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Feb. 8, 2018

The Real Reason I Speak Out About Sexual Abuse in the Church

The statement was a reaction to an article that detailed a sexual abuse scandal involving a prominent pastor. When I read Anonymous Commenter’s words, I was instantly reminded why I have resolved over and over again never to look at the comments section of any article or blog. Like all train wrecks, though, it was just so hard to look away.

Another attack on Christianity, I see.

I paused, my jaw slightly ajar as I attempted to make sense of what I was reading on the iPhone screen in front of me. Anonymous Commenter, apparently a Christian himself, had just read an article about a pastor who had sexually violated a child, and his big takeaway from the story was that Christianity was somehow under attack. His reaction wasn’t to grieve over the innocence lost or the trauma this young victim was likely enduring as a result of abuse at the hands of a spiritual leader. It wasn’t blind fury or even righteous indignation that a man—one who claimed to follow Christ—could be so depraved. His reaction was contempt that the story had been told at all.

This faceless stranger on the web shouldn’t have had the power to knock the wind out of me with one sentence. As a survivor of sexual abuse at the hands of a church leader, though, the comment stung. Call me a snowflake if you must, but his jab was one more in a very long line of welts and bruises that had been accumulating into an oozing wound as the #metoo and #churchtoo movement snowballed. Not that I was shocked by the revelations that prominent members of society, politics and the church were posing as good people while leading sinister lives in secret. I wasn’t. What shocked me, and what had been clawing at my heart for months, were the reactions from many Christians to these revelations.

Comments like the one Attack-On-Christianity-Guy posted were very common responses to news stories that detailed sexual abuse scandals involving the Church. They were a big part of the reason I had refrained from adding my own voice to the #metoo / #churchtoo chorus. I just couldn’t stomach it as I read and heard opinion after opinion that rallied in support around accused abusers and turned a deaf ear to the voices of sexual abuse survivors. Discarded blog posts littered the recycle bin on my MacBook, because the trash seemed a much safer place for my story of abuse than the religious masses of the worldwide web—religious masses who seemed to equate speaking out against evil within the church with an all-out attack on the church.

The trash seemed a much safer place for my story of abuse than the religious masses of the worldwide web—religious masses who seemed to equate speaking out against evil within the church with an all-out attack on the church.

Where did we get the idea that it is our job as Christians to vigilantly defend the reputation of God, as though He somehow needs our help? Where did we get the idea that calling evil, evil somehow paints God or His church in a negative light? Our self-appointed position on the Almighty’s PR team is problematic because it is what drives Christians to publicly stand with abusers in order to preserve friendships, careers, institutions or political causes. It is what motivates people to care more about protecting how the Church looks to outside observers than how the church actually ministers to the broken. This is not the gospel. It is not anything remotely resembling the gospel.

Imagine if the Holy Spirit had concerned Himself with “reputation” when inspiring the words of the Bible. How many verses, chapters and entire books would have been discarded in that editing process? How many of His followers (and those who claimed to be) would have been excluded from the final draft? I’m sure huge portions of Paul’s letters to the early church would have found themselves on the cutting room floor. Much of King David’s story would have been reworked to make it more palatable, too. Whatever the ancient version of white-out, the writers of scripture would have needed to buy it in bulk if their ultimate goal had been sanitizing the truth to make God look better.

But instead of creative editing, God’s word gives us the good, the bad, and the hideously ugly of His image-bearers. It gives us the truth because God is truth. When David committed adultery and then murdered a man to cover it up, his wicked deeds weren’t watered down to keep his reputation or God’s from being tarnished. Instead, they were detailed for all to see. And in 2 Samuel chapter 12, God sent Nathan the prophet to David to expose his sin. Nathan didn’t appear to reason that David must be sorry, so there was no need to blow the whistle on what he had done. Instead, Nathan’s words were strong and clear: “you are the man.” And the message God sent him to convey was clear as well: “You did it in secret, but I will do this thing in broad daylight before all Israel.” Those aren’t exactly the words of a God whose main concern is hiding things that might harm His reputation.

Similarly, in Ephesians chapter five, Paul admonishes the church at Ephesus to expose deeds of darkness–the  shameful things that the disobedient do in secret. Not bury them. Not cover them up. Not hush those hurt by them. To expose them. Because a holy God does not shrink back from the truth, no matter how ugly. A holy God does not condone the hiding and hushing of abuse, for the sake of His own reputation or the sake of preserving any man, church, institution, or senate seat. God’s very nature is truth, so there will never, ever be any danger of diminishing His glory by speaking the truth, even (and perhaps especially) if it exposes wickedness among people who claim to be His followers.

