For 30 years Maricopa County attorney Rachel Mitchell has been a prosecutor. For 25 of those years, she focused on prosecuting crimes against children, along with adult sexual assault.
As both an attorney and Christian, Mitchell understands the measures churches must take to protect vulnerable individuals. Last year, Mitchell spoke with the Arizona Southern Baptist Sexual Abuse Response Team to offer insight into how churches can prevent abuse and respond to allegations appropriately. The team was formed in response to a report released in May 2022 that found Southern Baptist Convention leaders had mishandled numerous sexual abuse allegations.
A lead prosecutor in the investigation of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Phoenix years ago, Mitchell has experience dealing with church abuse. She shared that expertise with Arizona’s Portraits, a publication of the Arizona Mission Network of Southern Baptists.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What common misconceptions do churchgoers have about sexual abuse in church?
Mitchell: Churchgoers tend to think that it’s not going to happen in their church. If you ask them, “Is everyone who goes to church a good person?” they’re not going to say yes, but they’re still going to act that way. They tend to let their guard down.
Why do you think misconceptions persist?
Mitchell: There’s research that talks about who the sex offenders are within the church. There’s the category of offender who was never involved in church, the category of offenders who were involved as kids but not as adults, and then those involved as adults but not as kids.
Most troubling are those we call “stayers,” people who have been involved the whole time. Research found that stayers have more victims and younger victims than the other three categories.
When you’re a lifelong, church-involved person, you easily blend in. There is also an automatic trust. On the surface, they don’t look any different than the rest of us, but they have an unquestioned ability to isolate kids. There’s total access to kids, so it’s a target-rich environment.
Are there characteristics an offender is looking for in a victim?
Mitchell: They’re looking for vulnerability. The fact that someone is a minor, that is a vulnerability right there. You know, if I’m a troubled child with behavioral issues, I’m vulnerable in that I have no credibility; or my mom is a single mom and working two jobs, so she doesn’t have time to spend with me. All of those things are vulnerabilities. That’s not to say the straight-A student can’t be abused too.
What beliefs about sexual abuse in the church have contributed to the history of inadequate responses?
Mitchell: Because we’re evangelical, when someone says, “I’ve been saved” or “I’ve rededicated my life,” we want to believe them because that’s our mission. So there is a gullibility that happens. We tend to believe people’s words, but the Bible says to look at actions.
How can smaller or rural churches with limited resources put systems in place to prevent and respond to abuse?
Mitchell: Each church must adapt everything to meet their situation. A church may not be able to pay for background checks, but they can still go on a national sex offender database and run the person.
In Arizona, there’s a court website anyone can check to see if the person has had court contact. These aren’t perfect, but they are a starting place. A church can also get training on the Arizona Southern Baptists’ website where my trainings are posted and are free.
Our main mission is to spread the Word and preach the gospel. When someone is a victim of sexual abuse, it makes their relationship with God suffer. When you have an abuse situation within the church and you have a poor church response, that is a level of injury I’ve not really seen in many other scenarios. It’s the betrayal by the church that makes the hurt so enormous and profound. What a victim wants is to be believed and for people to do something about it.
EDITOR’S NOTE — This story was written by Johanna Willett and originally published by Arizona’s Portraits.