The Sexual Predators in Evangelicals’ Backyard

There’s something we need to talk about. Opposition to trans bathroom access is perhaps most pronounced among evangelical Christians, a group whose inability to deal with sexual abuse in their own communities rivals that of the Catholic church. Evangelicals claim they oppose trans bathroom access because of the threat this access poses to women and children. Why, then, are they so quick to turn a blind eye to the abuse of women and children in their own communities?

When 15-year-old Tina Anderson was raped by a church elder and became pregnant, the church leadership believed her rapist’s claim that the interaction was consensual and punished Tina by making her confess to sexual immorality in front of the congregation, sending her away for the duration of her pregnancy, and forcing her to give her baby up for adoption. Meanwhile, her rapist was allowed to retain his position in the church’s children’s ministry.

For decades, Christian homeschool families overlooked warning signs and allowed Bill Gothard to maintain his leadership position in IBLP and his contact with and control over the teenage girls he hired as his personal secretaries. The IBLP Board of Directors was aware that Gothard had crossed lines and done things that were inappropriate and yet they took no action. Meanwhile, the many dozens of girls who suffered harassment and sexual molestation at Gothard’s hands suffered in silence, knowing that they would not be believed if they told someone what was happening.

There was a time I thought such abuses were rare, perhaps confined to more fundamentalist groups and certainly not characteristic of evangelicals as a whole. I’m no longer so sure of this.

Boz Tchividjian, the grandson of Billy Graham and a professor at Liberty University, has made a name for himself as an evangelical anti-abuse advocate through his organization Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment (GRACE). In 2013, he argued that evangelicals are “worse” than Catholics in their response to abuse. Over the past several years I’ve watched his ministry and I’ve watched as some evangelicals have made steps in the right direction while others push back. I’ve watched as evangelicals have complained that child abuse prevention gets in the way of loving children as Jesus loves them.

And it’s not just evangelicals. It’s conservative politicians more generally. You want an example? I can give you a very current one:

Former U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, several other former congressmen and a onetime CIA chief were among 41 people who wrote letters asking for leniency for Dennis Hastert as the former U.S. House speakerheads to sentencing next week in his hush-money case.

What did Hastert do, exactly?

Prosecutors say the core of the misconduct is sexual abuse by Hastert when he coached wrestling and taught at Yorkville High outside Chicago from 1965 until 1981.

Oh. That. And look at this:

The letters are part of a defense bid to get probation for a man who was once second in line of succession to the U.S. presidency and who now faces up to five years in prison. Most were written in late February and early March, before prosecutors had fully detailed the sexual abuse allegations leveled at Hastert decades ago.

Why would you write letters in defense of someone without knowing what the full allegations are? That’s like the worst idea ever—and an abuser’s dream. Abusers are good at looking like upstanding citizens. They know how to manipulate their image and discredit their victims. It turns out that Republican politicians are good at defending sex offenders. And also being sex offenders.

You would think that people who care so much about preventing the abuse of women and children that they’re willing to bar a particularly vulnerable group of people—trans individuals—from safely using the bathroom themselves would, you know, care about actually learning the dynamics of abuse. But no. They’re not interested.

This issue has become increasingly personal to me.

Over the past few years, the evangelical community in which I grew up has been rocked by several child sex abuse scandals itself, and it has not handled them well. I’ve watched in growing horror as child sex abuse victims have been called “incorrigible liars” and compared to the wayward woman of Proverbs. It’s hard to explain the level of abject horror I have felt as I have watched friends and family members fail to show a shred of compassion for sexually abused children in their communities while showing scads of compassion for the perpetrators. The community in which I grew up is not a safe place for children.

A particularly problematic set of beliefs contributes to evangelicals’ frequent inability to properly address sexual abuse. Evangelical teachings about forgiveness and redemption make it incredibly easy for child predators to convince those around them that they have changed, and that they should be allowed to resume their ministry positions and their access to children. Evangelical modesty teachings also make it far too easy to blame women and children for their own assaults. And then there is the book of Proverbs.

When my mother read the book of Proverbs to me and my siblings when I was a child, she would look pointedly at my brothers when reading about the wayward woman, who lured men to her bed with perfumes and then led them to their destruction. “Beware the wayward woman,” she would tell them. I didn’t realize how insidious this teaching was until I heard it applied to a young female sexual abuse victim in my own community. Months of grooming, the process by which a predator conditions their victim to accept their abuse, were ignored because—and I’m not making this up—no one in the community knew what grooming was.

For too many evangelicals, it is women—teenage girls in particular—who are seen as the natural sexual predators, and not the predatory men who take advantage of them. The temptress/wayward woman image can easily overwhelm attempts to talk about grooming or the dynamics of sexual abuse. Perhaps you are an evangelical reader certain that this could never happen in your community. Good for you. So was I. And then it happened—and more than once—as I watched in horror.

Evangelicals in particular and conservative politicians more generally have a sexual abuse problem in their own backyard. But you know what? It’s a sight lot easier for them to ignore that and point to “the other” as the real threat to women and children. These groups cultivate unsafe atmospheres in their own communities but can simultaneously portray themselves as the true protectors of women and children by pretending that the true threat is outside of their communities. It’s not.

I’m not worried about my first grade daughter using the bathroom at the same time as a trans woman. I’m worried about my teenage sisters living in an evangelical community with a demonstrated willingness to turn on victims and make excuses for predators.

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