The church cannot speak against sex trafficking until it admits its own abuse problems, author says

Baptist News Global [Jacksonville FL]

November 15, 2021

By Jeff Brumley

The church can play a major role in eliminating sex trafficking worldwide, but only after it confronts and heals the scourge of sexual sin consuming it from within, said Elizabeth Melendez Fisher Good, an educator, author and advocate on issues of sexual abuse and trafficking.

If that transparency and accountability can be attained, it would transform congregations into sanctuaries for children and adults suffering from the effects of abuse and also prevent abuse from occurring in churches, said Fisher Good, founder and CEO of The Foundation United, a collaborative organization that provides educational and training programs for schools, law enforcement, churches and other organizations worldwide and also offers safe havens and rehabilitation for those who have escaped sex trafficking situations.

“If we can awaken the church to speak up about its own secrets, then we can eradicate sex trafficking,” she said. “We have to see the sexual sin in our own pews before we can see that healing and before churches can fire on all cylinders.”

That begins with recognizing how the sexual exploitation of children and human trafficking are connected, she said. “Child sex abuse is the hidden root of sex trafficking.”

In many cases, those children grow into teens with severe low self-esteem and an inability to trust adults, and so they run away from home.

“One out of three are solicited for sex within 48 hours after running away,” Fisher Good explained. “The traffickers will say things like, ‘I bet you’re hungry’ or ‘Your parents don’t know how to love you.’ They will make them feel loved and buy them things, and then they will be sold 15 to 40 times a day for sex over a 10- or 15-year period.”

Even those who do not run away often fall into sexual promiscuity that leads them into abusive relationships with adults “who can spot a vulnerable kid,” Fisher Good said.

The problem is massive in the U.S. alone, with 2 million children sold into sex trafficking annually across all 50 states, according to statistics provided by Foundation United.

The organization offers training programs to police departments, first responders, schools and hospital systems to educate professionals who historically dismissed the victims of sex trafficking as prostitutes who chose their way of life.

As a result, foundation trainers have heard from police, ER physicians and firefighters that their perspectives of the victims and the conditions that led them to the streets have been completely transformed, she said.

That transformation has led to healthier interactions with sex trafficking victims who in many cases will uncharacteristically seek help from authorities as a result.

It’s also important to educate children in kindergarten through third grade about how to recognize when they are being engaged by potential predators, how to identify trusted adults and how to report abuse if it occurs, she said. “We must teach children from a young age to speak the unspeakable.”

Fisher Good also speaks from the experience of being molested by a family friend when she was 12. It occurred as they were getting ready for — and then again on the way to — church.

Her years-long journey of recovery inspired not only her work through The Foundation United, but also a personal coaching business and her bookGroomedOvercoming the Messages that Shaped Our Past and Limit Our Future.

“The book presents the personal story, which is part of what we built our Real Talk curriculum for churches on,” she said. “It offers systemic training to find their own healing and how to have these conversations with (kindergartners through second grade) in their churches.”

But churches have been “a little slower” embracing abuse education and training, often from fear of exposing other sexual sins — including pornography, adultery and long-buried histories of abuse — commonly found within congregations.

“But they are starting to turn,” she added. “We tell churches the stakes are too high to ignore these issues.”

Those issues include the high percentage of sex trafficking victims who report their child sexual abuse occurring in churches, Fisher Good said. “Usually, it was a pastor or a youth pastor — and it was a secret.”

Failure to expose those secrets and to openly address issues of sexual abuse and trafficking contributes to the church’s negative image in society, she said.

“People don’t believe churches care about the things that matter because they don’t talk about the things that matter.”

The ongoing sexual abuse crisis within the Southern Baptist Convention, for example, demonstrates how far the damage of abuse and secrecy and spread, she said. The question of how to handle abuse claims has rocked the denomination to the core.

“I think it’s shining a light on the issue,” Fisher Good said of the saga. “The good-old boys club can’t run the church anymore.”

And the scandal is having a positive effect by showcasing the need for openness on matters of sexual abuse and by sparking more conversations about the need for education and training, and about the church’s contributions to the systemic causes of abuse, she added.

“There are a lot of people in the church who have their fingers in their ears and they’re hiding because we have a lot of secrets. But we are called to be fully transparent, and we are called to be the light.”