Jun 17, 2014

When churches cover up allegations of sexual abuse

In my time as a newspaper reporter, I reported on ministers accused of abusing children about once or twice a year. There were other crimes that were more common, but this same story happened often enough in the course of my five or so years as a journalist to indicate that this is an issue. There are ministers who sexually abuse children.

This is a thing that happens.

Allegations of abuse are always horrific. Just reading through the details that make up the probable cause for an arrest can leave you feeling filthy and angry. What was more disturbing, though, was that the churches where these ministers had worked, worshiped, and hunted children always always always responded by trying to cover up the crime.

Every time.

This happened with Catholic churches, Baptist churches, and non-denominational evangelical churches.

What I mean by cover-up is this: they did what they could to stop the newspaper from reporting on the arrest. If they couldn't stop the news from being reported (they couldn't stop the news from being reported), they would distance themselves from the accused child predator. Often they did this by making an official statement that the person did not work at the church. The official statement of distancing would always bend the truth, saying the person did not work at the church but not clarifying that that meant the accused was a volunteer, or saying that the person did not work at the church, but not clarifying that that meant "any more."

In no case that I reported on did a church ever make a good faith effort to tell parents that a minister had been arrested on charges of sexually abusing children.

In no case that I reported on did a church ever contact police.

In several cases, the churches did attack me and my reporting. They told their congregations that news about a minister being arrested were lies designed to hurt the church. They wouldn't tell the people about a person who was hurting children, but they would decry the newspaper reports hurting their reputation.

Once or twice a year, I saw churches confronted with this situation where someone they had given authority and access to children was arrested and charged with horribly hurting those children. I stopped being disappointed with these churches' responses only because I stopped expecting them to be more concerned with protecting children than protecting their reputations.

This seems like maybe this is changing. It's agonizingly slow, but at least now there are voices in evangelicalism, for example, that will acknowledge the problem of sexual abuse in the church, and there are public platforms for those voices.

Christianity Today has recently apologized for publishing a first-person narrative by a minister who is in jail for statutory rape. The minister recounted his "fall" without actually owning what he had done. The publisher and an editor, apologizing for the piece, wrote that "the post used language that implied consent and mutuality," when in fact the anonymous minister is in jail because there could not be consent. He was an adult and the victim was underage. Further:
The post, intended to dissuade future perpetrators, dwelt at length on the losses this criminal sin caused the author, while displaying little or no empathic engagement with the far greater losses caused to the victim of the crime and the wider community around the author. The post adopted a tone that was not appropriate given its failure to document complete repentance and restoration.
I wonder -- I don't know, but I wonder -- if maybe acts like these might give some minister or elder or other church authority courage next time someone is arrested for hurting children. Maybe Boz Tchividjian's work telling churches how they ought to respond will start to pay off. Maybe the many voices of survivors, empowered and amplified by the internet and social media, will pierce the consciences of enough pastors that trying to cover things up will stop seeming normal.

Maybe someday the instinct of institutional self preservation will start to seem gross and perverted to those who have dedicated their lives to the gospel of Jesus Christ.

One can hope.

For now, at least, what can be said is that things have changed enough that some people are talking. At least now there are voices. If they're not speaking officially for churches, they are, at least, speaking to them.

Here are of those voices from evangelicalism, from just this week:

Karen Swallow Prior:
The truth is that the impulses that led to this former youth pastor's sexual abuse of a child under his care and authority -- pride, lust, covetousness, selfishness, and the elaborate mental apparatus to rationalize it all -- are, ultimately, rather banal. They are as old as humankind. The editors' well-intentioned decision to publish the piece as a cautionary tale betrays in them and their target audience an underlying naiveté in regarding the abuser's rationalizations as insightful and revealing enough to give him a platform for voicing them.  
Let us ever be horrified at every form of abuse -- but let us stop being shocked.
Halee Gray Scott:
We know for every story, there are many more left untold and kept secret. Like me, many victims choose to remain silent out of fear or shame. Worse, if caught or forced to confess, the predators responsible for these abuses may go on to describe an 'inappropriate relationship' or even a 'consensual extramarital affair,' but the proper legal term is statutory rape. I think we in the church should also get used to calling it rape -- as harsh as that sounds -- when it involves a younger victim prior to the age of consent.  
. . . The church must become a safe place for victims to heal, to tell their stories, to understand the true nature of what happened to them. Often, in conjunction with the hubris of perpetrators who tend to victim-blame, victims of sexual abuse also blame themselves, and victims of sexual abuse by clergy are perhaps even more susceptible to this belief. For months after I'd been assaulted, I believed I was responsible for what happened to me because my rapist was a pastor, a person I believed was divinely ordained by God to shepherd us. How could he be in the wrong? It was much easier to believe that I was responsible. 
Ed Stetzer:
Raping a child cannot be compared to other kinds of moral failure. Abuse is trivialized with these kinds of 'quit smoking' comparisons. A 30-something youth pastor taking advantage of a teenage girl, both sexually and emotionally, goes beyond the bounds of desecrating the marital bed and playing the role of infidel. With or without the charges and conviction, a youth pastor preying on a teenager is abuse. 
The power and the trust that go with a position of responsibility and authority have been perverted (a problem that is central to the Jack Schaap, Penn State, and too many other scandals).  
We still don't get it. Evangelicalism continues to whiff on opportunities to wage war against abuse within its own walls. We don't see the signs. We miss what's right in front of us. As such, we enable the perpetrators.
It seems to me that -- slowly -- this sort of response is becoming more common. Maybe -- maybe? -- it'll even become the norm for evangelicals, and even, someday, the norm for churches where a minister has been arrested on charges of abusing children.