2018 was a year to remember. Unless you were asleep under a rock somewhere, you will have an awareness that the faith community and beyond was rocked by sex abuse scandals. January began with the Larry Nassar sentencing in Lansing, MI where an unprecedented over 150 victims gave impact statements on record. In the same month Jules Woodson came public with her story of abuse from her former youth minister Andy Savage of HighPoint Church in Memphis. Both Any Savage and Chris Conlee have since resigned. Bill Hybels of Willow Creek had multiple victims come forward and accuse him of sexual misconduct. Hybels took an “early retirement,” all the elders resigned, along with pastor Heather Larson.
In August the Pennsylvania Grand Jury report was published, exposing over 300 predator priests and over 1,000 victims of child sexual abuse. That sparked a nation-wide probe into the Catholic church and its cover-up of abuse. Paige Patterson, president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, was fired in 2018 for failing to report a rape and for repeatedly bragging about telling women in abusive marriages to endure the physical abuse. Sarah Smith at the Star-Telegram released a bombshell investigative report into the Independent Fundamental Baptist Church that spanned 40 states and Canada. It revealed reports of over 200 victims–412 allegations in 187 churches. Of the 168 leaders accused or convicted, at least 45 of them remained in ministry after credible allegations arose. 75 year old Creation Fest co-founder and minister Harry Thomas was sentenced to 18 years in prison for sex with minors.
And of course Bill Cosby was sentenced 3-10 years to a Pennsylvania state prison. There were many more scandals that rocked both mega churches and small churches alike. I had the high honor of meeting many of the Catholic abuse survivors from the PA Grand jury report. I marched with them on our state’s capital, met with Senators, and was sitting with survivors in the House galley when it passed the Window to Justice Bill. I’ve met so many friends the past year and all share a sacred bond. All of the people I met were either sexually, physically, or spiritually abused or were family members of abuse victims. Almost all of them were rejected by the church. Jules Woodson has become a friend. She shared her story on my podcast. Shaun Dougherty shared his story with me about how his coming forward opened the door to the sate wide investigation into the Catholic church here in Pennsylvania. I’ve met incredible survivors and have been blessed to be able to hear them tell their stories. Kelly Haines is another brave survivor whom I’ve become friends with.
I’ve listened to hundreds of stories in 2018 and met so, so many incredible survivors and advocates. But what keeps haunting me is how badly the church still is failing to care for and protect the innocent and the wounded. I wrote an article last week called Our “Jesus accepts all” theology is empowers abusers, big time. I write about this a lot–how our theology is embarrassingly protective of abusers and dangerously antagonistic toward their victims. It’s not just my imagination, either. After consulting with churches, personally speaking with hundreds of survivors and dozens of church leaders, I’ve learned that many church leaders radically defend abusers and survivors are feeling the sting. The number of survivors who’ve told me that they attempted suicide after talking with their church leaders about their abuse is breathtaking.
One survey was posted a couple weeks ago that asked if survivors of abuse were helped or felt worse after speaking with church leaders. A staggering 98% said they actually felt worse after meeting with church leaders. Rachael Denholander was interviewed by Morgan Lee at Christianity Today in an article called, My Larry Nassar Testimony Went Viral. But There’s More to the Gospel Than Forgiveness. Rachael bemoaned the fact that religious leaders gushed over her one-liner about forgiveness when almost the entire 37 minute testimony was about God’s justice and the need to repent. But what really caught my attention was Rachael’s feelings about how the church responds to abuse survivors:
Church is one of the least safe places to acknowledge abuse because the way it is counseled is, more often than not, damaging to the victim. There is an abhorrent lack of knowledge for the damage and devastation that sexual assault brings. It is with deep regret that I say the church is one of the worst places to go for help. That’s a hard thing to say, because I am a very conservative evangelical, but that is the truth. There are very, very few who have ever found true help in the church.
There are a number of reasons why the church continues to fail (another post for another day!). But rather than focus on that for now, I’ll just say that we need to steer our sinking ships back to the harbor of Jesus’ mission. Jesus couldn’t have been more clear: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19 ESV).
This month’s theme is resources for the kingdom. There are good resources for churches that are out there for preventing abuse and for walking a church through the aftermath of it. Step one is to become aware of the most valuable resources that are out there. Step two is having the humility to tap into those resources. In the next post I will list different resources and what each person/organization specializes in. As a church leader myself, I have a heart for helping them. I was lost when an allegation of abuse came to me about my own father. I don’t want others to be lost like I was. There is good help out there now. Abuse is incredibly common. In seven years, I have yet to speak at a congregation where there are no victims of abuse. Many of them who tell me about their abuse have never told anyone before. Church, we’ve got to make it safer for victims to come forward and get healing. They should not be terrified of their leaders. We have work to do, but it can be done!