Theologians Address Sex Abuse
Victims Can Be Found in Most Congregations, Therapist Tells Gathering

By Al Winn
Patriot-News [Pennsylvania]
September 24, 2003

MYERSTOWN - Mark Serrano doesn't like the term "fondling" to appear in stories about sexual abuse.

"It anesthetizes us. It's not fondling to strip a child naked, after manipulating him emotionally and mentally, and then perform sexual acts on the child," he said.

Serrano, who said he was sexually abused by a Catholic priest for seven years, was one of six speakers pulling what he called "the cloak of secrecy" from child sexual abuse yesterday at a seminar sponsored by the Evangelical School of Theology.

Other speakers included therapists who treat both victims and offenders, a judge, an offender and a theologian.

The audience contained about 100 people, most of whom are engaged in some kind of ministry.

Sexual abuse rears its head in most congregations, said Carmen Morrison, who treats sex abuse victims with Psychological Affiliates of Lancaster. "From 40 to 70 people out of a church of 200 experienced some form of sex abuse," she said.

Since most perpetrators are known to the victim, there "probably are a significant number of perpetrators in the congregation, too," Morrison said.

Morrison pleaded for patience with victims of child abuse. The emotional effects of "violent betrayal by someone you thought you could trust," can be devastating, and treatment can be long and messy.

"It's not something you can do in a day," she said.

Churches get tired of the process sometimes, she said. After six months or a year, some ask, "Is that person ever going to get out of therapy?" Morrison said.

While there is no one way to treat victims, one way not to treat them is the way Serrano said he was treated when he came forward, at age 20, with allegations of abuse. As bad as the abuse had been, being "rebuked by my bishop increased my suffering," he said.

Serrano said the church should provide a safe environment for victims, but shouldn't try to handle sexual abuse by itself and take the attitude that "all the answers come from the church."

"It's not the job of church leaders to say all is forgiven," Serrano said. "Forgiveness is for victims to offer and God to give," he said.

Law enforcement has to be involved, he said.

"Even if it's years later, the police should know about it. The perpetrator may still be out there committing crimes," Serrano said.

Church leaders should not try to decide whether an allegation of sexual abuse is true, said Lebanon County Court Judge Bradford Charles.

"You're not trained to decide," he said.

Detectives, including some who worked for Charles when he was Lebanon County district attorney, are trained to make that determination, he said.

One thing many abusers have in common is that they were abused themselves, several speakers said. Of 18 people in Lebanon County in court-ordered treatment as sexual offenders, 15 of them had been abused, Charles said.

About 70 percent of the sexual offenders Bob Gingrich treats at Pennsylvania Counseling Services in Lancaster have been abused, Gingrich said.

Robert van Domelen, director of Broken Yoke Ministries in Wisconsin, said he was molested as a boy. Later, as a high school teacher, he became a molester himself.

"In 16 years I molested at least one boy a year," he said.

Finally, one of his victims confronted him and he spent three years in the Wisconsin prison system.

While he said he is no longer an abuser, it has not been clear sailing for van Domelen. "Yes, I have fantasies," he said.

At one time he would seek to make the fantasy reality.

"Now," he said, "I can look at it and ask what's really going on."

Gingrich said people often ask him how he can work with abusers.

He said abusers are often very charming.

"They're incredible; I like working with them," he said.

He may like them, but Gingrich is not going to cut them much slack, he said.

"The pedophile needs to be properly diagnosed and get on lifetime supervision," he said.

Three strikes and you're out is too lenient, he said.

"I'd like to see two strikes and you're out," Gingrich said.

While the church shouldn't expect to handle sexual abuse by itself, Kenneth Miller, theologian and academic dean at the Evangelical School of Theology, said it can't ignore the problem, either.

"If there is just one evil outside the gospel, we have nothing to offer," Miller said.

Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.