Recently, our friends over at GRACE (Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment) shared a Facebook post asking, “What are reasons why sexual assault survivors don’t feel safe sharing about their abuse to professing Christians?” The responses are all things that we at Church Protect hear often from survivors of abuse. Something about consulting with churches is that we hear the same answers from church leaders too. The difference is that survivors are hurt by these cliches and church leaders think they are helping survivors by using them. I often think how ironic it is that sexual assault survivors have survived their abuse only to be forced to survive churches. It’s akin to someone showing up at a hospital with critical gunshot wounds only to be shamed, lectured, told to forgive the shooter, or turned away by the trauma doctor. It sounds ridiculous, but it’s exactly how spiritual wounds are (mis)treated in many churches. Pastors are spiritual doctors, so why do so many of them verbally assault the wounded and protect the ones who caused the wounds? Here are some of the most common cliches abuse survivors hear from church leaders and other Christians:
You need to forgive and move on
Forgive and forget.
A sin is a sin, so what your abuser did is no worse than any of your sins.
This is too ugly/inappropriate so please don’t discuss it again.
I understand exactly how you feel.
Why didn’t you scream if you didn’t want this to happen?
If you knew that sex was wrong, why didn’t you stop it?
What did you do/wear to “tempt” the perpetrator?
Because I’m a minister, I know many intricacies of church leadership and routinely witness bad theology that breeds bad practices. We consult with many churches and I will say that the majority of the churches we consult with are sympathetic to the abuser and rarely mention victims of abuse. Here are some of the most common questions we get asked by church leaders, in order of frequency:
How do we keep the offender involved in the life of the church?
Please tell us that you believe they (the offenders) can repent.
He was really remorseful, don’t you think asking us to set these boundaries is unfair?
How can we keep the offender here and still keep kids safe?
Do you think the offender was sexually abused as a child?
Isn’t it unfair to ask probing questions about his past?
In addition to the questions (some of them rhetorical) that we get, here are some of the most common statements church leaders give us about the abusers:
He is one of my best friends.
He’s a good, good man and just got caught up in sin.
He did so much good and is well respected by the whole church and community.
He has so many struggles in his own life.
We love this brother and want to restore him gently.
What’s become blatantly obvious to me is that churches are incredibly good at telling survivors what they must do to “get right with God” and are even better at defending offenders who they assume are already right with God. It’s troubling that we go to such great lengths to ensure abusers remain active in the life of the church while their victims are told to just move on. When we place blame on victims of oppression while defending the oppressor, we fail to hate the things God hates and love the things God loves. There is no excuse for leaders who take the above approach. I am a full time minister. I also happen to have turned my own father in when I learned that he had performed sex acts against children. Rather than just get angry with church leaders, though, I want to understand why they almost always defend a child rapist over the very children who’ve been raped by them. If we understand why, perhaps we can give them a more accurate view of God’s position. The very foundation of God’s throne is righteousness and justice (Psalm 89:14). We cannot understand God’s love unless we understand that God’s core foundation is righteousness (doing what’s right and fair) and justice (doing what is deserved). If we strip away God’s righteousness and justice, love becomes twisted and it ceases to be love. A neighbor once told me her boyfriend was cheating on her and beating her. She was crying and said, “He loves me.” I told her that he, in fact, did not love her. When she asked how I was so certain I said, “Because he’s cheating on you and beating you.” I submit to you that, by very definition, love cannot protect a predator while ignoring or ridiculing the wounded. So why are so many church leaders doing it? I offer some reasons below:
1. Our theology doesn’t allow us to believe that this level of wickedness exists, especially in the church–Most of the time when I’m invited to speak places, I’m asked to ensure that I won’t say anything too graphic or that will offend someone. Christians sanitize the Bible. God doesn’t. Read Judges 19. It’s graphic. Very graphic. A kind woman was thrown out like a piece of trash to be gang raped all night long. Literally. In the morning her fingers were embedded in the threshold of the very house she was thrown from because she was trying to claw her way back to safety as she was being raped and beat. The abuse was so violent that at some point she died. As she lay there lifeless, her master said these chilling words to her corpse, “Get up.” She didn’t move because she was dead. Those of you who’ve been repeatedly raped, molested, and humiliated from the time you were young children don’t want people like me to use “nice” words because what happened to you was not nice. Neither was the person who did those things. I hear the following phrase almost every time a church leader is tiptoeing around telling me that there is a predator in their church: “I don’t want to believe that he is capable of this.” Frankly, I don’t want to believe that church leaders embrace, protect, and harbor felons. But they do. I didn’t want to believe that my dad molested dozens of children in horrible, humiliating ways. But he did. My not wanting to believe it doesn’t make the abuse any less real. Some people we love and respect are capable of secretly and intentionally inflicting harm on God’s most innocent creatures for their own twisted pleasure. If we deny it, we’ll never be able to hear the pleas of victims.
