Sexual Abuse in Churches

If you say that the history of the Church is a long succession of scandals, you are telling the truth, though if that is all you say, you are distorting the truth.

-Gerald Vann

This post comes on the heels of a major ABC 20/20 report on the Trinity/Phelps sex scandal. Others have dealt with the shameful details there; rather than doing so myself, I’d like to ask the bigger questions: why are churches places of refuge for pedophiles, and why do victims face, in God’s house, an atmosphere that is anything but compassionate?

You know what, let’s just say this like it is. When kids are abused, raped and mistreated, they don’t get the help they need. Churches are way better at covering their tracks and protecting their leaders than at giving innocent, helpless little ones the help and justice they deserve. It’s enough to make you cry: the Church, created by Jesus to feed the hungry, deliver the oppressed and speak for those without voices, has failed in that trust.

Jesus said if you hurt little ones, on judgement day you’ll wish to be drowned in the ocean. He says if you don’t help kids who you know need help, it’s like you’ve rejected God himself. Jesus said kids are the stuff The Kingdom is made of.

The fault of churches in sex abuse situations is one of criminal, monstrous negligence. We have to feel the tremendous responsibility of protecting kids from harm, and then this: it’s not good enough to be passively disapprove of sexual abuse. We have to actively create an environment within which kids feel safe revealing that they’ve been molested. This is so incredibly important! Let’s detail some of the obstacles that kids have to overcome in order to have their sexual abuse dealt with:

1. Kids are naturally intimidated of adults, of course. This natural feeling is reinforced and strengthened by constant church teaching to always obey and never question authority.
2. Kids have to overcome a deep-seated shame about sex inculcated through generations of misguided “biblical” theology.
3. Kids would need to actually know that abuse is wrong.

And we sit back, waiting for kids to come forward, thinking our responsibility is discharged. These scandals pop up every now and then, then quiet down, and our conscience is salved. Meanwhile, we miss the 90% that never get revealed. Those liberal, god-hating public schools do more to help kids than those bearing Christ’s name.

How do we break from the cycle of abuse>repression>abuse? I have a few ideas.

1. Kids need to be taught that adult authority is not absolute. Kids need to know when adults are overstepping their bounds. One of the saddest parts of abuse stories is hearing victims talk about how they felt during the abuse: conflicted and confused, feeling violated and powerless because their role models and heroes are betraying them. Many kids, after so many years of being taught to obey authority without question, simply choose to not tell. Even worse, sermons about “bitterness” and “forgiveness” seem to be telling them to simply move on, to deal with it. So many brave kids have tried to do this, only to find the pain and memories welling up time after time. They’re violated by the abuser–and there’s no apparatus to help them.

2. Sex education in religious circles has to improve. We’d really like to believe kids don’t know or think about sex until they’re helpfully informed by a parent via “The Sex Talk”. Even if so many kids weren’t introduced to sex in the most shattering way possible–by molestation–we’d still be dumb to think that. More to the point here, kids at least need to know that sexual abuse exists, and, in some fashion, what it is. I know I’m in way over my head with discussions of parenting and sex ed, but I’ll keep it simple: we MUST have a system for making kids aware of what is and is not acceptable. To leave this kind of decision up to a 4-year-old is unacceptable and disgusting.

3. We have to help the abusers. Pedophiles usually have a history of being abused, too. Abusers do not need the church to help preserve their reputation, they do not need to be shielded from the law, and church discipline is not enough. No church’s public image is worth covering up the sin of abuse. Church members who abuse kids need our love, our help and they need punishment. This topic has to become one we talk about so the veil of shame can lift, even a little bit. Here, too, wise pastors and therapists are the ones trained to help–but us laypeople have a job, too! Let’s get the word out and educate ourselves and our kids!

This is where the rubber meets the road. This is why I can’t stand systems of control, hard patriarchies and schools who only care about keeping their grass trimmed and their students perky and polite. Those systems are way too tied up in their own appearance to help in the messy, sad world of sexual abuse. In the end, they’ll only protect themselves and hang the kids out to dry. It’s up to us to turn this paradigm around.

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6 thoughts on “Sexual Abuse in Churches

  1. Dave

    Great Post Clint, most of the online conversation revolves around the emotions inherent in this issue. Glad to see a very reasoned piece of advice. These ideas would be a great start for any ministry looking to actually practice the mandates given the the church. Sunlight is a great antiseptic, this stuff coming out is painful, but it will only become more so if the establishment in fundamentalist circles try to put this issue below the radar again without dealing with them. Its sad when the secular culture has to point out issues of morality and ethics in our own midst. Sad and disgusting.

  2. Stephen Enjaian

    I agree with much of what you wrote, but I’m troubled by the broad brush you used. Fro example, when you write, “Churches are way better at covering their tracks and protecting their leaders than at giving innocent, helpless little ones the help and justice they deserve. It’s enough to make you cry: the Church, created by Jesus to feed the hungry, deliver the oppressed and speak for those without voices, has failed in that trust.”

    It’s badly overreaching to say “The Church…has failed in that trust.” Do you mean all churches? To be sure, even one church that os in your categorization, is one too many. But the way you describe the problem is a little careless and lowers the credibility of your message

    1. Clinton Verley Post author

      Nevertheless, that is my assessment. It’s not just a few churches, it’s not just a minority of “bad apples”. This is a widespread problem. If you disagree, that’s ok.

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