ready to take on the lifelong journey of healing the victim must endure.

Helping someone walk through sexual abuse can be an overwhelming venture, and many may not feel equipped to walk alongside victims. Scott Valentine, counselor for New Life Counseling, a ministry of Arizona Baptist Children’s Services & Family Ministries, has helped countless individuals and churches walk through this healing process.

Many church members have experienced sexual abuse, and the church can be part of the healing process, Scott Valentine says.

“There’s an attitude many people have, that even though they know sexual abuse happens, they don’t think it happens within the church,” Valentine said. “We need to work past that mindset.

“There are many church members who have experienced sexual abuse,” he continued. “The person sitting next to you in church could be a current victim or have had sexual abuse in their past. Instead of the church being afraid or concerned to touch this situation, the church could say, ‘We can be a part of the healing process.’”

Though intimidating, courageous church members can walk alongside those suffering from sexual abuse. Valentine recommends a few ways to best demonstrate love to victims.
“Part of the healing process is to not be afraid to listen to them and repeat some of the things they’re saying,” he said. “There’s a lot of power in listening, validating and sitting in their presence. Because victims have usually suffered in silence for a long time, you can never underestimate the power of just being present and listening.”

Belcher has also worked with churches in creating preventive measures against sexual abuse.

“It is so important for churches to have standards for their staff that include background checks, reference checks and mandatory training to prevent abuse happening within the church,” she said. “If abuse is disclosed, then the use of an outside agency to complete the investigation is also important to ensure information gathered is unbiased.”

People within the church who are experiencing or have been affected by sexual abuse can find healing in a variety of ways. The Arizona Mission Network of Southern Baptists takes this issue seriously and wants to help.

Next Steps

  • If you know of someone in your church who is suffering or has suffered from sexual abuse, reach out to your pastor for help on next steps.
    For more information on how your church can better handle reports of sexual abuse, contact Lauren Belcher at lbelcher@abcs.org.
  • If you are, or have been, a victim of sexual abuse or suspect sexual abuse by a pastor, staff member or member of a Southern Baptist church or entity, call the SBC hotline at 202-864-5578 to report the abuse. Survivors will be notified of the available options for care and will be put in touch with an advocate. All calls are confidential.
  • If you are trying to heal from sexual trauma, call 800-678-0648 for an appointment with a counselor at New Life Counseling.
  • If you know about sexual abuse of a minor, report it using the information under “Reporting Abuse” at azsbc.org/caring-well.

Noah Jaeger, a freelance writer and photographer, is a member of North Phoenix Baptist Church and is the launch catalyst with Christian Challenge AZ.

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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