An inspiring church response after church member arrest for sex crimes

By Scott Wild

GLENWOOD CITY – Holy Cross Lutheran Church, from which a member of their congregation, Pete Gaustad, was recently arrested for sex crimes, is on a mission to activate the community to open up public discussion about the sensitive subject of child sexual abuse. Joy McElroy, Executive Director of Cherish All Children, part of the Lutheran Social Services, presented “Creating a Safe Place for Youth in Our Churches and Communities,” on Monday evening to a group of leading community members. This is the start of a series of important dialogs for the community called “Uncommon Conversations.” 

The dialog will continue next Thursday, May 17 from 7 p.m. to 8 p.m. at the Holy Cross location. “It is not a time to gossip. It is time to break the silence,” said Pastor Jonathan Zielske. All the community is invited. “As a church we need to be transparent and authentic. Protecting an institution over a child is never the right response,” commented Zielske. This is to create a positive vision of Glenwood City in the future, as the whole community is still reeling with confusion of how a City Council member, girls’ head softball coach, junior varsity girls’ basketball coach and high school teacher allegedly exchanged sexually explicit images and messages with a 15-year-old high school sophomore in Missouri through the internet. 

Joy McElroy’s presentation started with a prayer, and then she went straight to fantastic specific advice from “Safeguarding God’s Children Training,” created by the Episcopal Church. “The Myth is that strangers are responsible for most child sexual abuse,” said McElroy. “The fact is 60% is perpetrated by those known to the child and their families, 30% is perpetrated by family members, and only 10% of abuse is perpetrated by strangers.” Unlike in frightening movies, strangers are very unlikely to snatch up kids. McElroy shared an excellent film called “Darkness to Light” which readers can watch themselves at www.d2l.org/education/educational-videos/light-childhood-stories/

Across the nation, this unspoken problem can be perpetrated from our teachers, our track coaches, child care workers, camp counselors and even clergy. How should Glenwood City respond? “We can’t teach children to protect themselves if we don’t talk about it!” Pastor Zielske commented.

Children deserve to grow up happy and healthy, with their sexual boundaries intact. By the time children are 18 years old, one in 10 children will experience sexual abuse. The internet and social media may actually be helping decrease that trend, as older statistics have indicated that 1 in 4 girls, and 1 in 7 boys, experienced sexual abuse. In the majority of cases, abusers were themselves sexually abused as children. It is critical to stop this cycle. As a child, you don’t think of adults as manipulative. The trauma is a helpless feeling. We must act as a community to protect our children. If you spare one child, it is worth talking about.

What can the community and churches do? Does your church have a child safety policy? Do they make certain there is not easy access to private spaces in the church? “Some churches are putting windows in every door,” said McElroy. “Other churches are mandating that new church members are active in the church for 6 months, or even a year before they can become Sunday School teachers.” A background check only costs $5.75, so that is another wise option. 

Protecting our children from online predators holds additional complexity. Teens solicited by peers are not the problem, as they block each other. Online predators have manipulative process called “grooming”. The offenders begin to play on the children’s vulnerabilities by offering affection and attention. Signs that your teen might be being “groomed” online can be blatant things like receiving gifts like bus tickets, private cell phones and webcams, to more subtle stuff like your teen rejecting family and friends to be online, or minimizing their computer screen when you come into the room. McElroy highly recommends watching the video “Screenagers” as a community event to help understand today’s teenage relationship with the internet. 

For those that missed this powerful presentation, please know that the next event on May 17, 7 p.m. – 8 p.m. is the more impactful event for Glenwood City residents specifically. A proactive dialog will unfold about how to break the silence and cure this unspoken issue. Contact Pastor Zielske at 651-247-2826 for more details about this coming event and future “Uncommon Conversations.”

John 10: 11-12 was shared at the beginning of Monday night’s inspiring presentation, and good as a closing for you, gentle reader: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away – and the wolf snatches them and scatters them.”