Sexual Abuse and the Adventist church

How our church has learned from the past to prepare for the future

Photo Caption: Recent efforts in the Seventh-day Adventist church aim to eliminate the danger of sexual abuse and make Pathfinders and schools safe environments for children.

Nigel Sumerlin

In 1970, an Adventist was sentenced to two years in state prison for molesting a child. After he was released in 1972, he became a Pathfinder leader in a small town in Oregon. Beginning in 1975, he sexually abused two boys for six years before leaving the club. Although one of the victims approached church leaders between 1977 and 1978 claiming that he had been sexually abused, the man remained club leader for two more years. Reuters reported last September that two men, including the man who originally reported the pathfinder leader’s mistreatment, had filed a lawsuit against the Seventh-day Adventist church alleging that church leaders knew of the Pathfinder leader’s history yet still placed him in a position of unsupervised authority over the Pathfinders. The Pathfinder leader still resides in Oregon and is not currently listed as a sexual offender.

This tragic story is not an isolated incident. Adventist Risk Management records show that 400 claims involving 525 child victims were made against the Seventh-day Adventist church between 1992 and 2011. According to statistics published by the Children’s Assessment Center, this number may be lower than the actual number of abuses that have taken place due to the fact that many children never report the abuse they have experienced out of fear or shame. Sexual abuse cases have not been limited to Pathfinders and have involved school principals, pastors and teachers.

Before the early 2000s, there was an apparent lack of action by the Adventist church to prevent sexual abuse against children. Many states have extended their statute of limitations on sexual abuse, and the surfacing of cases from the 1970s and 1980s have given glimpses into the history of how individual churches and schools have mishandled allegations of sexual abuse. The Los Angeles Times reported in 2004 that five men brought a case against the church alleging they were abused by two teachers at Monterey Bay Academy in California during the 1980s. When the students attempted to report their experiences to other faculty, the two teachers successfully instigated the expulsion of four of the five students from the school.

Although the church’s history is dark, the future is lit by the promise of change. In the 2000’s, Adventist Risk Management (ARM) took two major strides towards the prevention of child abuse in the church. The launch of the Child Protection Plan in February 2012 marked one significant change. “Faith-based communities have a moral, ethical and legal responsibility to protect children from harm when they’re in our care,” says ARM Vice President Arthur Blinci. The Child Protection Plan requires background checks on church employees and volunteers, making them mandated reporters of sexual abuse and providing them with training to prevent sexual abuse. Another step is ARM’s participation in the Seven Campaign, a global movement in the Adventist church to stop abuse of all kinds against children, not only sexual abuse.

In addition to these large movements, there have been changes happening on a smaller scale for more than a decade, according to Carol Nelson, a veteran teacher in Oregon. When media coverage of the sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic church exploded in the early 2000s, many Adventist churches and conferences took action to ensure the protection of children in the Adventist system, including mandatory inservice for teachers and pastors and background checks for all church members whose role put them in contact with children.

The bitter truth is that any potential for evil will attract darkness. In an organization as large as the Seventh-day Adventist church that works to bring positivity to the lives of malleable and vulnerable children, there is all the more potential for evil to corrupt the good being done. In the past, the church has not always wisely handled its responsibility to protect students, Pathfinders and youth group members. But I am proud of how far my church has come, and I am excited for its future. It is not the mistakes of the past that define us, but the accomplishments of the future. Through the Seven Campaign, the Child Protection Plan and the individual work of dedicated church members around the globe, there is confidence that the Seventh-day Adventist church will become a more safe and nurturing place than it has been.

Nigel is a freshman pursuing a double major in history and psychology.