An abusive religious leader is removed from his position of power. A victim, traumatized at his hands, is finally vindicated. Women, long ready for change within a denomination that has historically diminished them, organize a protest through hashtags and retweets. It’s just another week online, where social media meets social justice meets actual progress in the fight to end sexual abuse, and cover-ups, within the protestant church.
I tap to retweet a popular Christian author’s thoughts on abuse in religious circles. Her call for transformation to the leaders of the evangelical movement is powerful. Poignant. I should feel lighter. But I can’t shake the heavy feeling that much of this awakening is not going to change the dark reality for so many #churchtoo survivors.
For a while now, I have been fighting my own Church Too battle. In one sense, it’s the same sort of battle that’s in the news just about every day—I seem to be struggling against Christians who are much more interested in self-preservation than they are in protecting the innocent from a predator. At the same time, it is a very different sort of battle than what we’re seeing unfold in the mainstream media.
My story is still playing out in the tiny Indonesian church I attended as a six-year-old. It remains tiny to this day, despite decades of support from missionaries, surrounding churches, and the dutiful service of short-term missions groups. Truthfully, the congregation appears to have shrunk a good deal since the 1980s, though the building itself has taken on a more modern, inviting aesthetic. I suppose the largely Muslim population of Indonesia could be blamed for the church’s lack of growth over the last 30 years, but a quick glance around Bandung reveals more than a few flourishing Christian congregations.
I have my own theory about the church’s seeming failure to thrive. It is not a popular one in some circles. My theory involves a man, beloved by the congregation, living a life of deception for decades. It involves a predator, hiding in plain sight behind a charming smile, a pulpit, a puppet show curtain. It involves a ravenous wolf, skilled at endearing himself to sheep so he can be free to surround himself with their children.
And I know firsthand what he likes to do with children.
Every avenue I have been able to think of that might help protect the little girls in this church has been pursued. Being on the other side of the world doesn’t help, of course. Neither does my rusty grasp of the Indonesian language or the country’s dismal child protection laws. Aside from renewing my passport, quitting my job, and delving into a nomadic life of international espionage, I seem to have arrived at a dead end.
To their credit, the leadership at the mission board I reached out to for help did just about everything they could to intervene. They encouraged the congregation, which did not have a pastor at the time, to properly handle the problem of a predator in their midst. Ultimately, though, the church was independent, and free to do whatever its congregation decided. As it was comprised almost entirely of the perpetrator’s relatives and longtime friends, I should not have been surprised at the route they chose to take.
I shouldn’t have been, but I was.
Due to the mission board’s intervention, the man who abused me and at least several other girls had been required to “repent” by stepping down from his position as deacon. Essentially, he only gave up a title, because just a few weeks after he stood before the church to admit to sexually abusing multiple pre-pubescent girls, he was back behind the pulpit. He led the congregation in song and scripture reading. He “ministered” to small children at various church events, including entertaining dozens of youngsters with puppet shows at a Bible school.
It is troubling to see these events unfold, given that the entire reason I came forward about the abuse in my past was to protect other children from a similar fate at the hands of this man. But even a person with no ties to the situation should recoil when someone who has confessed to molesting little girls is free to keep prowling around a church, on the hunt for fresh souls to devour. Not only is he free; even worse, he is fully supported by a church that chooses to rally around him, looking the other way as he undoubtedly leaves a trail of tiny, broken bodies and souls in his wake.
It is those souls that keep me up at night. Little ones, fearfully and wonderfully made, bearing the image of their creator. How many of these beautiful girls, filled with innocent delight at the special attention “Uncle Jerry” showers them with, will soon sit, confused and ashamed by his violation of that trust? How many already do?
There is no hashtag for the children I am heartbroken for. Their stories, unfolding in secret, far from any spotlight, are indicative of a Church problem that runs significantly deeper than any powerful leader or flawed theology.
There is no hashtag for the children I am heartbroken for, who sit tucked away in a tiny independent Baptist church in Southeast Asia. There is no group rallying outside their church doors, protesting the reckless decision to allow a child molester to continue interacting with children. Without a powerful politician or denominational leader to take down, the Washington Post (or the Jakarta Post, for that matter) will never be interested in publishing their story. This is the plight of so many victims of sexual abuse in the church. Their stories, unfolding in secret, far from any spotlight, are indicative of a Church problem that runs significantly deeper than any powerful leader or flawed theology.
It would be easy to assuage my conscience by placing the safety of these children in someone else’s hands. It would be easy to blame a mission board or a government or even Independent Baptist theology. But I can’t do that, because know the truth about #churchtoo. I know that it isn’t just the powerful who inflict deep wounds on the souls of children. It isn’t just the affluent who harden their hearts to victims. It isn’t just pastors, denominational leaders, and conference speakers who would rather cross over to the other side of the street than climb into a ditch and tend to those broken by abuse.
The reality for the children I advocate for, and so many others like them, is that every single denomination on earth could overhaul its leadership structure, and they would still remain vulnerable to sexual abuse. Oppressive theologies could be stricken and rewritten, and their oppressors would simply adapt seamlessly to new rules and regulations, as slithering chameleons do.
