Hope Anne Dueck is the co-founder of the organization, A Better Way. A Better Way equips trusted adults in children’s lives with the tools to recognize and respond to potential and actual child sexual abuse. Hope has also worked with and stood with victims in advocacy.
Recently, Hope was interviewed by That Jesus Podcast. Special thanks to Laura Sporre and Darren Miller for transcribing the interview! May you be challenged and equipped to take a stand and make a difference.
Trigger Warning: This article discusses child sex abuse.
How long have you been in this work? And how long have you formally been with the organization?
I started working in the field of child sexual abuse in 1999, before it was on a lot of people’s radars. My work then was a little different than what I do today, but it helped prepare me for this work. I helped start and run a small non-profit that worked with female survivors. We had a newsletter and a lending library. We did mentoring and allowed victims to have a safe place and a voice. I helped with that for about 10 years.
Eventually, my life took a little different path, and I wasn’t as actively involved for a number of years. My life was busy with raising our young children. In 2017, my children were getting older, and it was obvious that child sexual abuse had not gotten really any better. There were still victims left and right. My thoughts turned more to the need for the fence at the top of the mountain, rather than the ambulance down in the valley. That was how A Better Way came to be. We felt the need for better teaching, more information, and more focus on prevention.
Is it fair to say that A Better Way tends to focus your energies among Plain communities and Anabaptist-background communities?
We will educate anyone who is willing to be educated. However, we do tend to find that a lot of people who have Anabaptist background, do get in touch with us. And I think they feel comfortable with us because we have experience working in Plain communities. My co-founder and myself both have Anabaptist background. When we do seminars, we have a mix. We’ve had everyone from Amish attendees to people who had zero Plain background or connection. It takes all good caring people from every stripe of life to address this problem.
Let’s start with the basics. What is sexual abuse and specifically, sexual abuse of children?
Child sexual abuse is anything that’s done to a child or with a child for the perpetrator’s sexual gratification. It can mean looking at a child for sexual gratification. It can mean touching a child for sexual gratification. It can mean having the child view or touch the offender for the offender’s sexual gratification. It can include showing pornography to a child. It’s an extremely broad range of behaviors that are extremely damaging and harmful to a child.
Why is sexual abuse bad? As Christians, why is sexual abuse a concern and why should we stand against it?
It’s very clear in Scripture that God values sexual purity and holiness and that sexual activity is to be reserved for marriage. If you are trying to seek sexual gratification from a child, you are in violation of God’s laws and standards. Jesus made it very clear that children were precious, they were to be protected and cared for, and that offenders who caused harm to children should have a millstone tied around their neck and be flung into the deepest depths of the sea (Mark 9:42).
If you know anything about the deepest depths of the ocean and study what happens to the human body when you’re down there, it’s pretty clear that Jesus had no use for people harming children. Your body is basically going to implode on itself due to the pressure. That’s a horrific way to die, but Jesus said it would actually be better to have that happen to you than that you caused harm to one of his little ones. So if somebody is even tempted to think about causing harm to a child, Jesus had some pretty strong words to say. He doesn’t take this stuff lightly. And if He doesn’t, why are we trying to sweep sexual abuse of children under a carpet and pretend that it’s not that big of a deal? It is a big deal.
Aside from the direct spiritual connotation, studies have shown that children who are abused—whether sexually, emotionally, physically, or spiritually—have a negative long-term impact that is harmful in a variety of ways. While survivors can overcome that to a long extent, it still may not ever be completely overcome; especially the long-term health effects of abuse on the human body. If we want to teach people that our body is the temple of God, and we need to respect it and treat it well, why are we turning a blind eye to the damage that child abuse does long-term to human bodies? Ironically, a lot of the communities who choose not to have health insurance (whether for religious or other reasons) are not considering the fact that abuse causes long-term health impacts. So even if you don’t really care that much about children, maybe you should be concerned about your pocketbook, and stopping the abuse so that your community doesn’t need to spend so much on healthcare costs.
