How Does Christian Culture Enable Abusers?

How Does Christian Culture Enable Abusers? November 28, 2017


One of the most recent developments in the #metoo trend has been the emergence of the #churchtoo hashtag, which invites believers to talk about the specific ways in which Christian culture contributed to their sexual victimization.

It’s a moment to stop and reflect on the ways in which the culture within our Churches can make an environment that protects abusers, and that sidelines or even shames those who have been victimized.

There are a few trends that run through a number of the stories:

The misuse of “forgiveness”

Years ago, I heard from a friend that she had been repeatedly raped in a Catholic institution – she wasn’t abused by clergy, but the clergy became complicit in allowing the abuse to continue when they told her to “forgive” rather than taking action to prevent the on-going abuse. Similar tropes appear frequently in the accounts of Christian survivors: they go to someone in authority, someone whose job it is to protect the vulnerable and to hold perpetrators accountable, and instead of accountability they are told that Jesus would forgive the assault.

This is not forgiveness, it’s enabling. Forgiveness is a process that takes time, and it has to be initiated voluntarily by the person who is forgiving. We might consider the length of time in between Original Sin and Christ’s reconciliation with humanity: God did not rush to kiss and make up. Nor was forgiveness a code-word for allowing people to get away with predatory or violent behaviour. Yes, there are cases where forgiveness is offered because a person does not know what they are doing – but when someone who gets up and preaches about purity assaults someone in their youth group, they know damned well what they are doing. When somebody takes advantage of someone much younger than themselves, they know what they are doing. When somebody rapes, they know what they are doing.

Forgiveness is not letting someone off the hook. Real forgiveness liberates victims by allowing them to acknowledge that they have been hurt and that they are not to blame, by empowering them to tell the truth about what was done to them, and by giving them the means to let go of the power that another person’s sin has over them. If a victim feels silenced, shamed or shackled by instructions to “forgive” what is being discussed is not forgiveness, but ass-covering.


Purity culture has a long and unfortunate record of promoting the idea that women are temptresses and that men “fall” because they are just too weak to overcome the temptations placed in their way by immodest female bodies. This can encourage men to think of abusive or predatory behaviour as “a slip” or “a stumble,” and it often leads to victims being encouraged to think about how they might have contributed to their victimization.

It also leads victims (both males and females, though especially girls) to believe that they are responsible for their own victimization. We put up examples of young women who faught to the death to maintain their purity, and although I hope this isn’t still happening, it was for a long time the practice of the Church to investigate the state of a woman’s hymen as part of a case for canonization – even if it was known that she had been the victim of violent sexual assault. The assumption is that the weaker party can resist if they are really committed to being pure. This just isn’t true. And the implication that God is more interested in hymens than hearts is insulting both to women and to God.

More importantly, it leads to a “guilt on both sides” rhetoric in which innocent actions are suddenly enticements to sin, and false equivalency abounds. Wearing a tank top becomes equivalent to violating another person’s body. Sitting on a boy’s bed becomes equivalent to holding a girl down on that bed and using her against her will. Wanting to please an adult you look up to becomes equivalent to being encouraged to perform a blow-job on an adult before you’re old enough to even understand what a blow-job is.

There are a lot of situations where two people are in conflict where it is appropriate to say “maybe you might want to look at how you’re making this situation worse.” Often that’s a great exercise in humility, and an important precondition for reconciliation. But when this principle is applied to cases of abuse or exploitation, assault or violation, it is a violation of both compassion and decency.

But David Was a Man After God’s Heart!

This is pretty specific, but it’s just one of the ways that predatory behaviour is excused in Christian contexts. The take-away is that if sexually abusing vulnerable people can be construed as a minor blip in an otherwise exemplary career, we should just let it go. After all, there are much more important things.

It’s a deeply wrong way of looking at predatory behaviour. A person who thinks that other people’s bodies are just objects to be used, who thinks that it’s okay to take advantage of the vulnerable, is not someone who should be trusted. This is not a type of behaviour that will only manifest in one sphere of life: if your attitude towards the least of these is that you should take what you want from them, you are not someone who should be trusted. Not with Christian ministry. Not with political power.

When Jesus is speaking to the Pharisees, the religious leaders of His time, He speaks of those who enter the sheepfold to steal, kill and destroy – and contrasts this with the good shepherd who lays down his life for the flock. (cf John 10) A person who uses their position of authority to prey on others is not a shepherd, and should be driven away from the flock.

What we should learn from the David story is that a) prophets call out the sexual misconduct of powerful men, they do not conceal it; b) forgiveness does not involve a lack of consequences: David suffers for his transgression; c) sincere repentance does not involve blame-shifting and lame excuses, but a heart-rending acknowledgement of one’s own guilt like you find in David’s psalms of contrition.

It’s So Brave for a Guy to Admit to Being a Predator

Confession is good, and we should definitely encourage it. And there is a very real sense in which the #metoo campaign does need to be accompanied by an acknowledgment, on the part of folks (both men and women) who have been sexually abusive or exploitative that they need to take responsibility. But there’s a problem when confession for harmful behaviour leads to congratulations – especially if the props are coming from others with similar sins or temptations that they are not confessing. Admitting that you’ve done wrong should mean acknowledging the harm that you’ve done and expressing contrition for it, not having your ego salved about your sins.

I will always remember my very first confession, because it was with a great confessor whose penance was not just a random handful of prayers, but a form of restorative justice. He encouraged me to see if there was anything that I could do to make amends to people that I had hurt, and in cases where doing so was only likely to cause more pain or harm I was to pray for those very specific people.

If someone confesses to having done something harmful to another person, the first response should not be “wow, you’re so brave for admitting that.” Those who have been harmed may say “Thank you for acknowledging what you did,” but that’s their prerogative. The first question of everyone else should be “How can you make sure you don’t do this again,” followed by, “How can you help the other person to heal?” And it must always be understood that sometimes helping another person to heal means leaving them alone and allowing them to process their grief.

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