Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Responding to Sexual Abuse Within the Church

by: Katie

BJU Student Chapel - captured from their public Facebook page

There is an elephant in the room of collective Christianity that must be addressed once abuse has been brought up as a topic.  The primary offender in the spotlight of recent years is the Roman Catholic church and their handling (mishandling of historic proportions) of the seeming epidemic of sexually abusive priest scandals that seemed to crop up without any warning a few years back.  

What has perhaps been less televised and received less worldwide attention overall, but is nearly as widespread in its effects and damage to the global church (this time in the Protestant realm) has been the apparent apathetic and many times aggressively antagonistic response of the church to abuse victims when they come forward with their stories.  That is what I'd like to focus on in this article.  As such, this is where we'll begin.

Two Major Media Events

The majority of media attention devoted to Protestant "scandals" in recent years has been devoted to the Tina Anderson story (which can be seen on YouTube here) brought to ABC's 20/20  by Jocelyn Zichterman's anti-abuse campaign, and the G.R.A.C.E. report released about Bob Jones University revealing that their counseling guru Jim Berg, not only had little to no actual training in counseling, but also had no idea what the legal mandates were regarding reporting child abuse, among other glaring inadequacies in his counseling methods.  Unfortunately that report appears to no longer be available online, though it was only released publicly in December 2014.  

The combination of these two situations would understandably make the outside world scratch their heads a bit about this previously ignored group known as "Independent Fundamental Baptists."  A lot of people have begun questioning why groups such as these and churches connected with them and their core teachings are consistently choosing to side with abusers and leaving the victims to fend for themselves, or worse, as in the case of Tina Anderson, they are actually re-victimizing those who have already suffered at the hands of predators and reinforcing the idea that God will judge them for having been abused.  If this sounds far-fetched, you should really watch the Tina Anderson story on 20/20 or read Jocelyn Zichterman's book entitled I Fired God.  Among the countless stories of horrible abuse suffered inside the camp of fundamentalist Christianity, these are some of the most high profile in recent days.

Why Rehash Old News?

So, with all the ink that has been spilled in the past few years over these two specific stories, why should we bother to re-examine these events?  It would be impossible to argue that no one is covering them, because even the NY Times found time to give some attention to the BJU Report, and getting an hour long special on ABC's 20/20 Investigates doesn't exactly sound like no coverage for Tina Anderson either.  Then why?  The reasoning is simple.  People have spoken out on this until they are blue in the face, and yet, little to no change has been forthcoming from within.  Chuck Phelps has apologized for nothing; Matt Olson has said nothing public to make amends for his role in that tragic story.  The church where Tina was forced to stand up and confess for sexual immorality after she became pregnant from her rape by a deacon has never made any type of public statement of regret or remorse for the trauma or re-victimization they caused her.  In fact, no one has publicly apologized to Tina Anderson to the best of my knowledge.  

Bob Jones University (interestingly tied albeit indirectly to Tina Anderson's story, their own report by GRACE, and the Jocelyn Zichterman accounts, along with countless others) has never made anything more than a half-hearted attempt to save face by stumbling through public apologies more intent on maintaining their image as good Christians than actually reaching out to the survivors of their institutional malpractice.  When faced with the decision on making real change where it counted with regards to their faculty and administration and keeping things the way they had always been, they stuck with the status quo--signalling to the world and everyone watching that nothing was really going to change.

The short answer is this: while the outside world may have exhausted its keyboard trying to explain to institutions and their leadership why these types of actions are wrong and so harmful, their careful and often compassionate pleas have not been received.  The conversation has digressed into name-calling, paranoia, and further isolation into the fundamentalist bubble.  It is my hope, as a Christian with a background steeped in fundamentalism, and well acquainted with many sides of this topic, to make one more plea for repentance and humility from the fundamental church as a whole.  