2. Church leaders prefer cardboard testimonies and oftentimes confuse them with reality–Remember the wildly popular cardboard testimonies? People are paraded across the church stage holding a cardboard sign that says what they used to be then they turn it around and it says who they are now in Christ. Soft music is played and, admittedly, like many of you I get teary eyed watching them. As a minister, I sometimes get caught up in the western idea that conversions are quick, easy, and lasting. But then I remember that life is messy. My own life is a mess. Most of the people who attend my church are a mess. We don’t have fairytale endings to our stories. It’s been almost 6 years since I found out that my childhood hero is a serial pedophile. I still have days where I don’t want to get out of bed. And I wasn’t sexually abused. Many survivors are struggling every. Single. Day. Some battle depression. Some have recurring nightmares. Some are medicated for severe anxiety. Some are battling eating disorders. Many have thought of or attempted suicide. The sad reality is that your story doesn’t fit nicely onto a piece of cardboard. For the millions of you who are struggling every day, who wants to see the backside of your cardboard? Your name won’t be selected to write a cardboard testimony. What in the world would you write? Your ending just doesn’t fit. Ministers aren’t comfortable with your story because a messy life to them indicates that either somehow Christ hasn’t transformed you or you’re resistant to his grace. This is a lie, of course, but it’s what they believe. This is why they tell you things like, “Forgive and move on.” Or, “Just have more faith and God will heal you.” What they really mean is, “Your story makes me uncomfortable and makes Jesus look weak.”
And I’ll give you one guess as to who has the perfect cardboard testimony. That’s right…the sex offender who spent time in prison and who now can waltz into the church professing that he had a prison epiphany. Predators give church leaders precisely what survivors can’t. There is no ongoing therapy. There are no relapses with drug addiction. They don’t have to be told to “move on.” The sex offender can be paraded before the church (and sometimes they are)–here is someone who was once lost but is now found, which leads me to my next point.
3. We no longer require evidence of repentance. . . unless you’re a survivor–John the Baptist was clear. “Bear fruit in keeping with your repentance.” All of us who claim to be repentant must bear fruit in keeping with that repentance. What are the deeds that back our words? A repentant alcoholic isn’t found at a bar. A repentant adulterer isn’t found alone in the homes of other people’s spouses. A repentant swindler doesn’t become the church treasurer. And a repentant child molester doesn’t suggest that it’s “unfair, unChristian, or unforgiving” to ask that he or she not be in the mixed company of children. Yet time and time again we witness Christians caving to the offender’s demands who claim that it is unChristian to keep them from being near children. It’s as if God looks at adult-only worship as blasphemous. Yet churches have adult-only Bible studies all the time. It’s only when we ask child rapists to participate in adult-only Bible studies that suddenly we’re being unfair.
So if churches continually cave to the demands of the offender, why do they do the opposite to their victims? At the same time churches cave to the offenders’ demands, they heap their own demands on the shoulders of victims. You need to forgive. Why don’t you move on? Don’t bring this up again.
I think we can do better. I think we must do better. There are 100 reasons why child rapists are treated better than their victims, but it all boils down to bad theology (protecting the oppressor while hurting the oppressed) and the bad theology is exasperated by the charisma of the offenders. They are incredibly convincing and are good at getting others to look anywhere but at the actual sin and crimes they committed. As long as they can divert our focus, the darkness will never be exposed and we will never be able to resist the devil.