The church has a problem with teen girls—why? (Day 3)

From Aaron Duvall:

In HS my youth pastor abused a girl in my youth group. My dad (the lead pastor) found out. The YP was fired and reported to authorities. He lost his credentials and went to jail. That’s it. That’s the whole story. That’s how these stories should end. Coverups are not ok.

Predictably, several replies came in with their own youth group stories, which tend to fall into two categories:

  1. The leader (single) marries the girl after she turns 18 and the original misconduct is hushed up.
  2. The leader (married) moves on for “personal reasons”—sometimes his wife leaves, sometimes she stays with him.

There were, happily, also cases where the leader was reported and faced criminal consequences. But I don’t know that I’ve heard of those in my circles. The two historical cases at Menlo were not reported to authorities, as best I can tell. Certainly the first seems to have been downplayed as a mutual failing rather than a 33-year-old married father-of-two preying on a teen girl under his care (a pattern, for him—he married the wife he cheated on the summer after she graduated high school and he left teaching high school to attend Fuller that fall).

One thing that confuses the discourse around this subject is mixing of terms. It’s confusing because many legal statutes regarding sex offenses involving minors use the world “child” to mean anyone under 18. But in everyday speech, while high schoolers are far from adults, they are not “children” either. They’re adolescents with developmental tasks that are quite distinct from childhood.

The pattern involving youth pastors tends to be predatory relationships with 16- and 17- year old girls (sometimes avoiding legal trouble by waiting until 18 to initiate sexual contact). Ephebophilia is the primary sexual interest in mid-to-late adolescents, generally ages 15 to 19, and some of these offenders might fall into that category, but it’s easily possible teen girls are just convenient targets.

Statistically, many sex offenses against minors are not committed by pedophiles. But at least part of that is because older minors are generally not of interest to pedophiles. The important thing to note here is that there are different types of offenses—and offenders—against minors, and they use different patterns of grooming and exploitation.

I think Christians have a problem with teen girls. Take Jandy, whose story is on the Wartburg Watch. When she told her pastor she wanted to report the man who had been abusing her as a teen to the authorities, he said:

“Everyone uses the word abuse nowadays.” He said that men are accused of abuse when they’re not abusive and that counselors and therapists fill peoples’ heads with ideas that they’ve been abused.

“What are you saying?” I asked him. “Are you saying I was not abused?”

“Well, the stuff that happened when you were younger, that’s abuse. But, David? You were older, a teen…”

The case that introduced me to abuse in Christian institutions was one involving an orphanage in the Philippines. (I’ll write a full post about this sometime… my two-year anniversary is coming up.) The pastors involved defended the orphanage workers. One of the interesting things in that case was that they very specifically mentioned the age of the girl supposedly making false allegations: fifteen. That was untrue. There was more than one girl—and also, later, boys—who had made allegations and neither of the girls were fifteen.

I know why he picked that number. Fifteen… old enough to “know better”, young enough to not be credible. It’s horrible. And the church he worked at bought it. Why do people believe the worst of teen girls so easily?

An interesting tid-bit: that church also had a historical case where a youth pastor got involved with a teen girl in the group and later married her—with the approval of the supervising pastors—one officiated the wedding. (Obviously they required the relationship stay non-sexual while she was in school. Ohio’s age of consent is 16.) But then it turned out he was cheating on her afterward… it was all very messy… they stayed together, though. Perhaps he really did repent. Or not? Who knows.

I was a teen girl once—a strange one, but I was one—so I think I can speak on this a bit. I never went to youth group regularly. The one I remember most vividly was one I tried in seventh grade. The group played a game called “Birds on a Perch” somewhat like musical chairs where, when the music stopped, the boys had to get down on one knee and the girls were supposed to find a boy’s knee to sit on.

Yes, so, I didn’t go back. (But I also have a good memory from that day, and that church did possibly the best sermon ever on David and Bathsheba, after the Hybels news broke, so don’t take this as a dig at the church.)

Here are two things that are true:

  1. Whose pictures do fifteen year old girls have stuck in their lockers? It’s not fifteen year old peers. It’s actors and celebrities mostly in their twenties and thirties.
  2. Physiologically, girls complete puberty around age 15.

Here are some more things that are true:

  1. Teacher-student romances are very popular, and it’s not teachers reading them.
  2. Romances with immortal and/or older men are also very popular, and it’s also not old dudes reading them.

I will freely admit that I shipped Daine and Numair, as did we all. But fictional YA characters are always acting older than their “real” age, partly because it’s hard as an adult writer to really get back in that mindset, and partly because teen readers want to escape to a world where they are grown up enough to be taken seriously. And in fiction, these romances aren’t predatory—they’re True Loves and Happily Ever Afters.

What this means is that teen girls are very susceptible to predators. And instead of seeing that vulnerability as even more reason to believe and protect them, Christians use it as a reason to blame girls for “consenting” to an “inappropriate” relationship.

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