I don't expect the leadership to listen, but I do hope that in so speaking without yelling or just resorting to name-calling, I can reach out to the average person in their churches and groups who may not be too far removed from compassion and grace to realize that the way we treat abuse victims in the church (and often in conservative para-church organizations) is dead wrong.  

It is not the "liberal media" attacking the name of Christ.   
We are, when we attack the abused and defend those who hurt them 
to protect our own good name and institutional well-being. 

Revictimizing the Abused

A lot of kind, compassionate Christians are currently part of churches that systematically revictimize hurting, damaged people.  This does not mean that they are purposefully trying to hurt people.  It simply means that perhaps they have not seen the situation from the other side.  They only see it from the side their leadership promotes, and as a result, they become passive abusers themselves.  So, what are some of the most common ways victims are "re-victimized" by the church once they go public with their story or even go to the leadership for help and counsel?  We talk about it a lot, but don't always discuss what it looks like.  Let's take some possible examples.

  • Women find the courage to come forward with their history of sexual abuse in a respectful way seeking help and Biblical counsel only to be accused of bringing it on themselves, or told they need to repent for "their part" in the abuse and apologize to their abusers or the church in public for being sexually immoral.
  • Victims at Christian schools or colleges come for counseling and get disciplinary action instead.  Confidentiality in counseling gets thrown out the window, along with the victim's trust.
  • Victims who are already known for feeling vulnerable and tending to blame themselves are then encouraged to look for ways to blame themselves and feel less than "pure" the rest of their lives.
  • Victims come forward about criminal activity and instead of reporting it to the police, pastors attempt to smooth it over and convince the victims to just pretend it never happened.  Crimes go unreported; offenders reoffend; victims get hurt again.  True repentance never enters the equation.
These are just the tip of the iceberg.  Nearly every victim could give a story that has its own unique details while the basic facts remain the same.  The damage was done, and rather than helping them pick up the pieces, the church came in and condemned their brokenness.  

How to Respond to Abuse Victims in the Church

So, how should churches respond when victims come forward looking for help?  Let's examine a few ways that might be helpful.

  • Listen wholeheartedly.  When victims start to talk about their experiences, one major thing they need is for someone to listen.  Of all the places where they can go for that support, the church should be the first place they can find it.  This does not include being quiet while they talk so you can think of what they did wrong and what sin they need to repent of in the situation.  It means actually listening to what they are saying and being willing to sit through the awkward and emotionally painful parts with them as they process what happened to them.  This is often much more difficult than it sounds, but well worth the investment.  As the Church, there is no excuse for us to be failing in this.
  • Don't cover up criminal activity. This should be a no-brainer, but apparently it is not.  If a minor or a woman or a man comes to you in the church with accusations of criminal activity, don't decide to make an "internal church investigation" instead of reporting it to the authorities.  The New Testament is abundantly clear that we are to submit to the authorities placed over us because God is the one who put them there.  They are God's messengers of justice, and as a church, it is ridiculous to assume that we know better than the police or prosecutors do how to handle accusations of abuse or neglect.  It should not require concrete proof to report abuse to the proper authorities.  If there is reasonable suspicion that a crime has been committed (and if you're in authority over people; children especially, you should KNOW what constitutes a crime) you are obligated to contact the police.
  • Publicly Denounce Domestic Abuse/Sexual Assault.  It sends a mixed message at best to victims, when churches spend a considerable amount of time denouncing gay marriage, abortion, and all manner of other offenses they feel are deplorable, but are remarkably silent when it comes to beating your wife or molesting your child.  Domestic abuse and sexual assault are rampant in conservative churches (as well as others), but those topics are rarely, if ever, addressed in a sensitive, compassionate manner by male Christian leadership.  When church members show up at court for moral support, or a pastor shows up at a trial, 9 times out of 10 it is in support of the predator.  Where are the churches who are willing to call sexual abuse the sin that it is?  When will pastors stop telling young female rape victims they're fortunate to not live in the Old Testament times when they would have been stoned?  It has to start with us, if there is to be any change at all.  God stands firmly on the side of the oppressed and abused, not with the abuser.  He stands with the repentant, and the repentant do not cover up their sin to enable their further abuse.
  • Offer solid counseling services to victims.  This can get somewhat controversial since some churches currently offer counseling, and that is what gets them labeled as insensitive to begin with.  By this, I don't mean a young, vulnerable rape victim meets alone with a pastor who then tries to figure out which sin of hers caused the rape so she can "forgive and forget."  By counseling, I mean someone who is willing to take the time to help her feel safe enough to talk through what happened and figure out where God is through the whole thing.  The recovery process can take years, and many churches don't have the patience for deeply wounded people, but they need to start investing in it.  Anything else is bringing shame to the body of Christ.

