When I rallied enough gumption to tell my babysitter, a person in authority (at least over me), that teenage boys were raping me, she let me think she would take care of the problem. But the next day the boys took me away to do what they were wont to do to me that kindergarten year. And I despaired.
I believed that no human being on this earth would protect me.
And to be brutally honest: no one did. I had to learn how to be scrappy, and even then it didn’t always keep me safe.
So when I hear about sexual abuse victims being silenced, maligned, and dismissed in the church–the very place they should be sheltered–I get that familiar nausea in my stomach. I understand what it means to be ignored.
I don’t want to jump on any bandwagons here. Many have written articulate posts about how the church needs to open its eyes to the plight of sexual abuse victims:
- Rick and Kay Warren, along with Beth Moore, shared a timely message at Saddleback church. In short: the church should be a haven for victims, while perpetrators should fear discovery.
- Beth Moore wrote eloquently about the issue here.
- The Wartburg Watch reported on a sexual assault between a youth pastor and a youth group member here, prompting an outcry. The church that gave the alleged perpetrator a pulpit (he is now on administrative leave) made national headlines by giving his confession a standing ovation. I wrote about that here.
- Rachael Denhollander, one of many victims of Larry Nassar, has spoken out about SGM and their past handling of sexual abuse allegations here and here.
- Relevant magazine had a post entitled, “If My #ChurchToo Experience Hadn’t Happened I Might Still Be a Christian.”
- Christianity Today posted articles about whether churches should “handle” sexual abuse allegations. (Thankfully the answer is no. They should be reported to the proper authorities).
- There are allegations that the Pope knew about sexual abuse allegations (how could he have not?), along with credible cries of cover up. (In 2016, I wrote an open letter to the Pope about this egregious issue.)
Last year, Boz Tchividjian, founder of GRACE (Godly Response to Abuse in Christian Environments) said this in a New Republic expose of an egregious case of sexual exploitation on the mission field. “One of the reasons is that, like it or not, the Catholics have been forced, through three decades of lawsuits, to address this issue. We’ve never been forced to deal with it on a Protestant-wide basis.” He’s right. It’s an epidemic.
With the rise of #churchtoo stories, we have to ask: why do churches want to keep everything covered up? Especially since so many voices are calling for repentance and transparency?
Reputation, Money and Power
In a word: reputation.
Which some churches value far more than truth.
Paul reminds us of a sobering truth in Galatians 1:10. ” Obviously, I’m not trying to win the approval of people, but of God. If pleasing people were my goal, I would not be Christ’s servant.”
So when we worry more about what other people think (reputation), we nullify our servanthood of Jesus AND His suffering people. We serve the institution’s shiny exterior rather than the broken body. We are guilty of preferring reputation over reparation.
But dig a little deeper and what do you find beneath the facade of reputation? Two things.
Both things Jesus warned vehemently about when He walked in humanity’s sandals. He forsook the riches of heaven for the dust of earth (See 2 Corinthians 8:9). He did not think equality with God a thing to be grasped, so He relinquished power, making Himself nothing. (See Philippians 2:7-9).
When we publicly affirm sexual abusers in our midst, relying on what Bonhoeffer called cheap grace, and don’t call predators to account legally, we prove we care more about reputation, tithes and offerings, and a leader’s personal power as he/she crafts a tightly controlled narrative.
What would Jesus do?
I ask this: would Jesus gloss over a sexual abuser’s sin (reframing it as a youthful indiscretion or a long-ago mistake), elevate him/her in church leadership to be tempted to offend again (abuse of power), and completely ignore the cries of victims? It’s ridiculous to even ask the question! So why do churches rush to silence victims? Why do we have the tendency to hear one narrative and approve it above any other?
It has to do with worldview.
Yes, reputation, money, and power play into the way some churches handle abuse allegations. (I need to note here that there are many churches doing a terrific job at reporting and dealing rightly with abuse in their midst). But what about so many people’s tendency to dismiss victims and believe so-called repentant perpetrators? We see this dismissal in church leadership, but we also see it in the marketplace. In the neighborhoods. At the coffee shop. In comment sections of Facebook posts.
We want to live in a happy, understood world
Why? We want to believe that the world makes sense, and that our personal discernment of a friend can be trusted. If our confidant is caught in what he/she calls an indiscretion, we want to believe their narrative. We have trusted and walked alongside this person, and we believe our view of him/her is correct. To believe otherwise means we have to face a chaotic world, where people who appear to be upstanding are hiding egregious sins. To do that plunges us into deep fear.
We are guilty of confirmation bias simply because we don’t want to live in a world where someone we trust and respect has a second, more sinister life.
