I read recently about a man who was a faithful member of his church. He was involved with the youth group and hosted summer activities at his farm. And he sexually molested many children and youth.
When the civil authorities finally exposed him as a child predator, the leadership of the church made a plan to discipline and restore him to the community. This man was asked to confess his sins at a members-only meeting of the church. After his confession, the pastor urged everyone to stand “as a sign that you have forgiven him.” And people stood.
Imagine being a teenager, sitting in the pew at your church, looking at the man who has raped you. Then imagine your pastor, your family, your friends, your Sunday School teachers, your choir director . . . imagine everyone who is part of your most important community standing in support of that man.
This is a particular—and very real—situation, but the presence of sexual abuse in the church is not unique, nor is the church’s poor handling of such abuse. Many churches are taking more precautions in an attempt to prevent sexual abuse in the congregation: requiring windows into children’s classrooms, not allowing adults to be alone with children, running background checks on church volunteers who want to work with children and youth.
All of these actions are important. Practical, commonsense measures should be put in place to minimize the abuse that happens within our faith communities. But in addition to implementing protection policies, Christians have a lot of theological work to do as well.
I imagine that the pastor who asked the congregation to forgive the sexual predator was considering Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 18:21–22. Peter asks Jesus how many times he should forgive someone in the church who has sinned against him. Seven times? Jesus tells him, “Not seven times, but seventy-seven times.”
Still, I can’t help but think of Jesus’ words just a few verses earlier: “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea.”
Yes, the Bible teaches forgiveness. It also proclaims judgment—particularly against those who harm the most vulnerable. When we insist on public forgiveness rituals for sexual predators, we get it wrong on at least two levels.
First, people who are not directly victims of the abuse presume to offer forgiveness on behalf of those who were abused. It is not the pastor’s or the congregation’s place to grant forgiveness for the violations done to the most vulnerable in their midst. It is the sole right of victims to grant or withhold forgiveness for themselves; to set the terms by which forgiveness will—or will not—be extended to perpetrators. When pastors and others in the church who were not directly victimized offer forgiveness to abusers, they take even more power away from victims who likely already feel powerless.
We also get forgiveness wrong because it is too often a simplistic substitute for healthy accountability. The church uses “forgiveness” to ensure silence on the subject so that people in the church don’t have to feel bad or uncomfortable. It is a way to allow the abuser to remain part of the congregation because he’s probably a really nice guy—when he’s not raping children—and he possibly gives substantial money to the church as well. This type of forgiveness is significantly easier than true accountability, and it can seem best for the institution in the short run.
In the long run, however, forced forgiveness is deeply damaging for victims and entire communities. Studies show that most people who sexually abuse children are repeat offenders with multiple victims. No matter how sorry an abuser seems, if he is allowed continued access to children and youth, odds are he will abuse again. And again.
On Sexual Shaming
In 2011, according to reporting by 20/20, New Hampshire pastor Chuck Phelps discovered that a member of his congregation had raped and impregnated a teenager. Pastor Phelps’s response to this discovery was to force the teen to stand in front of the congregation and confess her sins.
Too often in the church world, people are taught that sex is shameful. Sex is only mentioned in terms of sin. The message received, especially by children, is that sex is dirty and yucky (unless you are married and trying to make babies).
Without clear teachings about healthy sexuality, children and youth often view their bodies as potentially dangerous sexual objects. So if they are touched in a sexual way, they can feel confused and deeply ashamed. The people they should be able to turn to in such a situation—their pastor, Sunday School teachers, parents—are likely the people who have taught them this shame.
In some cases, if a young person gets up the courage to report, an adult can help them through their confusion and shame. But too often, when sexual abuse is reported, the situation looks like that reported by 20/20: the victim gets blamed for their sexual sin. Too many churches refuse to do the hard work of exploring issues of consent and power, the work of understanding grooming and manipulation. They fall back on the simple rule: sex between people who are not married to each other is bad; therefore, anyone who engages in sex with someone to whom they are not married is bad—even if the sexual encounter is a result of grooming, coercion, or outright sexual assault.
There are many problems with this simplistic rule for sex. (I commend to you the book Good Christian Sex by Bromleigh McCleneghan.) But in the context of sexual abuse, the primary problem is that the victim is considered just as sinful as the perpetrator. After all, they both “had sex.” And so, in addition to suffering through the abuse itself, victims then face being shamed within their church communities.
Several years ago, a student in my Feminist Theology class shared that her mom had stayed in an abusive relationship for years because their pastor told her she should. That it was God’s will for her to suffer, like Jesus suffered on the cross. That such suffering made her holy.
Sacrifice is a significant aspect of Christian theology, being linked to Jesus’ command to take up our cross and follow him. And the idea that we, at times, must make sacrifices is not a bad—or even an inherently Christian—teaching in its basic content. We sacrifice money for flood victims; time for the local little league team; canned peas for the local food pantry. Maybe we even sacrifice an advancement in our careers for the sake of our family, or the convenience of a car for the sake of the environment. Sacrifice for others can be a good and blessed thing.
But this theological requirement of self-sacrifice is also dangerous, and sometimes lethal, for abuse victims. The call to sacrifice paired with the story of the crucifixion can easily turn into a glorification of suffering. Victims are told that if they want to be Christlike they will submit to their abusers—or at least submit to the will of the church leadership by not reporting abuse to outsiders.
Abuse victims within the church are counseled to sacrifice their pursuit of justice, their own personal comfort and safety, for the sake of the church’s image. The pastors who counsel this may well be concerned with the image of their individual congregation, but the prospect is presented more dramatically to the victim: “If you tell outsiders that someone in the church has abused you, it will make Jesus look bad. You will become a stumbling block that prevents nonbelievers from finding salvation.”
People within the church—and particularly women within the church—are too often told that following in the footsteps of Jesus means letting people crucify them.
Toward a Theology of Accountability and Empowerment
The church cannot prevent every instance of sexual abuse—within or outside of religious institutions. But it can do a better job of empowering victims and holding perpetrators accountable. The stories told in church matter. And the way they are told matters. Victims of sexual abuse can be either further victimized or moved toward healing depending on how the church talks about forgiveness and sex and self-sacrifice.
Jesus’ crucifixion—the central story of the Christian faith—is not a simple story of self-sacrifice. It is a story about how political, economic, and religious leaders tried to silence a voice and a movement that threatened their tightly clutched power and precariously balanced systems. If we believe in the resurrection, it becomes a story about how those powers fail—and about how we can be part of bringing them down.