What is the ripple effect that sexual abuse (and the brokenness it causes) has on marriages, families, and communities?
In advocacy work there are those whom we refer to as secondary victims. The damage is real, and the harm that it can cause to others around the victim is real. Think of a husband who marries a woman who was a victim who has not been able to get good counseling and find healing. She’s probably going to struggle tremendously with trust in marriage, especially at first. For some survivors— but not all—there can be problems with intimacy. There can also be other relationship problems beyond even just with her husband.
Often in religious communities—because of the shame and secrecy—we see that sometimes when the primary victim grows up, gets married, and has children of her own, the offender continues to have access to his original victim. Maybe he’s no longer molesting her because she’s now an adult, but then he’s molesting her children.
Why do we have so much sexual abuse in communities of faith and Christian circles, when it is so contrary to a Jesus ethic?
That’s a really good question. I have a return question. How many sermons against child sexual abuse have you ever heard in your life? Yet in every other area of life, what do we typically tend to say? We must teach; we must preach; we must warn. “Precept upon precept, line upon line, here a little, there a little.” (Isa. 28:10) But when it comes to child sexual abuse? There’s crickets. Many churches do not even have members or adults only meetings about it. It’s time that child sexual abuse gets addressed across the pulpit in the same manner that other sins are addressed. Do we have to be graphic and scare all the children? No! But I’m sure that there are good, healthy ways to start teaching against abuse of the vulnerable.
The issue of abuse goes beyond just children and teenagers into young adults who are barely legal. Those of us in advocacy work have seen this over and over: a perpetrator will “groom” a teenager, wait until they hit whatever the legal age is, and then make their move and involve them in sexual contact. They do that full well knowing what they’re doing. So it’s not just that we need to take a stand against minors being molested. We need to take a stand for the vulnerable, and a child or young person who has been groomed by someone who is predatory is still vulnerable even if they’ve turned 18 (or whatever the statute is in that particular state).
Have we developed ideas about authority that lend itself to a “safe” place for perpetrators?
Yes, I think so. One problem is the lack of accurate, helpful education. Most children are not educated about it unless their parents were wise enough to teach them adequately. And just teaching your child, “Keep your dress over your knees,” is not adequate teaching. That does not even begin to comprehend the fact that many perpetrators can and do molest kids even if they’re fully dressed; even if their dress is over their knees. That’s not enough education. Neither is some of the other education I’ve seen, which is equally harmful, where parents are being told, “Tell your daughter that if anybody ever tries to pull up her dress or pull her underwear down, she should scream and run away.” That is giving such specific training that your daughter has no idea what to do if the perpetrator doesn’t do that.
Many communities emphasize that men are the leaders. Along with that, there starts to sometimes develop some male superiority and male privilege, and disrespectful attitudes where women and children are thought of as just a little bit “lesser” than men. In those communities, women do not really have a voice. So if you’ve got a powerful, well-liked male perpetrator, and a child comes forward and says, “He did this to me,” who do people typically rally around and support? Another thing that makes it extremely difficult is who is going to seem the most credible? The child or the teenager who’s been traumatized, is terrified, and who—even if only subconsciously— realizes they’re risking everything to try to come forward and speak? Or the adult who is used to speaking and used to having influence and power? Who is going to seem more smooth, relatable, and believable?
That brings up another question. As churches, are we in the place to decide whether an allegation is credible or not when it comes to sexual abuse?
Consider this scenario. A pastor is in his study talking to a parishioner who suddenly starts breaking out in a sweat, clutching his chest, shaking his arm in pain, and complaining that it feels like an elephant is sitting on his chest. The pastor decides, with all of his pastoral wisdom, that it looks like the parishioner is having a heart attack. He decides to get them up onto the study desk and whip out his scalpels to get to work and try to clear the blockage out of his heart. Is that his job as a pastor? No! The job of the pastor is to pick up the phone and call 911 and let the people who are trained for that problem sort it out. A pastor’s job, in that case, is to pray for the parishioner, and maybe make some phone calls on their behalf. Perhaps he would activate the food committee because his wife and children are going to need a meal. He does his pastoral duties, but he doesn’t get out of his lane.