Yes, those Christians who abuse their positions of power need to be confronted. And yes, many predators benefit from the protection of leaders whose primary concern is preserving the reputation of their denominations and institutions. They benefit from oppressive authority structures and poor theology regarding women and children. However, the whole truth is that sexual predators also benefit every single day from the protection of the average Christian who doesn’t want to do the difficult, sacrificial work of acknowledging the reality of sexual abuse and holding offenders and their enablers accountable.
Many predators benefit from the protection of leaders, but the whole truth is that predators also benefit every single day from the protection of the average Christian who doesn’t want to do the difficult, sacrificial work of acknowledging the reality of sexual abuse and holding offenders and their enablers accountable.
In the church where my story began, it is the congregation, not the leadership, that is pushing back against the admonishment that an admitted child predator should not participate in active ministry in the church. Why? Because they love the perpetrator and it makes their lives easier to simply believe that he is repentant and move on. Against advisement, that is what they have chosen to do, rather than setting up safeguards to ensure he never harms a child again.
Would you or I do the same? Would we sacrifice an abuse victim to protect the reputation of a husband, father or brother? Would we minimize the gravity of a sin to preserve a ministry opportunity? A church we helped plant? There is something each of us holds dear that, in the face of losing, we may be tempted to look the other way for. This mentality of self-preservation is what drives the powerful to cover up for abusers at the expense of battered victims, but it is also this mentality that drives a group of lay Christians in a developing country to give an admitted child molester unrestricted access to its children.
A call for change to leaders who are getting it wrong is good and necessary. Reorganizing systems and leadership structures that contribute to abuse is important. However, assigning the problem to the powerful alone tempts us to gloss over the role we too have played in empowering abusers. We cannot ignore the fact that those in authority in our churches and institutions were largely placed in those positions by us and have continued to be tolerated by us. Could it be that when the pastors of churches or the leadership of denominations treat the abused and broken with disdain, they are merely a reflection of us?
It will not be a renovation of leadership that roots out sexual abuse in evangelical congregations. It will simply be you and me: each member of the body of Christ doing what he or she can, individually and as a unit, to create a culture of safety in our pews and sanctuaries.
It is true that those in positions of power in our churches will be judged more strictly. Ultimately, though, it will not be a renovation of leadership that roots out sexual abuse in evangelical congregations. It will simply be you and me: each member of the body of Christ doing what he or she can, individually and as a unit, to create a culture of safety in our pews and sanctuaries. It will be ordinary people who are willing to speak out boldly and take action to defend the weak, no matter how revered a perpetrator may be. It will be godly men and women fully committing to defend the helpless, regardless of the personal consequences they may face. It will be people who are adamant that abuse will not be tolerated in our church or on our watch, no matter what it may cost.
As for that tiny congregation in Bandung, Indonesia, rooting out church-enabled sexual abuse will not be an easy task. It will require missionaries and local ministers who are willing to confront a group that doesn’t want to see the truth in front of their eyes. It will require rejection of the notion that church autonomy and Christian accountability are somehow mutually exclusive. It will require much greater concern for the children whose bodies and souls are at stake than any form of mission work that depends on placating a pedophile and his family. And, having done all else, it might require outright refusal to preach in, work with, or financially support a church that has harbored a child sexual predator for far too long. None of those efforts are too extreme when the innocent are at stake. We have an obligation as Christians to act, because now that it has been revealed that this man has preyed on children, all of us who are silent about the danger he poses will share in the guilt for every wound he inflicts going forward.
We have an obligation as Christians to act, because now that it has been revealed that this man has preyed on children, all of us who are silent about the danger he poses will share in the guilt for every wound he inflicts going forward.
The question is, are we—ordinary, pew-sitting Christians—willing to roll up our sleeves and proactively defend our churches and Christian institutions from sexual abuse? Are we willing to take an unpopular stand when being quiet and compliant would be the far easier path? Are we willing to insist upon transparency from those who lead us? To question actions and attitudes that protect the predatory while further exposing the vulnerable? To speak up when we see something wrong, and then speak up again and again, no matter how many times someone attempts to silence us? Will we repent of our indifference—and even outright contempt—toward those who have been harmed by abuse? Will we actually mean it when we ask God to break our heart for what breaks His?
Until each of us is truly willing to lay down our life to protect those who cannot protect themselves, the church will not begin to see lasting change.
It is not terribly challenging for most of us to stand up for the wounded when our fingers collectively point at the big, bad power abusers of the world. What is difficult and sacrificial, and will also invoke real change, is being ready and willing to do what is right when our personal comfort is at stake. It is being willing to crawl down into the muck to tend to those who have been hurt by sexual abuse. To get messy in our own churches and in our own families—places where we might actually feel the sting of consequence.
Until each of us is truly willing to lay down our life to protect those who cannot protect themselves, the church will not begin to see lasting change. Because true change in the fight against abuse does not start with the powerful. It starts with us.
Rescue those being led away to death;
hold back those staggering toward slaughter.
If you say, “But we knew nothing about this,”
does not he who weighs the heart perceive it?
Does not he who guards your life know it?
Will he not repay everyone according to what they have done?