Like many of you, my heart has been ripped apart and shredded over the recent stories of child sexual abuse by a subset of Catholic priests in Pennsylvania. While this latest report is so widespread that it sucks one’s breath away and makes righteous anger swell, it’s by no means the only story of church leaders taking advantage of their position to prey upon parishioners for the sake of their twisted sexual desires.
As someone who writes about embracing healthy and holy sexual intimacy, I contemplate how someone repeatedly abused by a church leader in this most vulnerable way can move toward healing. And how does their experience color their view of God?
While God is entirely opposed to such heinous acts, He has chosen through much of history to act through His people. Which is why these stories, of both Catholic and Protestant leaders preying sexually on adults and children, bother me most in the way they were handled by Christians who knew or should have known what was happening.
Did we support the victim? Did we demand accountability? Did we put into place boundaries that made acting on evil impulses more difficult, if not impossible? Did we oust those who would abuse God’s Church and embrace those whom Jesus would embrace?
Y’all, we have to do better.
If we want people to experience all the beauty of sexual intimacy that God intends for them to have and to have a relationship with Christ, they cannot be made pawns of cruel abusers. We must “learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed” (Isaiah 1:17).
So what should we do as a Church about the sexual predators among us?
1. Identify the perpetrators.
Yes, a number of leaders who abused parishioners have been finger-pointed, but I fear we have a long way to go. We need to know who these abusers are to deal with the problem.
The reason the Pennsylvania grand jury report included so many victims is that the state set up a hotline for people to call and report their abuse. Why can’t Church do the same?
All denominations and individual churches should have a policy about reporting abuse, including a hotline to call or a clickable button on a website that allows someone to send an email to a trusted individual representing the church. The person receiving these reports should have training in sex abuse prevention and response. Of course, reports of child abuse or sexual assault must then be reported to the proper authorities.
But we need to encourage reporting and following up on accusations. We should lead the way in pursuing truth and compassion. We need to make it as easy as possible for victims to identify the perpetrators and thus stop the abuse from happening again.
2. Support the victims.
Jeremiah 22:16 says: “‘He defended the cause of the poor and needy, and so all went well. Is that not what it means to know me?’ declares the Lord.” Defending those who need defense is what it means to know God.
Too often, the Church has chosen to believe a leader over a victim, or simply placed leaders in such high regard that it can feel traitorous for a victim or victim’s family to come forward.
No matter how fabulous some preacher is or caring a priest seems to be, we cannot put those people on such a pedestal that evidence to the contrary will not be given consideration. We must keep an open door and an open mind and have resources to support those who have been abused within the Church.
Christian counselors, mentors, and support groups can help victims find healing and do so in a way that helps to preserve their faith. Churches should band together and create counseling centers, peer mentoring (see 2 Corinthians 1:3-4), and support groups led by well-trained leaders. We should keep a list of community and online resources that can also help, including law enforcement and non-profit organizations.
We should mourn with the victim and not push forgiveness of the abuser too quickly, as I’ve seen some churches do. That makes what happened about the abuser, not the abuse. There will be a time for forgiveness, but go read Psalms and see how many times David asks God to crush his oppressor. We must allow sexual abuse victims to have those same feelings — to grieve what happened to them.
3. Pursue justice.
It’s not enough to know the abuse happened or to help the victim(s); we have to hold the abusers accountable and stop the abuse from recurring.
When Simon the Sorcerer tried to purchase the power of the Holy Spirit from the apostles, Peter answered, “You have no part or share in this ministry, because your heart is not right before God” (Acts 8:21). Don’t we believe that sexual abuse is bad enough to warrant a similar response?
If someone uses the Lord’s church to prey on people, should they keep their position? Simply be moved to another position and retain their salary? Keep their retirement? Why? Why would we support that?
Can some abusers be helped? Changed? Redeemed? Yes, of course. But I don’t know anyone who experienced a transformation without confession, humility, and repentance. So if the abuser isn’t seeking help, they’re not likely to change — and we don’t owe them a place in ministry, or even our church.
Rather, we owe our congregants a safe place to learn, worship, and fellowship.
4. Embrace prevention practices.
We must open ourselves to the hard truth that the Church has at times allowed abuse to happen, even by such small acts as leaving adults alone with children when they shouldn’t have been.
I don’t know about other states, but Texas requires child workers to undergo Sexual Abuse Prevention Training, and that extends to week-long church camp staff. Thus, I’ve gone through the training for the last 4-5 years. It includes the statistic that more abusers are situational offenders, meaning they will offend if they see an opportunity. Since we cannot always know who might abuse, one goal of prevention is to provide no opportunity.
Churches can therefore enact such policies as:
- having two adults present for youth and children activities
- installing windows in all classroom and office doors
- avoiding imbalance of power (like an adolescent left alone with a preschooler; sad to say, perhaps half of child abuse is committed by an adolescent)
- conducting routine background checks of all staff and volunteers
- requiring all staff and volunteers to undergo sex abuse prevention training
- providing a clear set of steps to pursue if/when abuse is reported
We should be leading the way of best practices for protecting our members, especially children. As Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these” (Matthew 19:14). We should do nothing that hinders our children from embracing the kingdom of God.
Honestly, the need for ministries like mine would be substantially less if the Church did a better job at handling sexuality in so many ways. But among all the things we struggle with, this is where my heart most breaks — where we have historically gotten things most wrong: We cannot allow the Church to be used by abusers as a gathering place for their victims. We have to fight sexual sin everywhere we find it, but most especially in our sanctuaries.We cannot allow the Church to be used by abusers as a gathering place for their victims. We have to fight sexual sin everywhere we find it, but most especially in our sanctuaries. Click To Tweet
May God show us the way.