Becoming Alert to Conservative Protestant Sexual Abusers and Their Enablers

Last night I listened to the new Reasonable Doubts podcast, which included a detailed account of the case of self-righteously Christian former major league baseball player and eventual sex abuse convict, Chad Curtis. The show is a gripping and revolting listen, and as usual the Doubtcasters bring to bear a lot of insight in the process both of telling the story and in analyzing it at the end. Doubtcaster Jeremy Beahan went to college at Cornerstone University where Chad Curtis was a prominent figure, earning his degree to go into high school coaching (where he would commit his sex crimes). Before even dealing with the Curtis case, they also critically analyze evangelical Christians’ warped and potentially destructive tendencies to pathologize masturbation as a matter of addiction. Please listen here. The official description of the episode is below:

Major League Baseball player Chad Curtis will always be remembered as the man who led the New York Yankees to victory by catching the last out of the last World Series game of the 20th century. To many religious sports fans, Curtis was a hero for taking a strong stand for Christian principles. He regularly spoke out against performance enhancing drugs and the hedonistic lifestyle of many professional athletes. He donated half of his income to charities that promoted Christian values. His friends described him as “morally blameless” and in the eyes of many, Chad Curtis was one of the few true role models left in professional sports. After retirement, Curtis returned to his home in west Michigan and began working as a teacher and coach in public and private religious schools but eventually resigned when three students accused Curtis of sexually molesting them in the school training room. Curtis denied the allegations, and his community rallied behind him even as more victims came forward. Transcripts from his trial reveal how Curtis used his reputation as a righteous man to manipulate his victims and win the support of the community after his crimes had been exposed. Disturbing but insightful, the Chad Curtis story provides a unique window into the mind of a religious sexual abuser. Also on this episode: Gay marriage advocates try an unusual legal strategy, the AFA claims they are being bullied and Christianity Today debates the causes of female masturbation.

Also, The American Prospect has a long article on a task force that is calling for proactive measures in combatting appalling, consequence-free, religious abuse enabled by victim blaming and a mindless attachment to forgiveness that erodes all accountability.

Here are just two key segments:

For years, Protestants have assumed they were immune to the abuses perpetrated by celibate Catholic priests. But Tchividjian believes that Protestant churches, groups, and schools have been worse than Catholics in their response. Mission fields, he says, are “magnets” for would-be molesters; ministries and schools do not understand the dynamics of abuse; and “good ol’ boy” networks routinely cover up victims’ stories to protect their reputations. He fears it is only a matter of time before it all blows up in their faces and threatens the survival of powerful Protestant institutions.

In the past couple of years, Tchividjian has begun to look prophetic. Reports and allegations of sex abuse, rape, and harassment—and a culture that has badly mishandled them—have become more and more frequent. In fall 2012, former members of Sovereign Grace Ministries, a “family” of about 80 conservative churches from various theological traditions, filed a class-action lawsuit against the ministry for failing to report allegations of sex abuse in the 1980s and 1990s—including abuse perpetrated by church leaders’ immediate family members—and discouraging victims and their families from going to law enforcement. (The lawsuit was dismissed last year because of expired statutes of limitations and jurisdictional questions, but an appeal and criminal investigations are under way.) This spring, an exposé in The New Republic revealed that Patrick Henry, the college of choice for evangelical homeschoolers, has covered up alleged campus rape and sexual assault, thanks largely to its victim-blaming emphasis on women’s purity. Allegations of similar practices soon surfaced against other Christian colleges, including Pensacola Christian College in Florida and Cedarville University in Ohio. A documentary released in February, No Place to Call Home, recounts the systematic sexual abuse of children in the 1980s at Jesus People USA, an evangelical commune in Chicago. The empire of Bill Gothard, founder of the fundamentalist Institute in Basic Life Principles, crumbled earlier this year after bloggers revealed dozens of sexual-harassment and molestation claims against him.

“When you have this motley group of many denominations, this independent environment, and then this distortion of scripture, that’s an environment where abuse can flourish,” Tchividjian says. “But we’ve never been forced to deal with it on a Protestant-wide basis.”

Common threads run through the stories: authoritarian settings where rule-following and obedience reign supreme; counseling techniques that emphasize victims’ own culpability; male leaders with few checks on their power; and, in the eyes of many Christians including Tchividjian, a perversion of the Bible to justify all three. “When you have this motley group of many denominations, this independent environment, and then this distortion of scripture, that’s an environment where abuse can flourish,” Tchividjian says. “But we’ve never been forced to deal with it on a Protestant-wide basis.”

And later on:

As he always does, Tchividjian delivered a scary set of facts: If general statistics apply—a quarter of U.S. women and a sixth of men have been sexually abused before age 18—Calvary Chapel’s 1,000-member congregation might easily include 200 victims. But even that doesn’t get at the scope of the problem, he said. Congregations need to understand that churches are targets and havens for abusers. One study has found that 93 percent of admitted sex offenders describe themselves as religious. Offenders who report strong church ties abuse more often, with younger victims. That’s not because Christians are inherently more abusive, he said, but because they’re more vulnerable to those who are. Tchividjian repeated what one convicted sex abuser told clinical psychologist Anna Salter in her book Predators: Pedophiles, Rapists, And Other Sex Offenders: “Church people”—always looking to see the best in people, to welcome converts, to save sinful souls—are “easy to fool.”

Tchividjian rattled off ways in which Christians’ openness can allow abuse to go unchecked: Perpetrators tend to use scripture to coerce, justify, and silence. If they’re clergy, they will exploit their positions; if they’re laypeople, they will take advantage of a church hungry for volunteers and rely on the trust given to members of a church family. “The reason why offenders get away with what they do is because we have too many cultures of silence,” Tchividjian said. “When something does surface, all too often the church leadership quiets it down. Because they’re concerned about reputation: ‘This could harm the name of Jesus, so let’s just take care of it internally.’

And a little more:

Years of investigating abuse cases—“we spend our days swimming in Christian cesspools,” he says—has left him hypervigilant. Megachurches with thousands of volunteers unnerve him, and after working on too many cases where girls were molested by someone in their best friend’s family, Tchividjian and his wife no longer let their daughters spend the night at friends’ houses, let alone church camps or “lock-in” church-basement sleepovers. “But for my wife,” he says, “I don’t trust anyone 100 percent—I’ve seen too much, too many scenarios. What I have to wrestle with is how do I deal with that? How do I balance that tension, between not trusting anyone and knowing that we have to function in life? You have to figure that out for yourself. But know this: Offenders exploit trust.”

Read the whole story.

Your Thoughts?

Background links on the Reasonable Doubts stories:

Here are background links related to the episode:

The Chad Curtis Trial

Christianity Today: Getting to the Root of Female Masturbation

American Family Association says “We Don’t Discriminate” stickers bully Christians

NC clergymen say forbidding same-sex marriage violates their religious freedom

Journal of Religious Health: Evangelicalism, Sexual Morality, and Sexual Addiction:
Opposing Views and Continued Conflicts

Journal of Interpersonal Abuse: Cognitive Distortions of Religious Professionals Who Sexually Abuse Children

 

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.


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