Confirmation bias is “the tendency to interpret new evidence as confirmation of one’s existing beliefs or theories.” What that means is this: when confronted with evidence to the contrary of hard-and-fast beliefs, it’s nearly impossible to change them. Instead, we re-frame what we hear to fit our beliefs. That’s why it’s very hard to reconcile sexual abuse, particularly by well-loved clergy. The belief is this: pastors are to be trusted; they represent God. And even if they “fail,” they deserve to be re-trusted.
This problem with displaced loyalty runs deep. We want to be loyal to our friends, our family members, our church. Because of their position, whether that be in our lives or through their position in ministry, we automatically convey loyalty. We forget that Jesus knew the dangers of this kind of displaced loyalty. “But Jesus didn’t trust them, because he knew human nature” (John 2:24).
An Outrageously Beautiful Example of Correctly Placed Loyalty
My friend Jimmy Hinton faced a personal crisis when he first heard from sexual abuse victims in his congregation. The perpetrator? His father, once pastor of the church he now shepherded. If there were any time to invoke confirmation bias, it was this. His loyalty should have firmly been placed on his father’s shoulders. Jimmy could have shut those victims down, remembering all the times his large family had celebrated birthdays together, how his father had sacrificially given to the church in service, how Jimmy’d never once seen any sort of indiscretion.
But instead of giving in to displaced loyalty, Jimmy believed the victims over the “reputation” of his father. In doing so, he risked reputation, money, and power. He, along with his mother, turned that man in. As in the Nassar trial, many many victims surfaced. And now Jimmy’s father is in prison. Jimmy now spends a great deal of time researching the ways sexual predators get their victims, how they can perpetrate even in front of parents. (Read this post all about his findings. It’s sobering and insightful.)
It would have been far more tempting to rest in the laurels of the perpetrator. But Jimmy knew #silenceisnotspiritual far before the hashtag was born. And he knew that the reputation of Christ would be tarnished from cover up. In transparency (and anguish), he shed a light on the darkness, and his loyalty rested with the victims.
Isn’t that what we actually want from church? We want truth. We want light. We want honesty. We want to know that it’s a safe place, particularly for the most vulnerable. But no place is safe that harbors secrets in the dark. No place is safe as long as perpetrators are allowed to flourish.
Covers up sexual abuse, quietly allows for a perpetrator to move to another congregation without even a warning and certainly no legal action, then maligns victims into silence. The congregation is blessedly unaware and the shiny reputation of the church is intact. Giving is up. Leaders stay in power. Confirmation bias is confirmed.
Exposes sexual abuse, reporting the perpetrator to law enforcement, then sets up emergency counseling and offers long-term care to victims, speaks openly about what happened with tears and repentance for any part they played. The congregation is educated on the dynamics of abuse, grieves the loss of innocence, yet learns to trust a leadership that isn’t afraid to do the right thing. The church’s reputation, amazingly, remains intact because of their integrity in handling the situation. The church itself isn’t as concerned about giving or power. The leadership is consumed with loving and serving the flock and its ongoing needs. Confirmation bias is gone. Truth flourishes. In fact, more victims of other past abuses come forward, tell their stories for the first time, get counseling, and begin to minister to the countless people in their community also affected by sexual abuse. The church becomes a haven. Reputation doesn’t grow because of a fancy PR campaign, slick branding, or perfectly crafted statements. Reputation grows by word of mouth, a groundswell of admiration and awe. Much like what happened in the second chapter of Acts (see vs. 42-47).
Church A reminds me of John’s warning: “For the world offers only a craving for physical pleasure, a craving for everything we see, and pride in our achievements and possessions. These are not from the Father, but are from this world” (1 John 2:16). It is not a place of reality, but unreality. It prefers power over truth, wealth and reputation (and dare I say fame?) more than doing the right thing. Church A doesn’t take into account the very nature of sin. It forgets that Romans 1 is alive not just “in the world,” but in our midst. “Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen” (Romans 1:24-25).
Church B is a church I would trust more easily. Though no institution can do things perfectly (who can?), it’s desire to listen to victims, obey the law, and provide transparency makes me have confidence in their humble leadership.
I’m not sure what class in seminary asserts that Church A’s way is the preferable one. My hunch is that this idea of reputation management is woven into us, all because of fear.
But here’s the truth: God can handle His reputation just fine. He does not need a PR firm or fearful pastors controlling narratives. He doesn’t get glory when leaders cover up sin in the church. In fact, He instructs us to expose the sin. “Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them” (Ephesians 5:11). Paul told the Corinthian church quite boldly to expose an egregious sin (See 1 Corinthians 5:1). Reputation always thrives in truth (even when the truth hurts), never in hiding or covering up reality.
I’ll end with this. In Matthew 18:12-14, Jesus asks,
“What do you think? If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off? And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he is happier about that one sheep than about the ninety-nine that did not wander off. In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should perish.”
