When you hear the words “sexual abuse” and “church” in the same sentence, you probably think of pedophile priests in the Catholic Church. Evangelical Protestant churches, however, are well on their way to earning the same stained reputation.
A recent article in the Washington Post by Joshua Pease describes the failing of several evangelical churches to take responsibility for abuse committed by their pastors or congregants in ways that don’t blame the victim.
It begins with a brief history of Rachael Denhollander, the advocate who spoke up about being abused by Larry Nassar, a doctor for the USA Gymnastics program. Denhollander was previously abused by a college-aged member of her church when she was a child. Her parents suspected that something was going on and reported the strange behavior of the man to friends in their Bible study group. Their concern was met with comments about how they were overreacting. These “friends” started pulling away from the Denhollander family, out of fear that they might be accused next.
So when Nassar abused Denhollander, no one said anything. They learned the hard way that no one believes victims.
Unfortunately, this reaction is all too common in Christian groups:
Across the United States, evangelical churches are failing to protect victims of sexual abuse among their members. As the #MeToo movement has swept into communities of faith, several high-profile leaders have fallen: Paige Patterson, the president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, was forced into early retirement this month after reports that he’d told a rape victim to forgive her assailant rather than call the police. Illinois megachurch pastor Bill Hybels similarly retired early after several women said he’d dispensed lewd comments, unwanted kisses and invitations to hotel rooms.
So many Christian churches in the United States do so much good — nourishing the soul, comforting the sick, providing services, counseling congregants, teaching Jesus’s example, and even working to fight sexual abuse and harassment. But like in any community of faith, there is also sin — often silenced, ignored and denied — and it is much more common than many want to believe. It has often led to failures by evangelicals to report sexual abuse, respond appropriately to victims and change the institutional cultures that enabled the abuse in the first place.
To be fair, it’s hard for anyone, Christian or otherwise, to believe that someone they know and trust is capable of such despicable behavior. (Atheists aren’t immune to that either.) But Christians in particular want to be known for their compassion and pursuit for justice. Ignoring, blaming, or minimizing the experience of a survivor is so hypocritical, Jesus would weep.
There are Christians who are speaking up to try and reform churches from the inside. One of them in Boz Tchividjian, the grandson of Billy Graham: he founded a group called GRACE (Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment), which trains church authorities to recognize patterns of abuse.
But too often, abuse isn’t something that happens between strangers. Date rape is more common than stranger rape, and the evangelical obsession with purity is part of what blurs the line between consent and rape in their minds. It’s easier to blame the women for seducing men than to admit that even church leaders can have moral failings.
Approximately 1 of 4 women and 1 of 6 men have been victims of sexual assault, which means any time Christians enter a church, they end up worshiping alongside survivors. It’s time for more Christians to admit that loving Jesus doesn’t make people incapable of causing harm to others, even though we wish that were so. It’s time to start believing victims and holding their assailants accountable.
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