Comment Of The Day: “You Didn’t Really Think That It Was Only The Catholic Church That Had This Problem, Did You?”

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.

12 thoughts on “Comment Of The Day: “You Didn’t Really Think That It Was Only The Catholic Church That Had This Problem, Did You?”

  1. Speaking through an SBC lens (is that mixing a metaphor?) – see my comment on the original post – I think problems in individual churches often stem from well-meaning but overly trusting and desperate leadership. The national average Sunday attendance in a Southern Baptist Church is less than 100; and I would suspect the median would be far below that. For most churches, the majority of attenders are just that – attenders. I would guess that of that 100, less than 20 are actually actively involved. Actual workers are always in short supply, and doubly so for the more difficult children and youth areas (who wants to keep up with a room of hyperactive 3rd graders for an hour?). Leadership gets desperate for someone, anyone to help, and shortcut processes because they are too trusting of volunteers – “Suzy’s husband seems like a good guy”. Shortages also cause problems with policies – e.g. policy says there should always be at least 2 adults with a class of children; so what do you do when you can only get one? And it is sweet old retired Mrs Smith? Years ago in a church I had some leadership in, a local male high school teacher who attended wanted to help with youth. Our youth minister desperately needed help, especially from males, and asked my opinion. We talked with the guy and there were parts of his story that seemed “off” – he was more interested in helping with female students, etc. We told him he couldn’t help with youth. A few months later it came out that he had a relationship with a high school girl that he taught; she attended our church youth group.
    Issues with the pastors themselves stem from a similar issue. The average annual giving for those churches is around $240,000. Subtract out insurance, utilities, up keep, giving (10-20% or more is often passed on to the state and national convention), and there’s not a lot of money left to pay any staff (for those “tax the churches” doofuses, there’s nothing really left to tax). So you have a guy making around $40,000 / year with a masters degree in divinity. And unless you’ve experienced it ( I’m actually the child of a Baptist preacher), you don’t realize that a preacher is a 24x7x365 job. Then there are the demands of 100 people, many of whom have unrealistic expectations on you. Or you pay much less, and have a “bivocational” pastor, a.k.a. they have a full time regular job and are pastor on the side. But not many people want to work all week at a regular job then on the weekend at the church. This leads to a shortage of available preachers – my brother’s church, about the size mentioned here, pays around $45,000 with free housing (parsonage near the church) and has been unsuccessfully looking for over a year. Again, desperation may lead them to not do as thorough of a background check or due diligence.

    • Noting the desperation of course only highlights the problem; it is an explanation, not an excuse.

      Now that problem is identified, the only ethical solution is to pursue proper due diligence despite the challenges and desparation.

      • I completely agree; I wasn’t excusing it, just trying to explain it and show that it can be more nuanced than some think. SBC churches vary in their governance, but it’s generally a democratic system of leadership by generally unpaid volunteers, be it elders or committees. This can make for messy enforcement of policy and, like any kind of democracy, have ineffectual or incompetent leaders.

  2. First, thanks John Paul for taking the time and energy to put this forward.
    Second, the notion that all the Elders, Deacons, and congregants are ignorant of these terrible misdeeds is rancid bologna because gossip is rampant within churches. Someone is noticing that something is hinky about a particular person or situation.

    Generally speaking, Christians perceive condemning judgment as their duty based on the belief they have a clean righteous inheritance as morally sanctioned superior believers. Somehow Jesus’ teachings are conveniently ignored when it comes to malicious gossip and judging others despite ignorance of the actual truth of something.
    So how does sexual assault survive within this milieu unless the church is entirely composed of sleepwalkers?

    • The first sentence of my last paragraph above is worded in such a way as to be easily misconstrued.

      Should read: Generally speaking, Christians view being overly judgmental as their duty to monitor behavior based on the belief they have a clean righteous inheritance as morally sanctioned superior believers.

      • Nope. Generally, Christians believe that they are unworthy, and only Christ is worthy. But having been rescued from darkness to light, they would like to protect, defend and advocate for a cultural morality that would be a blessing to all in the long term. Perhaps what you are referring to as duty to be overly judgemental is better to be understood as people racked with fear of shame, shaming others so as to avoid having light shed on their own lives which they have not submitted to the judgement of God…a sort of out out damn spot psycosis.

