Churches must practice what they preach regarding the scandal of child sexual abuse, according to a grandson of the famed evangelist known as America’s Pastor.
“This is really fundamental,” says Basyle “Boz” Tchividjian, a grandson of the Rev. Billy Graham. “The gospel we preach is about a God who sacrificed himself for the individual.”
But religious leaders frequently renounce abuse victims to protect clerical and institutional reputations, Tchividjian said in a phone interview Friday.
The interview was in advance of his address at a Chaplains for Children conference that the Gundersen National Child Protection Training Center is sponsoring June 8-10 at Viterbo University in La Crosse.
“If we are preaching that gospel, churches need to sacrifice the church and stop sacrificing the individuals,” said Tchividjian, the 46-year-old founder and executive director of GRACE, Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment.
Tchividjian plans to lead conference participants in an exercise, based on case studies, on how to respond to allegations of child sexual abuse.
Part of his expertise stems from his eight years as the chief prosecutor of child abuse cases in the 7th Judicial District in Florida.
“It was the first time I had come face-to-face with this offense, this crime,” he said.
In the process, he observed how sexual predators groom their victims and the effects on families, he said.
“With the families, the devastation suffered by victims created my desire to handle the cases,” said Tchividian, who now also is a law professor at Liberty University School of Law in Lynchburg, Va.
When he went into private practice, he said, “I thought, ‘What do I do with all I have learned?’”
The answer was to help train church officials, staffers and congregations about how to understand, prevent and respond to the crime, he said.
GRACE started slowly in 2004, he said.
“When we first formed, it was the same time the Catholic abuse mess surfaced, particularly in Boston,” he said. “There wasn’t the same type of focus in Protestant churches.
“A lot of Protestants pointed fingers and said, ‘I’m glad we’re not like them,’” Tchividian said. “I said, based on my experiences, we are just like them. We’re just more spread out.”
Initially, he said, GRACE encountered pushback from those denying the problem, but slowly gained credibility as the issue became more publicized.
Many pastors try to handle such situations in-house instead of reporting them to law enforcement, he said, adding that his advice to church leaders is, “When in doubt, always report.”
The law requires it, and pastors and staffs are trained “to be shepherds, to preach and share God’s word” and not in the science of forensic interviews, he said.
“Know your boundaries — don’t be so distrustful of authority, as some are in pockets of Protestantism,” he said.
Those who believe what they preach realize that God has ordained law enforcement authorities to handle such investigations, he said.
As an example, he said, “If I have a heart attack and go to the hospital, I don’t care whether the doctor is Christian, or Muslim, or any other. I want the best surgeon in town.”
Everyone wants to protect children, but not enough efforts concentrate on the response, Tchividjian said he plans to tell conference participants.
“It’s just as important to help them develop response protocols as child protection,” he said.
The conference should help participants learn that their response should not depend on whom is accused, such as sheltering notables, but on the welfare of the victim, he said.
While previous approaches often have been geared to silence victims, he said, “We need to transform cultures to make churches so children feel so much more free to report, to step forward.
“I’ve seen the damage to kids 10, 15 or even 20 years later, and it’s tragic,” he said.
Tchividian has written a 30-page booklet titled “Protecting Children from Abuse at Church: Steps to Prevent and Respond.” He also writes the column “Rhymes with Religion,” focusing on abuse and faith communities, for Religion News Service. The title of the column refers to the pronunciation of his last name.
His nickname is the result of people also having trouble pronouncing his first name, Basyle (bah-ZEEL), so he became known as “Boz.”
Tchividian recently published the book “Thank You Billy Graham,” referring to his 96-year-old grandfather, whose health has been failing for two years.
“He is largely bedridden,” Tchividian said. “We enjoy each day we have with him.”