It’s the same way with child sexual abuse. Pastors are not trained to investigate. They’re not trained to do a forensic interview of the child to accurately obtain information in the least traumatic way possible. A pastor can freely, with a clear conscience, pick up the phone and make the call to Children’s Services and the call to law enforcement. Then he can do his job as a pastor, which is to support the victim, and the victim’s family, through prayers and practical ways.
This is trauma. Imagine being the parents who just found out that their child was harmed. If the offender is within his sphere of pastoral responsibility, then (once law enforcement has had a chance to interview them) a pastor can talk to law enforcement and work with them to know the correct ways to offer pastoral support to the offender, without harming the investigation or causing additional harm to the victim and their family. A pastor’s job is to be the pastor, not to try to be law enforcement or children’s services.
The prevalence of sexual abuse in Christian communities could also be caused by a tendency to spiritualize things and look at it as moral failure instead of a crime. When the laws of the land are violated and there are so many vulnerable victims, do we err in treating it just as a spiritual issue?
Jesus said that we’re to mark the wolves.We can’t ignore the fact that someone who is willing to scheme, plan, plot, and manipulate to harm children is a wolf. Jesus had very clear specific directives for wolves. He didn’t say, “Oh, cry with them, coddle them, and give them more grace and mercy, because I’m sure if you just let them have access to more little lambs, they’ll get tired of chewing on lambs and having fluff in their mouth, and they’ll go away.” Jesus didn’t say that.
Obviously, if you have a child abuse offender—especially one who has offended for years— most of the time you don’t know about their offense because they’ve come and confessed it out of a desire to repent and serve God. The odds are good that if they have confessed, they’re doing it because they either got caught or they’re scared they’re about to get caught, so they’re continuing to try to manipulate. A lot of people assume that they would feel so terrible if they’d been doing something like that. You don’t realize that if you had let yourself go down that path for so many years, your conscience would be hardened and you would not be “you” as you are today.
That doesn’t change the fact that a sexual abuser does need pastoral care and does have an opportunity for grace. You’re not saying that a sexual abuser can’t actually show remorse, but you’re saying that in itself is not enough, and that should not be our standard?
Right. And I’m also going to say that many sexual abusers can make a good show of showing remorse because it serves their purposes. It’s another form of manipulation. Is it always? No, but it may be that and often is.
In a real case that I know about, the offender had offended repeatedly for many years, even getting caught sometimes, and he would repent. But he would soon go back to his old ways as soon as everybody relaxed, and their backs were turned.
When he was finally exposed so thoroughly that he could no longer dodge law enforcement, he said during his interview with them, “But this time I’m sorry!” His reason was because if he’s sorry this time, he didn’t think he should have any legal consequences. The law enforcement said to him, “That’s great if you’re repentant, but don’t you think your victims deserve some sort of justice?” He didn’t seem to think they did. In fact, we know how thorough his “repentance” was, because not long after he was out on bail, he was caught violating the terms of his bail and was in a home with a minor in his preferred age range, which he had been strictly forbidden to do.
Too often, church leaders and community members do not realize that just because an offender cries and says he (or she, if it is a female) feels so terrible and is so sorry, that doesn’t really mean anything. It doesn’t mean that we can then bless him for repenting and put him back in charge of the children’s programs, because we’re sure he will never do that again.
How should we respond to cases of predatory behavior and grooming even if it’s not technically illegal, as in the case of people who are vulnerable even though they may legally be adults?
That’s an important question. One of the things that I usually ask people is, who had the power? Who had authority? In many churches, whether Anabaptist, Independent Fundamental Baptists, the Catholic Church, or others, the male church leadership almost always has the authority.
