Notes from the Margins: What We Talk About When We Talk About Abuse in the Church

Each week in Notes From the Margins, D.L. Mayfield writes about the kingdom of God, marginalized people groups, and popular culture.

A popular blogger wrote about a recent scandal. There was a church; there was a school; there are allegations of past sexual abuse of minors that were dealt with in unsatisfactory ways. There are active lawsuits, and the church organization actively seeking to dismiss them based on first amednment rights. It should be a surprising story, but it isn’t.

Tim Challies, the author of the aforementioned blog post, wrote about the controversy surrounding Soveriegn Grace Ministries–using words very familiar to Christians, urging readers to seek unity, live at peace, forgive and love one another, hope for the best, stop spreading gossip. Whether or not he intended it, Challies’ post came off at best as ill-informed regarding the experiences of those who have been abused; at worst, it seemed like a post subtly geared more towards the protection of the powerful rather than investigating the stories of the vulnerable.

I highly doubt Challies meant to be controversial; but I will say that the language of his blog got into my skin a bit. For myself and others who have sought to be advocates for victims of sexual abuse (many of those nearest and dearest to me have experienced this trauma), I was reminded of the shame of being called a pot-stirrer, a sower of discord, an enemy of peace—all from fellow Christians–simply by fighting for the truth to become public. I don’t believe Challies intended this at all, but he made a large error by admonishing his readers that “this situation [with SGM] is unfolding before a watching world that loves nothing more than to see Christians in disunity, accusing one another, fighting one another, making a mockery of the gospel that brings peace”–without taking time to detail the horrors of the realities of abuse. This kind of one-sided language is at best discouraging, and at worst damaging—allowing for places where victims are encouraged to be silent and abusers are allowed to continue on. Which, as history has shown, is still currently being played out in the church.

Challies isn’t the only one who has chosen not to discuss the realities of sexual abuse within Christian communities. On one hand, I understand the desire to live like this sort of thing is an impossibility—especially in redeemed communities. But refusal to seek after knowledge in this area of the church has led to the types of situations that allow and even foster abusers to run rampant. Speaking up about the realities of sexual abuse is a way we can not only stop current situations (or repent for past ones), but it can also actively help us prevent future ones. And that, I believe, more than anything would bring about true peace and unity. However, it might take a certain amount of confrontation to get there.

With the rates of sexual abuse being what they are in America (1 in 4 women, 1 in 6 men—but those are just statistics from the people who talk, since most victims never tell) it is almost certainly true that you know someone who has been abused. There are people in your community, your ministry, your church and school—and it isn’t just a handful.

What is equally true, but even less talked about in the church, is the other side of this truth: you almost certainly know an abuser.

Image: Rega Photography via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).

This is not fun to talk about; for too long we have hid behind myths of who and what sex abusers are like. For children, especially, we go to the old stand-by stereotypes: men with large white vans, strangers luring you with promises of candy. The images of an abuser as a wild, trench-coat wearing loners still underlies many of our conversations about abuse.

The media, much faster than the church, has picked up on the reality of the situation. Charismatic priests, award-winning football coaches, educators and pastors have all been outed as serial abusers through various court cases and media profiles. But what is most shocking is not that these successful community members are the most prolific perpetrators, but the consistent theme of institutions (both educational and religious) dealing with sex abuse cases poorly, painstakingly slowly, and in some cases seeking dismissal of court cases.

This response does not make sense in light of the stastics surrounding abuse/abusers. Of all reported sexual assault cases (again, many victims never tell), over 70% occured to children. 90% were violated by someone their families knew and trusted. Predators seek out places where children will be, and they often position themselves as leaders in the community— commonly as coaches, educators, tutors, volunteers, and various church ministry positions. Most egregious of all, recent reports show that the median number of victims for a sexual offender when they are caught is 117.

The faster we get this knowledge into our brains, the sooner we can become better advocates for victims and seek to activly prevent abuse from happening in our church communities. The first steps of prevention involve realistically coming to terms that abuse does and will happen in our churches. Even though I truly believe in redemption, even for abusers, I will be at the forefront of the movement which seeks to prevent such individuals from ever having the opportunity to abuse others. Policies such as never allowing one-to-one time between volunteers and children, knowing the red flags of abuser behavior, and having frank conversations with our children about who could potentially abuse them, will all go along way towards protecting our communities.

