Sex Abuse in the Church and Our Place in the Village

I've been trying to write this post for quite some time, and it hasn't been an easy one. It's a sensitive topic, and I want it to read the way I mean it--with concern for the flourishing of all people, particularly the least of these in our midst. I pray that comes across in these words:

A few months ago, I was with my sister-in-law in a country in the Middle East when a man briefly violated my personal space and my body. The details are not important for this post, but the first time it happened I was caught off guard, unsure whether or not I was imagining it. When he did it again, I was no longer unsure, but I still didn’t know what to do. Knowing I was in the midst of a culture in which the treatment of women was notoriously poor, I didn’t know what rights I had, or whether or not to draw attention to what happened. So I simply walked away, ashamed and embarrassed that I hadn’t stood up for myself.

This experience opened my eyes to see just a tiny glimpse of what it might be to suffer sexual abuse within the church. Obviously my experience was not within the church, but I saw things in a new light. I felt powerless because I was on someone else’s turf. I didn’t think what this man did was normal, but I also didn’t know how to stop it in the moment, or if I might get in more trouble for drawing attention to it. I was ashamed. I didn’t want to talk about it to anyone. In fact, I only told my husband a couple of months after the fact because I didn’t want to burden him with the knowledge of what happened.

In recent months, I have thought frequently about abuse allegations in the church. I have read story after story about abuse victims who went to church leaders and either were not believed or were blamed in part for what happened. I thought about how hard it must have been to get up the courage to tell their stories—I couldn’t even tell my own husband—and how rare it must be for someone to make up a story like this and willfully go through the torture of talking about it. Experts in this field suggest abuse happens far more often than we know and the allegations that come out represent only a small percentage of the instances that it occurs.

Then I saw the film “Spotlight,” which is based on the true story of a team of investigative journalists at The Boston Globe who worked tirelessly to break a major story of child sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church and the cover-up of said abuse (you can listen as my husband and I discuss the film here).

This was not an easy film to watch. I found myself, as a mother of children who are the ages of some of the children who were abused, getting angry repeatedly. I was angry at the priests who performed these horrible acts, angry at their superiors who covered up the abuse, and angry at anyone who knew about it and refused to speak up. 

There's a key quote in the film, delivered by Stanley Tucci, who portrays a lawyer defending several victims of one priest. Tucci's character talks about who is responsible for the abuse, stating, "If it takes a village to raise a child, it also takes a village to abuse one."

It's a powerful line, and the movie goes on to back it up. From Catholic priests, bishops, and cardinals to reporters, lawyers, and parishoners, we see person after person who has failed these children, both before and after their abuse. While watching the film, I was compelled to consider where I fit in the village. Not in the village of the Catholic Church of Boston, but in my own village--the village of American Protestant evangelicalism.

I think about my brief recent experience with abuse—me as a 32-year-old. And then I think about my children and what I would feel if they experienced abuse at the hands of someone within a church we were part of. I think about how horrifying it would be to go to church leaders and hear them suggest my child might be making it up (as if a small child could come up with such horrors) or to be told they would take care of it, only to see my child’s abuser suffer no consequences for his actions. With great sorrow, I think about the families who have experienced trauma not just due to the abuse but due to the fact that they have seen their churches move on without tending to the crimes that have occurred in their midst. I think about the welfare of children who remain in dangerous situations because church leaders have failed to confront the criminals in their midst.

This issue has been on my heart for months, and I have not know how to respond. It has gone from a distant problem with nameless victims to the heartbreaking story of people I have met. There is an article in the February edition of Washingtonian Magazine that shares some of the stories of abuse within two churches in the D.C. area in what many in the evangelical world know as the Sovereign Grace abuse scandal. The article will be up on the website in the near future, and it chronicles some of the abuse alleged in a lawsuit. It is painful to read, but I think we have a responsibility as Christians to engage with this information and to determine what to do with it.

So I want to plead with the evangelical community I love so dearly: Let us not assume we know the story. Let us not assume the leaders we follow know the whole story. Let us love our neighbors enough to listen to their stories.

If there are downsides to the Christian celebrity culture (and I think there are), one has to be our refusal to question the leaders in our tribes. We are quick to cast doubt and call into question the integrity of those in other "camps," but we vehemently defend those in our own. There is a danger in this--not just to those following these leaders, but to the leaders themselves. I can't imagine the detriment of living in a community in which no one challenged or questioned me, or in which the only challenges came from outside my camp and were voiced with hatred rather than love. Surely that would not be good for my own heart.

In the world of celebrity authors, speakers, and pastors, we have pledged our allegiance to people we do not even know. Much of the time we seem willing to follow them without hesitation. This leadership comes with incredible responsibility. When a leader makes a statement regarding abuse allegations or stands by someone against whom others have leveled accusations, people will watch and do likewise. It is easy and comforting to say, "Well he/she seems to know more about it and continues to promote this person, so I'm sure the accusations are wrong." And no doubt, this can be true.

But what if we're wrong when we think these leaders know significantly more than we do about the situation? What if we wrongly assume they have sat down with victims or have looked into the particulars of these cases? What if we are following people who know little more than we do? And what if, in so doing, we are part of the village?

This requires that we ask the hard questions, and do some digging of our own. Not to cast unnecessary doubt, but to be sure that not only the voices of the powerful are being heard. 

But just as blindly following is inappropriate, surely malicious accusations are as well. In fact, I think much of the lack of transparency and attention given to cases of abuse in the church right now is due to the malicious questioning by some who attempt to speak for the victims. I understand the anger that rises when confronted with injustice, particularly when it comes to the abuse of children. But an important takeaway from "Spotlight" is the crucial necessity of fact-checking and journalistic integrity. It's clear that if 98% of the story is true, the accused will zero in on the remaining 2%, and thereby dismiss the whole story. When lazy, angry accusations are thrown around, meant more to discredit the recipient than to open a productive dialogue, everyone loses. We lose the ear of someone who needs to hear truth, and we lose the chance to stand up for the cause of the victim.

Abuse is happening. It's happening in our churches, and each of us has a responsibility not only to prevent it but also to expose it. After seeing “Spotlight,” I left the movie theater and broke down on the drive home, crying and asking, "What if it were my kids?" The truth is, it is my kids. And your kids. And the kids of our brothers and sisters. These are our family members.

John 3:19-21 says,

And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God. 

Perhaps the most depressing realization I came to in the aftermath of seeing this film was that every person who covered up the story of abuse in the Catholic church thought he was doing the right thing to serve the greater good. It was thought the religious community, and the community at large, would suffer if people lost faith in the church. No questioning of leadership could be permitted; no doubt could be cast on the integrity of the men involved. It would be better to keep things in the dark--what people don't know can't hurt them. 

Only what we don't know can hurt us, and it's hurting many victims every day they are silenced in the name of the gospel and the greater good. If these words from John 3 are true, then we only lose by keeping sin in the dark. Let us come into the light, painfully bright though it may be, and let this start with our own hearts.

May our churches take a stand that says abuse is not allowed, but that if, God forbid, it does happen, it will be exposed. If we have handled things wrongly in the past, may we love our neighbors enough to admit our mistakes, ask forgiveness, and make the necessary changes. May we create safe places for victims by calling the authorities immediately so that those who have been abused can tell their stories to an unbiased witness, rather than feel pressured by those involved on one side or another. May we ask the hard questions, lovingly encouraging leaders to be sure they are not complicit in covering up abuse.

May we be bold enough to seek the peace that is not just absence of conflict but the peace of “shalom"--or flourishing--for all.

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