A young vulnerable female may not have ever been taught that she has a voice or that she’s allowed to use it. In many circles, the women are taught from very little on, “You must submit to the men. You must obey the men.” But suddenly, somehow they’re magically supposed to know that they have a voice and that they can say “no” to unwanted sexual advances from a man who is in authority over them? Those two things do not even match up. We’re failing to see how that sets the stage for abuse, how it’s weighing everything towards the predator, and how it does not empower potential victims to stay safe.
Some churches or leaders may say that these cases are not sexual abuse, but adultery or fornication. What would you say in response?
That is a pattern I’ve seen over and over again. I would say: how well is it working out for you? How does that work out for churches as a whole? Why are you expecting young teens to know what they’ve never been taught?
As an advocate, I’ve been consulted on a situation that was almost textbook for that. It was heartbreaking to know how to try to support the person in that congregation who saw that this was a case of a predatory pastor who was not taking responsibility. Part of the clue of who was the victim in this scenario was that it was the young woman who finally came forward and tried to get help. It wasn’t the pastor. You often see that in a case where it was actually more predatory and it’s a person in a position of power and control. Even if it was not illegal, the victim will be the one who is struggling, who is looking for help, who feels horrible and wants to get this out in the open. And you will see the predatory person— in this case, a predatory pastor— completely content to continue living his life as the sham and the farce it was. It wasn’t bothering him, but it sure was bothering her.
Often we see an emphasis that women are responsible for men’s purity and at fault if men stumble. Are there tendencies in conservative Christian theology that are blind spots that need to be addressed so we can deal with sexual abuse and predatory behavior?
We do men a grave disservice by letting them think that they are not able to control themselves through the grace and power of Jesus Christ. I have had many men tell me that they feel awful when they’re exposed to teaching (often aimed at women) blaming women if a man has any struggle with lust. This is often taken to horrendous extremes on victims who are in very plain communities and homes, because of the idea that the man wouldn’t have done it unless the woman or the child was somehow at fault. I have even heard of fathers being given a pass for having molested their own daughters because they must not have been wearing a housecoat. I don’t care! He is the Dad. It doesn’t matter what his daughter is wearing or not wearing. He is her father and it’s his job to protect her and treat her with respect.
I know of another case where the father horrifically molested his own daughter over a period of years. One person had the gall to ask her, “Were you wearing a head covering?”
She said, “Well, one time, no, I wasn’t, but I was in the bathroom showering.”
The reply was, “Oh, well if you would have had a covering on then he wouldn’t have done that to you.”
Excuse me? Why are we not addressing the fact that this father—or perhaps it would be more accurate to refer to him as a DNA donor— violated her privacy by opening the bathroom door, coming in and assaulting her when she was in the shower, which should have been a safe space for her?
Along with all of those issues, there’s too often the idea of cheap grace and sin leveling—the idea that we’re all just a step away from behaving like him except for the grace of God, so we shouldn’t throw stones or judge him. If you’re just barely a step away from molesting children, I don’t wish to sit in the same church pew as you because something is very fundamentally wrong in your heart.
It’s like this: if you’re standing right up on the lip of the Grand Canyon, and you get a little bit dizzy or a rock cracks off the edge, you may fall right into the Grand Canyon. But if you’re standing back, several yards away from the edge of the Grand Canyon, are you going to fall into the Grand Canyon if you get dizzy or pass out? No! We actually fall very close to where we stand. So if you’re standing well back from attitudes, mindsets, and thoughts that would cause you to molest a child, you are not just going to wake up one morning and “stumble” into molesting your child. It’s just not going to happen because it’s not where you’re standing.
It may be a form of trying to sound humble. We don’t want to be puffed up and judgmental, so we feel the need to say, “But for the grace of God, we’re all just one step away from doing this.” But I’m not one step away from murdering you. I’m not going to suddenly wake up one morning and murder you, because I’ve got no interest in murdering anyone. It’s never crossed my mind.