        • Thanks SE, excellent insight although I think both thought processes play out regarding gossip.
          What I describe is more surface explanation with some basis while what you describe is more profound foundational psychology.
          I really appreciate your perspective because it helps me be less judgmental and condemning of malicious gossipers and more compassionate/empathetic instead. I have long known that backstabbing arises from a place of insecurity but never quite considered what you describe.

    • Second, the notion that all the Elders, Deacons, and congregants are ignorant of these terrible misdeeds is rancid bologna because gossip is rampant within churches. Someone is noticing that something is hinky about a particular person or situation.

      I don’t think you’re accusing me of making this claim, but just in case I agree. It seems highly unlikely that someone somewhere did not know what was going on. This is why I said I was relieved to have dodged a bullet. I might have been accused as being an accomplice.

      Generally speaking, Christians perceive condemning judgment as their duty based on the belief they have a clean righteous inheritance as morally sanctioned superior believers.

      I’m not sure this is true or at least it shouldn’t be. Christians do have a moral responsibility to help other Christians in their sin (when you see your brother committing sin go to him), but they also have the responsibility to make sure they are not committing sin themselves (Take the plank out of your own eye).

      So how does sexual assault survive within this milieu unless the church is entirely composed of sleepwalkers?

      All it takes is for complacent men to do nothing. This is Paul’s argument in 1 Corinthians 5. The general saying is good, but if they were good they wouldn’t have let it happen in the first place.

      • John Paul, not accusing you, just making a point.

        “Generally speaking, Christians perceive condemning judgment as their duty based on the belief they have a clean righteous inheritance as morally sanctioned superior believers.”

        Should read: Generally, Christians consider a condemning type of judgment to be their duty…
        Of course it shouldn’t be true but my considerable experience concludes otherwise and my theory is that overly judgmental attitude is a legacy of Puritanism with a healthy dose of scapegoating mixed in.

        “This is why I said I was relieved to have dodged a bullet. I might have been accused as being an accomplice.” Probably.

        I was offered a key to a church but refused because of previously being accused of thievery simply because I was observed rummaging around for a tool within the supply room. I felt taking the key would lead to more accusations because of how toxic the environment was. The church was like a club and I wasn’t welcome except by the Pastor and a few others. First I stopped volunteering my services and eventually left the church.

  3. While I appreciate everyone’s theology of sin & forgiveness, let us not lose sight that what is being foisted is not merely personal sin by criminal action. As a canon lawyer in the Catholic Church, I recognize the debacle of the clergy sexual abuse scandal. I have worked with both victims and the alleged perpetrators.
    What we learned is that transparency from leadership and the forthrightness of the victims is what will impede this tragedy. In the Catholic Church, we have adopted Norms Guidelines, and policies to curb the issue. All clergy and adults who minister in the Church and interact with children or vulnerable adults are required to be vetted and formed to the issue of sexual crime. Allegations brought forward are taken seriously unless proven otherwise. I would say that as of today, 2022, the Church is a safe place or as safe as is it can be humanly made. Will there be future untoward events? Knowing human behavior, probably, the evil doer will do evil.

    • While I appreciate everyone’s theology of sin & forgiveness, let us not lose sight that what is being foisted is not merely personal sin by criminal action.

      Sure, but my post wasn’t really about that. It was more about how we ended up in this situation in the first place. There are plenty of sins that break the law (just in case I’m not being clear here I mean government; not Jewish law) and there are plenty of sins that are acceptable by the law. Sexual abuse is the former adultery (depending on the country) is the latter. When it comes to the matter of law Romans 13:1-7 seems to have that covered on what we should do:

      1. Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 3 For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, 4 for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. 6 For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. 7 Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.

      I would say there are so exceptions to this, but sexual abuse is not one of them. Therefore we have the responsibility to report the crime.

  4. Thanks Jack. I get really tired reading stuff like this. One of the first lessons I learned was don’t put yourself in a situation where you could even been accused of doing something like this let alone be tempted by it. I just don’t see how so many in my profession continue to let it happen to them.

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