Sexual abuse against children is one of the most vile sins imaginable, because it destroys the innocent trust that God intends children to have while they're growing up. The damage wrought by sexual abuse can haunt a child all the way to and throughout adulthood. But if you know a child who has been molested, you can become part of God's healing process for that child.

Here are some ways you can help sexually abused children:

  • Look for signs that might indicate sexual abuse. These include painful or itching genitalia; underwear that is stained, torn, or bloody; sexual talk or behavior that is inappropriate for the child's age; sleep disturbances; changes in eating patterns; a sudden drop in performance at school; fear of people or places that the child previously was comfortable around; withdrawal from friendships; talk about secrets; anger at God; refusal to pray for a specific person; and a belief that he or she is more sinful than other people.

  • If a child discloses the occurrence of sexual abuse when he or she is talking to you, remain calm. Listen carefully, and let the child finish his or her story before asking questions. Reassure the child that the alleged abuse was not his or her fault, and that you care very much about him or her. Don't promise any quick fixes for a situation in which a quick fix is unlikely, but do tell that child that God cares and so do you.

  • Take allegations seriously. Be sure to check into them, even if you suspect that the child may not be telling the truth. Often, it takes a lot of time and courage for a child to come forward to expose sexual abuse.

  • Assess the child's immediate safety and take whatever steps you need to take to ensure that the child won't be in danger of immediate harm (such as retaliation from an abuser who discovers that the child has exposed the truth). Call the police or a child protective services representative if you believe the child is in immediate danger.

  • Tell the child's parents as soon as you can, in a direct and matter-of-fact way. Repeat what the child told you in a respectful and unemotional manner, saying that you wanted to inform the parents as soon as possible. Then turn the matter over to them to deal with and ask them to keep you informed.

  • Treat a sexually abused child as normally as you treat other children, including the molested child in as many fun activities as you can alongside other children. Surround the abused child with love.

  • Keep sexual abuse disclosures confidential. Refuse to talk about them with others in your church who don't absolutely need to know. Strive to stop gossip when you hear it, to protect those involved.

  • Refer the child and parents to professional therapists who can help them in during their healing process.

  • Encourage the child to ask you any questions he or she has about God. A traumatic experience such as sexual abuse can often cause children to become confused about God. Listen compassionately to any and all tough questions the child brings you, pray with and for the child, and help the child discover biblical answers to his or her questions. Assure the child that God will not be mad if he or she expresses negative feelings or asked tough questions.

  • Consider mentoring the child, to help him or her establish some bonds of trust with an adult.

  • Take some proactive steps to try to minimize the chances that sexual abuse will occur in your church congregation. Do thorough background checks on people you're considering to become staff members or volunteers, make sure that there are always two adults with children so that no adult is ever alone with them, install windows in all youth classroom doors, and encourage parents and church leaders to drop by whenever youth ministry is taking place.

Adapted from Caring for Sexually Abused Children: A Handbook for Families and Churches, copyright 2001 by R. Timothy Kearney. Published by InterVarsity Press, www.ivpress.com, 1-800-843-4587.

R. Timothy Kearney completed his Ph.D. in clinical psychology and M.A. in theology at Fuller Theological Seminary. He is director of mental health at a community health center. He lives in Connecticut with his wife and two daughters.

Do you know a child who has been sexually abused? If so, how are you trying to help that child? What precautions has your church taken to try to minimize the chances of sexual abuse happening between staff, volunteers, and children? Were you sexually abused as a child? If so, what struggles did you face as a result, and how has God helped you heal? Did other people reach out to you, and if so, how? Visit Crosswalk's forums to discuss this topic by clicking on the link below.