It’s likely that somebody reading this has sexually abused children or is tempted to. How can they get help, confess, or move forward?
First of all, if it’s something you’re struggling with but you have not yet offended, thank God and go and get help immediately. Do it today, because that’s a terrible burden and fear, and you don’t need to keep living with that. You can find good qualified help that can help you start to evaluate your life.
Sometimes, former victims who become parents have scary thoughts zip through their head when they are caring for their children. That does not necessarily mean that they are actually about to become offenders. That’s just how that history of abuse can work. It’s critically important that we let former victims know that you could have this thought, but it doesn’t mean you’re about to molest a child. Many victims have that thought go through their mind and feel such a sense of shock, horror, and revulsion that if somebody qualified helps them look at that, they can see that they really don’t want to harm a child, it’s just because they were exposed to that.
If you actually are truly feeling attracted or drawn towards molesting a child, you need to be in intensive counseling that can help you look at what your risk factors are and what your motivations are. Obviously, if you’re a believer, you need to have a pastor with whom you can be honest, who will pray for you and pray for victory with you.
If you have already offended, it becomes a whole lot more serious. In every state in the USA, as far as I know, and in most countries, child sexual abuse is a crime. Work with someone who is able to advocate for you, help you understand the steps you need to take to turn yourself into law enforcement, and help you do so in a wise manner. Most law enforcement will appreciate and respect an offender coming in and honestly turning themselves in, even if that’s not what they typically deal with. If there is a church involved that is willing to work with the offender wisely and within the law, they typically respect that and want to do that.
There’s a lot of different components and I don’t think there’s any exact formula. But it’s definitely important—whether it’s somebody who has been tempted to offend, or someone who has offended—that they get help and don’t continue to live with that burden on their shoulders by themselves. I always recommend a good professional counselor, because these are complex problems. No pastor is even going to have the time or emotional and spiritual energy that an offender or a potential offender actually needs devoted to helping them.
Again—pastors, do your pastoral duty. Connect them to professionals, pray for them, and support them in practical ways, but don’t feel like you can or should be the sole person in their life, because you can’t. It is more likely that you’ll cause harm to them and to more children—and probably to yourself, your marriage, and your family—if you try to be that sole person for them.
If someone suspects a minor is being abused, what steps should a pastor or someone in the church take?
Although the laws vary almost every US state has laws that indicate that if someone has good cause to suspect that a minor is being abused, the person who reports it is protected. A lot of people are scared to report because if it’s not found to be abuse, they’re afraid they’ll be in trouble for making a false report. No. It’s not your job to investigate or make a determination about it. The state recognizes that a report made in good faith is not the same as deliberate false allegations. If you suspect something, just be honest with the Division of Child Services or law enforcement.
You don’t need to call and say, “I know Johnny’s being sexually molested by his father.” But you can call and say, “I have reason to suspect that Johnny is being sexually molested by his father.” They’ll probably ask you what reason you have to suspect this, and you can outline your reasons.
Maybe Johnny is exhibiting symptoms of having been sexually abused, but you don’t know who the perpetrator is. Johnny is coming to school and he’s crying; maybe he’s maybe clutching at his crotch and scratching a lot, and when you try to talk to him, he won’t give you any good answers. You just know something is wrong. You can call and say, “I have reason to suspect that Johnny is being sexually molested, but I have no idea who is molesting him.” That’s okay— it’s their job. As professionals, they are trained to investigate, and ideally, they should be taking Johnny for a child forensic interview at a Child Advocacy Center. Sometimes cases are found to be credible, and other times they’re unfounded and they’re closed. It’s not your job to figure out all the details. It is only your job to report.
A lot of people might say, “Well, I’m not a mandatory reporter in my state.” It doesn’t matter. All of us can and should be moral reporters. All of us can and should care about the protection of children.
What are some things we can do to care for survivors in our churches?