This is happening, all around us. Now is the time to be honest about the potential for abuse, even in our sacred institutions. Now, more than ever, is the time to recognize traumas encountered by so many within our world and communities, to seek out reconciliation that is holistic and justice-oriented, to give weight to the voices of the vulnerable that currently aren’t being heard.

Otherwise, we are living in a very false peace—one that will eventually be uncovered as darkness.

For more information on child abuse statistics (plus tips for churches and other organizations on prevention), please go to Darkness to Light.

About D.L. Mayfield

D.L. Mayfield's life is about 90% mundane and 10% cray-cray. She loves food and books and a good outsider perspective portrayed in pop culture. She gets very, very excitable when anyone mentions the phrases "kingdom of God". You can find her blog here and on twitter as @d_l_mayfield.

  • http://www.fromtwotoone.com Danielle | from two to one

    Thanks, DL, for addressing this important and difficult issue. One of my major issues with the Challies post is that he hardly — if at all — addresses the victims who experienced this abuse. As Suzannah Paul mentioned on RHE’s post, what we are implicitly saying when we rush to ensure the alleged abusers are “innocent until proven guilty” is that the alleged victims are “lying until proven truthful.” It’s of course a false dichotomy, but in the way the ins and outs of our legal system — and the subsequent court of public opinion — is communicated not so subtly places the burden of proof on the victim. In these cases, it’s not only to prove that someone specific abused them, but that they were abused at all. I’d like to see a culture shift in which we still can uphold innocent until proven guilty, but that we ALWAYS are bent to believe victims when they come forward.

  • http://www.inamirrordimly.com ed cyzewski

    Thanks for this post D. L. The oversight of victims has been so hard to see in this situation. Here’s praying for safety and accountability in our churches and ministries.

  • http://www.watchtheshepherd.blogspot.com Virginia Knowles

    Thank you so much for writing about this, DL. I am a regular reader of your blog, a home schooling mother of 10, and a former longtime member of Sovereign Grace Ministries. I had known about the instances of grossly mishandled sex abuse cases long before the lawsuit came out, and that was certainly a factor in our choice to leave nearly three years ago. I believe that these cases are a symptom of a larger problem of control and image and self-protection. I have taken the time in our home school co-op class of tweeners to remind them of the danger of sexual predators and plead with them to watch out for themselves and to TELL if something happens to them — and keep telling until someone does something definitive.

    I wrote an article “Abuse Thrives in a Culture of Shame and Silence” here: http://watchtheshepherd.blogspot.com/2013/01/abuse-thrives-in-culture-of-shame-and.html.

    Also, “We Can’t Ignore Domestic Violence” here: http://watchtheshepherd.blogspot.com/2012/10/we-cant-ignore-domestic-violence.html

    Virginia Knowles

  • Karen Spears Zacharias

    It is a problem within the church and within our court systems — the way we marginalize victims. Thank you for this post. Abusers don’t walk around with the Scarlet Letter A on their foreheads. We have to be more watchful, more observant and more willing to speak up on behalf of abused children everywhere.

  • http://hargaden.com/kevin Kevin Hargaden

    Speaking from where I am, in the Irish church, the snippets I have read about how SGM has responded to these accusations are *terrifying* to me. If the civil authorities, that Tim Challies reminds us are indeed God-appointed, are not set free to work and bring justice for those who are abused, a tremendous violation of the Kingdom will have occurred.

    In Ireland, the hierarchy in the church was quick to deny or distract or confuse the issue. I have sat at tables with priests and bishops who claimed that “in the 1970′s we didn’t know what abuse was!” But my parent’s generation – even my parents – knew that there was physical and sexual abuse going on in (many) corners of the church. So as I see it, as someone who is training to be a minister, the ordinary church member who stands up and demands transparency, who goes out on a limb to call for investigation, who considers the little children – that person is loving their leaders well. Because it is better for those leaders to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea rather than harm the children of the Kingdom.

    Jesus is very serious. So should we be.

  • http://renewandsustain.wordpress.com/ Christiana

    DL, poignant and pointed as usual. I think you hit the nail on the head here about “living in a very false peace—one that will eventually be uncovered as darkness.” I feel like this is the heart of so much of the coverup–certainly some of it is wickedness and secrecy. But some of this willingness to cover things up seems to be that if we really face this reality, it means that we have much to fear for our children. And it means that we have to admit that Christians will use seemingly innocent situations to commit awful crimes. And that doesn’t sit well with our theology about how Christ works in our lives and in the church. Frankly, I understand that because I feel that terror for our children and every child. When it hasn’t happened to you, it’s scary to believe that it could happen to your child. And so we’d rather not know it goes on. But ignoring it will most likely “be uncovered as darkness.” Thank you!

