The church should be the safest place on earth for a crime victim—a haven established by shepherds who protect sheep from wolves, recognize threats to the wellbeing of the flock, and take necessary stands to keep out hungry predators.
Unfortunately, this is not always the case. The church often fails victims, particularly victims of sexual abuse. Instead of protecting people who dare to tell of their abuse, it sometimes heralds and harbors those who perpetrated against them.
Because the gospel of Jesus Christ holds grace at its core, churches and church leadership tend to quickly believe the best about those who may appear to repent from grievous sexual crimes. Yet they are overly cautious in believing a victim’s report even though FBI stats show that false reports make up less than 5.4% of reported rapes.
Last Spring, the Village Church in Dallas, TX navigated such a minefield. They stood by a man who confessed to the federal crime of child pornography, essentially marginalizing his wife because she sought an annulment without their consent. This, thankfully, has been beautifully resolved, but it indicates just how confused churches have become with regard to predators and victims.
The church has typically shown a gross naïveté in its understanding of predators who do not look like creepy people offering candy from white vans.
- They appear like us.
- They tend to be charming and friendly.
- They don’t wear a predator uniform, and often there are few red flags to tip us off to their deviant ways.
It seems easier to rationalize that So-and-So, the upstanding citizen, couldn’t possibly have criminal leanings than to believe a victim whose voice shakes and who can barely make eye contact.
Judith Lewis, in her book Trauma and Recovery, reveals just how easy it can be to believe the perpetrator over the victim:
“It is very tempting to take the side of the perpetrator. All the perpetrator asks is that the bystander do nothing. He appeals to the universal desire to see, hear, and speak no evil. The victim, on the contrary, asks the bystander to share the burden of pain. The victim demands action, engagement, and remembering.”
For too long we have taken the easy way out by believing perpetrators and marginalizing victims as liars.
- Perhaps we don’t want to believe we live in a world where monsters masquerade as average folks who dot our pews. So we choose to look the other way. Otherwise we have to face the very real truth that evil is closer than we think.
- Or perhaps the person perpetrating is so woven into our congregational midst, that outing him or her would damage the reputation of our institution. Better to handle it in-house, cover it up, keep it quiet.
- Or maybe the abuse was partially our fault for failing to perform a proper background check or creating strong policies and procedures around this sad inevitability. In light of this negligence, we cannot afford the negative public backlash.
Whatever the church’s reasons, none of these rationalizations excuse us from acting like Jesus Christ, who, when He walked the earth, often stood on the side of the marginalized. Richard Rohr, in his book Simplicity, asserts, “We think the gospel has given us a clear directive to stand on the side of the those who are victims. We call this the ‘bias toward the bottom.’”
Jesus’ ways confounded others because of this bias. He dignified prostitutes (who were most likely enslaved by a sex industry). He held little children on his lap and threatened millstones for those who would cause them to stumble. He bore the weight of every sexual sin not only for the sake of the perpetrator’s forgiveness, but also for the eventual healing of the victim.
And that road to healing takes a long time, longer if the victim is marginalized or not believed by those who should represent Christ to them. Even so, victims need both believing and justice to move beyond the horrors of rape.
Yes, the church should be a haven where victims feel safe sharing their stories, but it also must be a conduit to true justice, where sexual abuse crimes are reported to the proper authorities, not solely through internal channels.
Even so, there is hope.
Although in past generations, families and churches lived under a code of silence when it came to abuse, the current generation rightly errs on the side of disclosure and authenticity. Because of this new openness, more people are daring to tell their stories—stories that grant other victims permission to shed light on their own dark secrets.
Sexual abuse is blight on the body of Christ particularly because it has thrived under this blanket of secrecy for far too long. With more and more people disclosing their abuse,
- may the church listen to, dignify, and believe victims.
- may it seek civil justice, choosing truth over reputation.
- may it openly repent when sexual abuse happens within its boundaries.
Others within the church are beginning to heed this important mandate. NetGrace.org created a statement of repentance toward victims of sexual abuse. They wrote, “When we choose willful ignorance, inaction or neutrality in the face of evil, we participate in the survival of that evil.” The letter, signed by many evangelical leaders marks a beautiful and worthwhile start toward bringing sexual abuse into the light and exposing it for what it is: pure evil.
The statement continues, “We must face the truths of our own teachings: To be a shepherd in the body of Christ and blind to the knowledge that your sheep are being abused by wolves in your midst is to be an inattentive shepherd.”
Ignoring wolves does not make them go away or erase their crimes. Ignoring victims does not magically make them heal. It’s time we take seriously the ways of the Good Shepherd who laid down his life—His comfort, His reputation, His will—for His wounded sheep.
If you’re a survivor of sexual abuse, perhaps this will be of help to you:
Not Marked is my journey of healing on the page, complete with my husband’s story of learning to love me through it. I pray it blesses you and blesses the body of Christ.