The most important thing is to start by believing them. Don’t try to challenge them and ferret out any discrepancies in their story. That’s not your place; it’s not your job. People who do that do not understand how trauma impacts the human brain and the fact that it can make survivors’ stories seem sketchy. A survivor may not seem believable because she tells a detail one time when she talks, and the next time she tells a completely different detail. But that’s how the traumatized human brain works. At times trauma literally makes physical, documentable changes in the human brain and it certainly impacts memory recall and all kinds of things.
Start by believing, and start by expressing support. It can be literally as simple as saying, “I am so sorry.” Those are very powerful words for most survivors to hear, no matter how many years it’s been since they first disclosed. It’s always safe to say, “I’m so sorry that happened to you. I wish it hadn’t happened to you.” If you’re in a position to do more, that can be good, but make sure you’re not being nosey. It’s not your job to be their counselor, but there are so many ways you can support them. If they are struggling, you can do research and help them connect with a couple of options for a good counselor. Find out if they need a ride to the counselor on a regular basis. Do they need a gas card? Do they need help with counseling funds? Good quality counseling is not cheap. Many survivors do not get the help that they need simply because of the cost factor.
Advocates often end up contributing money out of their own personal pocket or working hard to raise funds for survivors to get counseling. It would be really helpful for us as advocates if we didn’t have to take that additional responsibility on. It would be wonderful if churches would start stepping up and saying, “Here, let us help fund this because we know it’s an additional stress on your life.”
Think of it as grief. Our churches are often really good at knowing what to do when there’s been a death. We mobilize the meals, we take in flowers, and we send gift baskets. With sexual abuse there’s so much grief. There’s so much trauma. We can come alongside in helpful, practical, supportive ways where we’re staying in our own lane—not trying to play the role of a cop, of CPS, or of a professional counselor. We can be Jesus’ hands and feet. We can be the church to survivors or secondary victims. In the case of a family who recently found out their child was molested, why are we not bringing in meals? Why are we not giving them gas vouchers to take their children to the many appointments? Why are we not doing some of these practical things? And we can, we just need to learn to do it.
How do you cope practically in this work? What are some things that you do to keep yourself healthy emotionally, mentally, or spiritually?
For one thing, I’ve learned to be really honest with God, because it is very draining and sometimes it is absolutely overwhelming. I have never forgotten one time when I was driving to town. I was praying and crying and I finally said, “God, it hurts so much.” And he told me something I have never forgotten. He said, “But I promise you, if you let your heart be broken for what breaks mine, you can know that I will comfort you.” And I have never ever forgotten that. Because it is true, and the only way I can do this work is because of the comfort God gives me.
I have a counselor myself that I can touch base with when I need to, and that’s very important for me. As you can imagine, doing this kind of work takes a huge toll on me personally and emotionally, so it’s very helpful to have a counselor that I can process things with. I am very blessed to have some wonderful advocate friends with whom I can process things. They pray with me and for me, and we pray for each other. That’s a huge key. This kind of work is not anything that somebody should try to do in a Lone Ranger sense. We absolutely cannot do well if we’re trying to do it all by ourselves.
I am very intentional about self-care, especially since our daughter died a little over a year ago. Basically, I try to make sure every single day that I do something that is specifically for self-care. And some days all it looks like is saying, “Hey, today I managed to get a shower and I’m going to bed.” But I generally try to do better than that. It might mean 10 minutes with a fluffy book that has nothing to do with my work. It might mean buying a cup of tea, sitting in the sunshine, and drinking it. It might mean going for a walk in a flower garden. That’s one of my favorites. I find that very helpful and I try to do it at least once a week.
I also have a wonderful supportive husband, and although he is kind of quiet and doesn’t really like the limelight, I honestly could not do what I’m doing without the support of him and my family. They pitch in and often carry a huge share of what would normally be thought of as Mom’s work in order to allow me to continue doing what I’m doing. I guess I would say that where God leads and calls, He provides. We really appreciate the people who let us know they’re praying for us, because honestly it’s too big, and heavy to do without so much prayer support.