God’s very nature is truth, so there will never, ever be any danger of diminishing His glory by speaking the truth, even (and perhaps especially) if it exposes wickedness among people who claim to be His followers.

In the last several years, I have had personal encounters with Christian leaders whose desire to preserve their reputation or ministry far outweighed their desire to protect innocent children from a pedophile. When I contacted the missionary (we’ll call him Bill), who was acting pastor of the church where my molester was serving as deacon, he readily believed what I told him about the deacon’s sexual abuse of me when I was a child. I explained that, based on his grooming of me and other characteristics, my abuser fit the profile of a serial predator. I told Bill that I feared he had abused many others, and would continue to do so until he was stopped. I told him that my purpose in coming forward was not to seek punishment or restitution for what happened to me as a child, but to protect other little girls from experiencing a similar fate at his hands.

Bill offered empathetic words about the courage it took to come forward. He told me I was in his prayers.

And then he asked how many people I had told.

I fought against the disappointment that bubbled up in the pit of my stomach when he asked the question, and determined to believe the best about his intent to help. But in the weeks that followed my revelation, Bill chose not to take any action in confronting the deacon. The man he knew had sexually violated at least one small child was allowed to continue to lead the congregation in prayer and song, to teach, and worst of all, to worship  freely alongside children.

Bill periodically emailed to assure me he was praying for me and my situation. He assured me that it was his top priority to see the deacon biblically “rebuked and restored.” And then he asked me to be patient with him, because he was extremely busy with ministry, and didn’t know exactly when he would be able to act on the information I had given him. Bill detailed the many trips he had coming up, the conferences he needed to attend and the missions teams his church had to host. He lamented that the situation was extremely delicate, since the entire church was comprised of the molester’s relatives. He indicated that a confrontation would be difficult because his grasp of the Indonesian language was weak.

Still, I gave Bill the benefit of the doubt. I prayed for patience and peace as I was met with weeks of excuses as to why the man who had stolen my innocence at six years old, and who was most likely still abusing, could not be confronted. It was astounding to me that I had shared my story and my concerns with a father of two girls, and he didn’t see fit to place this deacon’s predatory past anywhere near the top of his list of priorities.

Finally, Bill emailed me one day to say that he would continue to pray for me, but that he would have nothing further to do with “the situation.” His reason? That my attempt to protect children from a predator was a threat to his visa and had “jeopardize[d his] entire ministry, both now and in the future.”

When the truth finally came out in the church–and it did, thanks to help from men that Bill was more inclined to listen to than me–one by one, Christian people I had loved as a little girl reacted to the disclosure of abuse by blocking me on social media. My abuser was required to step down as a deacon, but he was otherwise embraced in the church and in his family, free to interact with children as though he hadn’t just confessed to sexually abusing at least three little girls.

I’m not going to try to put to paper exactly what Bill’s words and the reactions of the church members did to my heart. I’ll just say that ultimately, they only served to reiterate a message that sexual abuse had been shouting at me since childhood: you are the problem.

Our preoccupation with the reputation of the church and our fear of the personal cost of standing with the wounded causes us to view victims, rather than perpetrators, as the real problem in the sexual abuse equation. It isn’t necessarily that we don’t believe survivors when they come forward. It’s that supporting them publicly is incredibly disruptive to our lives. We prefer the narrative where we don’t lose friendships, ministries, visas, income or our belief that nice, churchgoing people couldn’t possibly be wolves in sheep’s clothing. We prefer the narrative that requires no sacrifice other than the victims themselves.

Under the guise of caring about the reputation of God, we turn our backs on the wounded. But who is a greater threat to the reputation of God? Is it a person who strives for the outward appearance of righteousness by sweeping wickedness under the carpet? Or is it the Christian who is committed to truth, even if that truth comes at a personal cost? If we believe the latter, we will always respond to the cries of victims in the church with contempt. And it is this contempt that is so distasteful to the world. Because once the truth is exposed (and it always is), nothing appears more evil than people who claim to be Christians lying, covering up felonies and turning a blind eye to broken people in the name of self-protection. Nothing turns the stomach of the world more than representatives of almighty God choosing their ministries, personal comfort, political loyalties and friendships with the accused over compassion for victims.

When I speak out against abuse within the church or among supposed followers of Christ, it is never an attempt to soil the reputation of Christianity. It is never out of disdain for the church. I speak out about abuse to shine light on the evil that so often uses the church as a means to masquerade as good. I speak out to encourage the true church to act on behalf of hurting people. I speak out against abuse to share the truth of who Jesus is—a friend to the brokenhearted and a fierce defender of the weak. He hates abuse, and so should His church.