Sex Abuse in Paradise: 5 Lessons for the Church

Sex Abuse in Paradise: 5 Lessons for the Church October 18, 2022

island in ocean

Pitcairn Island, a two-square-mile chunk of rock in the South Pacific, is a classic island paradise. Its lush forests, never-ending ocean views, and close-knit community of a few dozen inhabitants present a picture of natural tranquility and simplified lifestyles.

But this idealized picture was shattered in 1999, when a British police officer temporarily assigned to the island uncovered allegations of systematic sexual abuse of underage girls. Over the next several years, investigations and court cases unfolded, and virtually every man on the island was implicated in the shocking number of crimes. Moreover, as journalists, law enforcement officers, and juries poured over the evidence coming out of the small community, it became clear that the abuse had been going on for decades—likely even for centuries.

As the church wrestles with its own current reckoning surrounding sexual, emotional, and spiritual abuse, we would do well to examine the Pitcairn Island story. The story that played out on this small Pacific island mirrors, in many ways, the pattern of abuse that has played out time and time again within the church. If we’re willing to open our eyes to learn how abuse thrives and how close-knit communities tend to respond to it, we’ll be better prepared to identify and confront abuse in our own churches and ministries.

So here’s 5 things the story of Pitcairn Island can teach the church about abuse.

1 – Abuse Thrives Without Accountability

The story of Pitcairn Island starts with a mutiny on board the HMS Bounty in 1790. Having taken over the ship and set its captain adrift in the lifeboat, the mutineers feared they’d eventually be caught by the British navy and held accountable (i.e., executed) for their crimes. They began searching for a safe place to hide, and eventually selected Pitcairn Island, which they knew to be misplaced on British navigational charts.

Before settling on Pitcairn, however, they made a stop in Tahiti, where they kidnapped 20 natives, including 14 women. The sailors took many of these kidnapped women as wives, thereby becoming the ancestors of Pitcairn Island’s current population.

The men, it seems, had become a law unto themselves. Having sought to avoid accountability for their mutiny, they then rapidly escalated into kidnapping and sexual coercion. And their crimes went unpunished for generations. In fact, the island’s isolation allowed the inhabitants to live virtually without oversight for over two centuries. Moreover, when the British government tried to bring charges against the island’s men in the early 2000s, their first line of defense was that they were not a British territory and therefore not accountable to British courts.

Such systematic avoidance of accountability is, of course, a hallmark of abusive leaders. For example, The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill podcast links Mark Driscoll’s refusal to be accountable to pastors like John Piper (because their congregations were smaller) to his eventual spiral into spiritual abuse. Similarly, Ravi Zacharias openly flaunted his organization’s requirement that employees worship regularly in a local congregation where they could find accountability and spiritual community. The outcomes were disastrous.

The church must remember that honest servant leaders seek accountability because they understand they are just as sinful as everyone else. When we have no accountability, abuse thrives.

2 – Communities Tend to See Allegations as Threats

When allegations of sexual abuse on Pitcairn first came to the surface, the island community immediately interpreted them as an attack. Indeed, journalists reported that the islanders believed the court proceedings were a conspiracy by the British government to close down the island. And one resident, who admitted in an anonymous interview that the abuse allegations were true, still stated that she “didn’t want to see the guys jailed” and “felt very sorry for them.” In the eyes of the islanders, then, the trials were an effort to destroy their community and hurt their friends and family.

All of these realities are, of course, all too familiar to anyone who has seen a church or other institution reckon with the realities of abuse. We believe in the mission of our churches, and we don’t want to see that mission undermined. We love our leaders, and we want to believe that we can trust them.

And so, when someone rocks the boat with allegations of impropriety, we can tend to interpret it as an attack… The accuser’s drama is interfering with the mission of our church. An investigation could undermine public confidence in our ministry and hurt our funding. The allegations are nothing more than a slanderous attack on a godly leader.

If we want to prepare ourselves to navigate abuse in our churches, we must be personally and corporately aware of these tendencies. We must work intentionally to counteract the natural inclination to rally around accused leaders. In many cases, that will mean seeking help from a third party, humbly recognizing our inability to be objective.

3 – People Will Attack The Victims

When a community feels threatened, it naturally tends to attack the threat. So, when a community begins to perceive allegations of abuse as a threat, it naturally tends to attack the accuser.

This reality played out on Pitcairn in dramatic fashion. Kathy Marks, a journalist who spent time on Pitcairn covering the sexual abuse trials, had this to say about the community’s treatment of those who had agreed to testify about the rapes committed against them.

“Rather than blame the men, they blamed the women for speaking out. The unforgiveable crime, in the Pitcairners’ eyes, was not sexually assaulting children, but betraying the island. The men were not shunned, not even by parents living side by side with their daughters’ alleged rapists… The vitriol was reserved for the victims who had broken the Pitcairn code of silence.”

Marks goes on to say that the Pitcairn community engaged in a campaign of “threats, cajolery, and blackmail” in an effort to prevent many of the accusers from testifying in court. In some cases, they were successful.