I fear there are hundreds of thousands of sheep who have lost their way because of this very issue. They’ve been silenced by churches and leadership. They boldly, with trepidation, shared about a perpetrator to the proper church authorities, believing it would be taken care of, only to be quieted, shamed, ridiculed even. All while justice never happened. The perpetrator was free to live his/her life without repercussion, while the waves and rivers of triggers and shame and nightmares and PTSD symptoms continued on and on and on. Their shepherd didn’t leave the 99 to chase after them. Instead he chased the wolf, coddled it, kept it near, giving it a platform to tear into the remaining 99.
This should not be.
Jesus chased the lost sheep. We should do the same.
If my babysitter had picked up the phone on her kitchen wall and called the police, I would have been spared from more perpetrator’s rapes. But not only me: other victims whose stories I don’t know (and shudder to think of) would’ve been spared too. But my babysitter preferred her own narrative over mine. She didn’t want to get into trouble (hello, she allowed those boys to rape me), nor did she want her economics to change (she most certainly would’ve lost her job). Had she called, had she intervened, had she truly listened, she would have become a hero in my broken story. Instead, she remains one of the hardest people in my life to forgive. She looms, not because of her bravery, but because of her brazen cowardice.
I sincerely pray that the church and its leadership would shake in fear at her terrible cautionary tale. I believe God will be cleaning house of those who have long followed her example. “For the time has come for judgment, and it must begin with God’s household” (1 Peter 4:17).
We must do better, church.
Mary, great work is being done to prevent abuse and to help survivors heal. The ongoing support we survivors in our church receive is phenomenal. They continue reaching out – healing services, retreats and more. It has been a hard and painful road for them to make the church a safe place and to help survivors heal, but they are doing it and are pouring their very selves into it with great dedication and love. Yes, they get it. Some of “the church” is getting it right. That needs to be noted and not glossed over.
I so agree. I did make a quick statement in the post to that regard, but your comment reminds me that a post is in order to highlight what is being done redemptively.
I saw that quick statement in the long post 😉 and thank you for putting it in. So many people are working very hard to make things right. And it is painful for them to walk with survivors. I’ve seen their work. Pray for them. Lots of damage has been done. I’m living proof. Lots of good is now being done. I’ve been the recipient of it and helped with it. God is good!
Have you written about this online anywhere?
Yes, somewhat. I have a simple blog that is more of an intermittent therapeutic hobby. One post is dedicated to the Service of Lament that was held. Links to a video of the service, the text of the homily and to other initiatives that are in the works are included. A prayer for survivors is posted as well. Touchingjesusgarment.wordpress.com.
Thank you! Beautiful site!
Dear Mary — Thanks for this article, and so many others. I would add that the progressive churches are struggling with this also, in perhaps different ways. I wonder if our different “camps” could join forces in helpful ways. Would love to connect with you.
Yes, this is a universal issue and needs to be tackled on all levels of society and in every church!
Mary, I also suggest you put the term “Sheri Ferber Saddleback” into Google and see what comes up. There was plenty of documentation of Sheri Ferber’s story at the time it first was made public.
Hi Mary, I am reposting my comment minus the link it contained, just in case the link made my first comment go to your Spam folder.
I am concerned that you are endorsing Rick Warren, senior pastor at Saddleback Church.
Please do some research on this. I’ve been active in the field of Christianity and domestic abuse since 1999, and Saddleback do NOT have a good track record in giving justice and support to victims of domestic abuse.
Allow me to point you to places to research this.
Domestic Abuse victim Sheri Ferber’s experience of Saddleback Church was documented by journalist Kathryn Joyce. If you look at Kathryn Joyce’s website you can find her article titled “Does Rick Warren’s Church Condone Domestic Violence?”
At Kathryn’s site you can only see the first few paragraphs of her article and a link to the full article. That link no longer works…. but you can find the full article at the WebArchive here:
[that is where I gave the link]
Christian Post published an article in 2009 titled
“Saddleback Pastor: Domestic Abuse Not Reason for Divorce”
Danni Moss’s website has several articles about what Saddleback has taught about domestic abuse NOT being grounds for divorce.
“Rick Warren and Saddleback Church on Domestic Violence”
“Transcript of Saddleback Church Teaching on Abuse”
“Transcript of Saddleback Church Teaching on Divorce”
“Transcript of Saddleback Church Teaching on “Miserable Marriage”
“Saddleback Church Backpeddles on Domestic Violence Divorce Quotes”
Note: Danni Moss passed away some years ago but her blog is still up.
Thanks for letting me know.
I can’t tell you how thankful I am for you and the work you do to advocate for victims of abuse.
Thank you dear Tina. It’s a huge privilege. I pray the church wakes up and begins to understand the complexity of this issue.