The post about the Southern Baptist Convention’s decades-long cover-up of child sexual abuse within its ranks provoked several illuminating comments.
Here is repeat Comment of the Day author John Paul on “You Didn’t Really Think That It Was Only The Catholic Church That Had This Problem, Did You?”:
I am a minister in a Church of Christ. We are non-denominational, but as a whole we share a common belief system that tends to be the same from church to church. For those of you who aren’t familiar with what that means, it means that our core beliefs are the same, but each church operates under a group of people that are native to that church and meet the biblical requirements of elder.
I started my ministry back in 2004. Though I went to a college almost 500 miles from my hometown, I tried to get an internship at a local church that was associated with the Church of Christ in the town I grew up in. It came down to me and another young gentleman and while the church was kind to me, the reason they gave me for not giving me the job is that they did not want a local. Fair enough: I wished them luck and ended up taking a internship in a different state altogether.
I bring this up because less than 1.5 years later I returned to that church with my new wife for the Christmas holiday. The size was almost 1/2 less than I remembered and the general atmosphere was somber. We figured that many of the members were traveling like we were and we didn’t think much of it except at the very end of the service where worship was hi-jacked by the leadership (without letting the visitors know) to take a survey.
Question one: “What do you think we could have done better?”
“Done what better?” I asked the person next to me? It was then I learned a terrible truth. Their youth minister (the guy who interviewed me for the internship) of 20 years had been sexually abusing girls. My first thought was that I had dodged a huge bullet; there was no way I would have not been associated with that scandal. My second thought was… “How did this possibly take 20 years to come out?” Many people in many different places had to know something about it. This wasn’t even a small church, so you talking 25-50 teens on average being active in this church their whole lives and every single one of them either keeping quite about the abuse or not being believed when they described it.
Unfortunately, I think this is partly the church’s fault in the way we present sin. Christians view sin as a damning disease with only one cure: the blood of Christ. However, to get people to understand the nature of sin and why they need Christ’s blood for forgiveness, the church has often relied on three powerful emotions to get people to come to terms with sin: fear, shame, and guilt. These same emotions are the top three of the five most common reasons sexual assault and rape victims never come forward. This is what Jackson Health has to say about it:
Shame: Even though sexual assault is NEVER the fault of the victim, often those who experience it feel as if something is wrong with them for having experienced it. If you are ashamed of something, you are less likely to share it with others.
Fear: Fear of not being believed, fear of retribution, fear of how others will react to you and treat you, fear of how police will respond, fear of being ostracized, fear of being judged. These are just some of the types of fear that people may feel when thinking about telling someone what they experienced.
Guilt: Sometimes when people experience sexual assault they go over the incident in their head again and again, trying to make sense of what happened to them. Victims may blame themselves, which leads to feelings of guilt. And like shame, when someone believes they are guilty of something, it is difficult to tell others about it.
What do we expect these children (or even an adult) to do about it? Sin is personal. It requires focus and self-reflection, but often times victims will internalize assault, turning it unto their own personal sin. Instead of seeking help and justice they ask themselves questions like “Why do bad things always happen to me?,” “Why did I do this to myself?,” “What did I do to deserve this?,” or they decide it’s out of their control, or it’s fate (God’s will). If there is one thing I’ve learned about fear, guilt, and shame, it is that they often lead to the fourth most common reason why people don’t report: uncertainly.
Uncertainty: People who experience sexual assault may not know they have rights. As a result, they are less likely to know what they would be required or not required to do if they disclose that they were a victim. They may not know that they don’t have to report to the police*, or that they don’t have to be subjected to a rape kit if they don’t want to. People may also be uncertain if what they experienced is assault. Some people don’t recognize a sexual assault as such until someone else points it out to them.
In the church, there are two responses to sin. The first is forgiveness. This means asking God for forgiveness and asking the person who you committed the transgression against for forgiveness. A large number of victims often return to their abusers because they think it will never happen again and they can forgive them, or they believe their sinful actions about the abuse as punishment. If this is the case, the church needs to be shamed for its actions by creating an environment and culture where either of these can happen.
The second response to sin is avoidance or the fifth most common reason people don’t report sexual assault:
Avoidance: It is not uncommon for people who have experienced sexual assault to want to forget it happened and “move on.” They believe they can do this by not thinking or talking about what happened. Additionally, talking and thinking about a traumatic experience can be painful, and thus, people may avoid this at all costs.
Regardless of why they don’t come forward, the victims are still victims and they are still minors. They should have adult advocates and adults in their lives they can trust. If the church finds someone who is engaging in abuse, it should take Paul’s advice in dealing with sexual sins in 1 Corinthians 5:1-2: “It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father’s wife. And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you.”
Since my Christmas experience with that church, when I interview for new jobs, I always ask what the policy is on sexual harassment and sexual assault. If there isn’t one. I ask why. This is happening far too often among people claiming to love God and love their neighbor, both Commandments that are broken by committing these horrendous acts. Church leaders should only have one choice when confronting a abuser: put him out and let the police handle it.
If you’re not mature enough to do the right thing, you have no business being in a place of leadership.