Abuse is a Challenge for the Adventist Church; New Campaign is Launched to Counter It
by AT News Team
Although the number of cases has not reached the crisis level that it has in some denominations, the Seventh-day Adventist Church does face an incidence of abuse suffered by its children and teens sufficient to result in the launch of a new, world-wide campaign. In a scan of public records over the past 30 days, Adventist Today found at least four serious cases of sexual abuse, physical harm and even murder by ministers, teachers and lay leaders. This is not a scientific sample and it is not intended to imply that this is a typical period, yet it is disturbing.
A 23-year-old Fifth Grade teacher in an Adventist elementary school in St. George’s, Grenada, was arrested during the last week of July and charged with murder. According to the Jamaica Observer, the remains of a 19-year-old young woman were found in a refuse container along with a weapon and personal belongings. An autopsy showed that the woman died from strangulation and bleeding. To date, there is no report of how the young teacher pled in court.
Last week a 46-year-old man in Berrien County, Michigan, was sentenced to 15 years in prison after he pled guilty to sex crimes against a nine-year-old girl which occurred at the Niles Westside Seventh-day Adventist Church. He was also convicted of failing to register for prior convictions of criminal sexual misconduct. The prosecuting attorney was quoted by the South Bend Tribune, “He’s done this before. He said that he couldn’t control himself with children.” There was no comment about why he was allowed to have contact with children at the church.
On July 29 The Times of India reported that a female teacher at the Adventist school in Virudhunagar allegedly hit a seven-year-old girl with a wooden ruler causing injuries that made it difficult for the girl to walk home. “Police sources said they had filed a complaint under section 323” of India’s criminal law and “section 23 of the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act of 2000.” An unnamed police official is quoted as stating that the teacher had “accepted that she caned the girl.”
On August 20 the tabloid London Daily Mail and the South Africa Press Association (SAPA) wire service both reported that Elder Steyn Venter, pastor of the Adventist church in Bloemfontein, South Africa, had been fired for “improper advice” in marriage counseling. The newspapers reported that he had encouraged young couples to engage in public nudity and kept photographs in which at least one couple appeared naked. Elder B. M. P. Ngwenya, president of the KwaZulu-Natal and Free State Conference, told the Die Volksblad newspaper that the pastor had been fired.
Among those who might have access to statistics on cases of this kind, no one was willing to give Adventist Today any hint if this is a typical month or not. What is widely reported is that the Adventist Risk Management (ARM) insurance company owned by the General Conference used the occasion of the recent North American Division Teacher’s Convention in Nashville to launch the Seven Campaign, a “grassroots” effort “stop child abuse.” In February ARM had launched a Child Protection Plan and it has presented recommendations that led to the adoption of strong prevention measures in the NAD Working Policy over the last decade or two.
“We want to not only make it clear that we stand against child abuse, but we want to get our members talking and actually engaged in spotting and preventing misconduct,” an ARM spokesman told the Adventist News Network (ANN), the official news service of the GC. He stressed the involvement of local church members as a major goal of the campaign in his comments to ANN.
Yet, to some observers the initiative stumbled out of the starting blocks when convention planners pulled the plug on an Adventist group that is involved in anti-bullying efforts. Someone to Talk To is an independent organization pulled together by Carol Grady, the wife of an Adventist minister, who has written a book entitled My Son, Beloved Stranger about her gay son and the problems he faced growing up in the Adventist denomination’s schools and youth ministries. Her group had applied to be one of 160 organizations that had exhibits at the convention. Because her web site does not take the official position of the denomination regarding gays and lesbians, she was told she could not participate.
An article about refusing Grady as an exhibitor appeared in The Huffington Post and a response was released by the denomination, stressing that the NAD Office of Education provide eight contact hours of in-service education on bullying during the convention, including a preview of the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program, “a whole-school program that has been proven to prevent or reduce bullying.”
The Church “recognizes that every human being is valuable in the sight of God, and we seek to minister to all men and women in the spirit of Jesus,” the statement quoted from the denomination’s position paper on homosexuality. “We hold that all people, no matter their sexual orientation, are children of God. We do not condone singling out any group for scorn and derision, let alone abuse.”
“Being a gay, lesbian or bisexual teenager in the United States is risky business,” pointed out Elder Ryan Bell, senior pastor of the Hollywood Seventh-day Adventist Church. “According to the 2009 National School Climate Survey nearly 85 percent of LGBT teens report being harassed in school and nearly two-thirds report feeling unsafe in school because of their sexual orientation.” Adventists and other Christians have found it difficult to balance a belief that homosexual behavior is sinful and a belief that all people should be respected and treated without discrimination.
At the same time, it is clear that there are problems of abuse and violence that do not appear to be related to tensions over sexual orientation. “Sexuality and spirituality are both powerful things,” one veteran pastor told Adventist Today. “All human beings are sinners. It is only by God’s grace that things do not go wrong more often than they do. This is why those of us who are preachers must constantly hammer on the duty of compassion and the core doctrine of grace. If we let off the emphasis, more people get hurt.”