Of course, many victims of abuse within the church have experienced the tragic reality of this pattern of behavior. The abuser is supported. In some cases, they’re applauded after an insincere and incomplete apology. And, like on Pitcairn, the accuser is shunned and disparaged for rocking the boat.

The church must recognize how easy it is to fall into this trap. And it must make every effort to love and support those who have the boldness to speak up about their deepest wounds.

4 – And They’ll Blame the Victims, Too

One of the most tragic aspects of the Pitcairn story is the fact that sexual abuse on the island likely went on for centuries. The island was settled in the late 1700s by a group of mutineers and the “wives” they kidnapped, as we’ve already said. But that wasn’t the end of the sexual violence.

In the 1880s, the HMS Sappho visited the island, and her captain remarked in his logs about the high prevalence of illegitimate children in the community—including those born to girls as young as 15. Moreover, by the time the island’s rapists were brought to justice in the early 2000s, investigators had uncovered a pattern of rape and sexual abuse dating back until at least the 1950s.

Tragically, these centuries of sexual abuse were accompanied by another consistent pattern: victim blaming. For example, the captain of the HMS Sappho, having observed what was almost certainly evidence of widespread rape on the island in 1882, instead attributed what he saw to the “immorality” of the island’s women. And, when charges were brought against Pitcairn’s men in the 2000s, the islanders argued that women having sex at an early age was a part of their Tahitian cultural heritage. Several older island women, who had their first sexual experiences at 12 or 13, even testified that they had “felt sh-t hot about it,” implying that more recent victims likely felt the same way.

Of course, this kind of victim blaming is common in cases of abuse, especially sexual abuse. It was consensual. She wanted it too. After all, look at what she was wearing.

Victim blaming is therefore another consistent pattern in stories of abuse, both outside and inside the church. The church must be prepared to identify it, confront it, and refuse to be taken in by its lies.

5 – People Will Ignore the Warning Signs

The last tragic element of the Pitcairn story is the degree to which outsiders ignored the warning signs of abuse for so long. We’ve already mentioned the captain who visited the island in the 1800s, saw evidence of likely abuse, and did nothing. But he wasn’t the only one.

A teacher by the name of Allen Cox spent time on the island in the 1980s. He observed the consistent patterns of abuse, but did nothing about it. When interviewed decades later, he had this to say:

“I have no doubt the guys are guilty as sin. The sexual abuse has been going on from the time of the Bounty. I guess that this is the unfortunate generation that got hit.”

Rick Ferrett, a Seventh Day Adventist pastor also assigned to the island in the 1980s, had similar knowledge of the rampant abuse. He neglected to report it, whether to the church or to the authorities. Through his silence, he allowed it to continue for years.

And this is to say nothing of the countless other travelers, tourists, government officials, and pastors that frequented the island over the decades. We can’t say definitively that they were aware of what was going on. But surely many of them must have seen signs.

This, then, is the final lesson the church can learn from the abuse on Pitcairn. It can be so easy for us to overlook the signs of abuse, especially when those responsible for it are people we love and trust. And, even when we do notice it, we can be tempted to fail to act.

We must not allow ourselves to be blinded, and we must not fail to confront sin when we see it. Otherwise, we risk allowing atrocities to continue.

And Yet There’s Hope

Though it was a long time coming, some amount of justice was eventually done on Pitcairn. Many of the island’s men were convicted and made to serve time, though their sentences were modified to fit the constraints of their community. The women who spoke out against them were believed by the outside world, even if they were vilified on Pitcairn. And the island has been subjected to significantly more oversight in the intervening years. Even if the justice was incomplete, progress is definitely being made.

I believe we can say a similar thing about the church. The growing reckoning about sexual, emotional, and spiritual abuse within her walls is slowly changing her approach to dealing with these issues. We’re listening to survivors more. We’re holding perpetrators accountable, rather than allowing them to simply move to a different congregation where they can continue their crimes. We’re talking about patterns of abuse and how we can confront them.

Of course, none of this is perfect. We still have a very long way to go. It will be hard work, and it will never be complete. But it’s work we must do nonetheless. And we should do it mindful of the fact that God is the final judge, that his justice will one day be perfect and complete, and that he will one day wipe away every tear.

By learning the lessons of Pitcairn, we can grow in our ability to tackle abuse in the church. But we also wait for the glorious day when abuse and its consequences will be no more.

Further Thoughts?

Questions or comments about this story and the applicability of these lessons to the church? Please leave a comment below, or get in touch on Twitter. I’d love to engage with you!

Also, I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not an expert on abuse. If you want to learn from people who are, I’d suggest this recent panel discussion on abuse in the church from the Unbelievable? podcast as a good place to start. It includes a really helpful discussion about how laypeople in the church can help prevent and address abusive situations.

Finally, if you want to learn more about the Pitcairn Island story, I highly recommend Kathy Marks’ book Lost Paradise. It’s a fascinating (though tragic) read, and it was the source for many of the quotes and information in this article.

Image Credit: Benjamin Behre / Unsplash

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