  • anonymous

    Thank you for this. I was a childhood sexual abuse victim of the pastor’s daughter. It was covered up – still is being covered up. The statistic about 117 victims is so sobering. Lord, heal our Church.

  • http://www.leighkramer.com HopefulLeigh

    Thank you for this post, DL, and for advocating on behalf of the victims of sexual abuse.

  • http://derekzrishmawy.com Derek Rishmawy

    This was good. It’s sad, but good. I work in the student ministries at my church and this reality is one that haunts us as we try and formulate policies and screening issues when it comes to volunteers and the safety of our children at church. It’s so hard because there are so many places and ways kids can get hurt anywhere, and in some ways, in an environment that’s supposed to be a haven for the vulnerable, it’s a target for the violator. Pastors watching over their flock need to be worried less about being perceived as an ineffective shepherds, than actually being them by covering up abuses. Thank you for this.

  • http://www.sarahbessey.com Sarah Bessey

    I have had zero idea how to write about this or talk about this. I just want to cry and cry. So I’m thankful for people like you, DL, writing with such wisdom and clarity and truth. I am learning and listening and praying. And supporting. Thank you for this.

  • http://www.estheremery.com Esther

    Thank you for writing this, DL. Clear and clean. I don’t have words yet for my response, but can thank you for providing a see-through container for meeting the hard stuff.

  • http://www.livesayhaiti.com Tara Livesay

    I love you. Filled with hope upon seeing such courage and truth. let us all give voice to the vulnerable.

    tara

  • Mama

    Wartburg Watch is continuing their coverage of Prestonwood Baptist in Dallas. I just linked your post there at
    http://thewartburgwatch.com/2013/03/08/prestonwood-baptist-vs-chris-tynes-something-is-very-wrong/

    I also linked your blog here in my own post “Women’s Voices Rising” here:
    http://watchtheshepherd.blogspot.com/2013/03/womens-voices-rising-advocating-for.html

  • http://www.watchtheshepherd.blogspot.com Virginia Knowles

    Sorry, I somehow didn’t post that last comment under my own name.

  • http://dianatrautwein.com Diana Trautwein

    Oh, DL, this is SO IMPORTANT. Thank you for writing this out so clearly and well. The realities of this are staggering, just staggering. And too many of us, me included, have kept our heads in the clouds for too long, believing it could never happen in OUR church. But it can. And we make so many mistakes in dealing with it. I think that’s because it scares the crap out of us to realize that ordinary-seeming person over there could be abusing little ones (or not so little ones). As a member of a pastoral staff that serves a local Christian college and a retirement community, I grew deeply aware that abuse happens all.the.time. In families, in schools, in churches. We instituted background checks, cut out long narrow spaces for darkened glass windows in all of our brand-new office doors, and have had to ask a 55 year old parishioner to cease and desist in approaching young college students for dates! (He left the church and went elsewhere – we called and warned them.) It is insidious and pervasive and we must pay attention. We must.

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  • Kreine

    Thank you for this. I really pushed for my church to implement training policies for church workers, even providing statistics regarding childhood sexual abuse and resources from which to draw when building the policies. Unfortunately, the church leadership decided to go with the basic minimum requirements of the insurance provider (background checks for children’s workers) rather than provide any training whatsoever for identifying and reporting abuse.

    My insistence that more needed to be done was met with the response that church policy satisfied legal requirements. One would think a church would be concerned with moral obligations as well!

  • http://jennystockton.com Jenny Stockton

    Your courage gives me courage! And hope. Thank you for using your words well and for bringing the light. I’d say you smacked the devil in the mouth with this one.

  • http://OneFamilyManyFaiths.blogspot.com Y

    Matthew 18:15 clearly outlines a prescription for reconciliation; it does not include the legal system. The churches don’t want reconciliation; they want their riches and reputations returned with no restitution (if, indeed, there is any way to make restitution for killing someone’s soul).

    Luke 17:2 is clear about what should happen to these people. Suicide, like that of Judas, seems to be in order; yet, we put them on suicide watch to prevent them from redeeming themselves.

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