A few responses to potential objections:

It's possible that some people reading this post will find it raises objections in their minds.  I'd like to answer, in advance, what I can see may arise as a result of this article.  If any others come to mind from reading it, please feel free to post them in the comments or email me through the authors' page, and I will gladly discuss it further.

Objection #1: My church isn't that bad.  It's possible that in reading this you're thinking, "Well, that might apply in a church full of really hurting people, but nobody in my church is like that.  We've all been here forever, and we're all on the same page.  We don't need to deal with this problem."  My answer to that would be--you'd be surprised to find how many people in the U.S. have been sexually abused at some point in their lifetime.  

While it may not have directly affected you, there is a very good chance that someone either already inside your church or who will come there in the future, has been directly affected by sexual abuse, and how you talk about it when you feel like "you're all on the same page" will go a long way towards either bridging the gap of being able to help victims, or starting the cycle of re-victimization all over again.  

Please be sensitive to the experience of others that may look the same as yours on the outside, but was horribly more traumatic and painful underneath.  You just don't know what everyone else has been through.

Objection #2: They're just being too sensitive.  If you have never been through a situation that involved abuse, it is improbable that you are in a position to make that call.  Rather than assuming you know how sensitive someone else is allowed to be about an experience you've never had, do the hard thing.  Give them the benefit of the doubt.

Objection #3: Talking About it Makes the Church Look Bad. This has been very effective at silencing and hurting broken people, but it certainly hasn't made the church look good.
What actually makes the church look bad 
is caring more about what the church looks like 
than the victims seeking refuge and solace in the name and strength of Jesus.
Objection #4: We must forgive the offenders, right? This one gets tricky, because often churches lean heavily towards the "we must forgive" philosophy when it comes to sexual offenders, but in doing so, they sometimes leave the impression that forgiveness removes legal consequences or that forgiveness means acting as if nothing ever happened.  When you have a group of people gathering regularly that involves children and vulnerable people, it is imperative that you take steps to be sure you are protecting the vulnerable.  It doesn't mean you crucify someone for their past offenses, but true repentance will not cover up sin.  True repentance does not shun honest accountability.

We could go on and on, but the conclusion of the matter is that as a church, whether conservative or liberal, we should be prioritizing the care of abuse victims, rather than feeding them to the wolves to satisfy the desires of the leaders.

UPDATE: After originally posting this article I was sent links to GRACE's page that has their final report and BJU's response to it.  For those interested in seeing either of these pages for themselves GRACE's report can be found here and BJU's response can be found here.


Camille K. Lewis said...

You're right, of course. Many, many of us who have been raised in this kind of fundamentalism, have tried for years to plead with BJU to come to repentance.

They think they are right. They do. They believe that whatever they do is right because they say they always do the right thing.

But one more voice added to the chorus is always a good thing.

Katie Gibson said...

Dr. Lewis, Thank you for your comment. I've recently come across your work and blog and appreciate the persistence you've shown in calling for accountability and justice.

It is sad to wake up one day and finally realize that pretty much everyone you grew up being taught was a good guy was really just promoting a system that enslaves people in the name of the Gospel.

It's not easy to acknowledge, but at some point keeping silent doesn't feel like an option, no matter how much less complicated that might seem.