Former gymnast Rachael Denhollander—whose testimony against USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar drew widespread media attention—told Christianity Today that “church is one of the least safe places to acknowledge abuse” because victims often receive damaging advice from church staff who know little about the topic.
The #ChurchToo movement (accompanying the #MeToo movement) reveals that churches are as susceptible to issues of sexual misconduct and abuses of power as secular institutions. Often, one or more individuals are to blame for abuses, but calls for reform are directed at churches and their leadership.
Denhollander’s quote about acknowledging abuse is directed at institutional practices and mindsets that often make reporting and responding to abuse a fraught prospect for victims. And, while churches should not preemptively admit culpability before accusations are investigated, they often find themselves apologizing to victims and communities for inadequate and insensitive responses that create burdens and barriers for victims.
What can churches do to change this reputation? How can churches create a culture that honors due process alongside one that honors victims’ and survivors’ stories, experiences, and expectations?
How can churches create a church culture of accountability and victim care? Experts suggest four tips.
1. Look out for people, not institutions
In recent months, several prominent church leaders have been accused of sexual misconduct. Willow Creek Community Church cofounder Bill Hybels retired six months early after he was accused of a pattern of sexual harassment and misconduct.
Andy Savage, teaching pastor at Highpoint Church in Memphis, Tennessee, resigned after confessing to “a sexual incident” 20 years earlier in which he assaulted a 17-year-old congregant.
Frank Page, president and CEO of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Executive Committee, resigned over a “morally inappropriate relationship.”
Paige Patterson, one of the most “powerful and influential figures in the Southern Baptist Convention,” according to Christianity Today, was fired in May as president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (SWBTS). The school’s board said Patterson lied about a rape allegation that surfaced when he previously led Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, and had attempted to discredit the victim of a more recent rape incident at SWBTS.
This newfound focus on abuse of power is heartening, said Boz Tchividjian, a lawyer and founder of Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment (GRACE), an organization that investigates allegations of abuse in Christian organizations. “What we’re seeing is victims who, for the first time in their entire lives, are being empowered to step out of silence into the light,” he said. “That’s a positive step forward.”
However, institutional responses—especially those related to these recent situations—show there is still a long way to go. Tchividjian points to Savage as an example: Savage minimized the abuse he committed by calling it a “sexual incident” and then implied that the victim needed healing—and then he got a standing ovation from his congregation.
This leads to the first lesson churches need to learn: Protect the victim, not the institution. Diane Langberg, a psychologist who works with trauma survivors and teaches at Biblical Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania, agrees with Tchividjian that churches can reinforce abuse by doubting abuse victims and protecting abusers. This has the effect of turning the church into an abuser.
“It’s not only individuals who abuse—systems can be abusers,” Langberg said. “Often the church circles the wagons to protect the church, not the victim, saying, ‘We have to protect the name of God,’ as if he can’t do that himself. They circle the wagons and keep the victim out. The system becomes the next victimizer in the name of God.”
She warned that doing so “multiplies the damage that has already been done. What we are doing is hiding ungodly behavior for the sake of God. That should hurt our brains and our hearts.”
Not only does this response hurt the abuse victim, but it lowers the chances that other abuse victims and survivors will look to the church for help, said Tchividjian. Often, he said, leaders faced with accusations or revelations of abuse feel they must defend church leaders or the church itself because so many others depend on the organization’s survival. Instead, churches should seek to live out the gospel by supporting those who disclose abuse and standing with them.
“When abuse arises, we live out the direct opposite of the gospel,” Tchividjian said. “As an institution, as institutional leaders, we sacrifice the individual—the victim—in order to save ourselves.”
Tchividjian stressed that the “institution doesn’t belong to any leader or person—it belongs to God. We have to have faith that God can protect the church. We just need to be simple and truthful and do the right thing.”
2. Talk about abuse, even if you don’t think it’s happening
A common response abuse victims have is to doubt that the abuse is real, to think that very real abuse is “all in their head.” They may even receive that message explicitly or implicitly from those around them. So when pastors don’t discuss the topic or preach about it, it reinforces that message and makes victims unlikely to confide in church leaders.
And many pastors don’t bring up the topic often. A 2014 LifeWay Research survey found that only 6 percent of the pastors surveyed discussed abuse with their congregants in group contexts at least once a month. A substantial portion (42%) said they rarely or never do so.
“When someone is experiencing abuse, one of the tools abusers use is fear and shame—they cause the victim to believe that it’s their fault or that they deserve the abuse,” said Ashley Easter, a writer and abuse-victim advocate. To combat this, people around the abuse victim or survivor should discuss the topic regularly in ways affirming that abuse is not the victim’s fault. Otherwise, Easter said, “they are laying the foundation that the victim is in the wrong. It’s not true, but if they are not in an environment that’s saying actively that it’s not the victim’s fault, the victim won’t speak up.”
Many Bible stories offer lessons about abuse, Easter pointed out. “The lessons are there. If we could delve into what the Bible says about abuse, how it hurts lives and the trauma that ensues, it would make people feel safer about coming to church and disclosing abuse,” she said. “Jesus is an abuse survivor—he was abused on the cross. If that message was preached loud and clear, it would go a long way to making the church safe for survivors.”
When churches do discuss abuse, it tends to be in the context of national or international news stories like those that have occurred in recent months, said Jennifer Roach, who is a counselor and pastor at Advent Anglican Church in Kirkland, Washington. Instead, abuse should be a regular part of church conversation, and that conversation should be curated with abuse victims and survivors in mind, she said.
“Have a message for victims: The cross applies not just to sin you’ve committed, but to sin committed against you,” she said. “You can talk about it freely and you won’t be punished or shushed or told you’re ruining someone’s reputation.”
3. Protect the vulnerable
According to Tchividjian, churches tend to side with powerful individuals against the abuse victim—intentionally or not—when they close ranks to protect the church. Easter agreed, saying that when abuse victims do speak up and seek advice from pastoral staff, they are often told to stay in abusive marriages and other relationships.
Church staff sometimes try to handle the accusation and investigation in-house instead of bringing in police and other authorities, resulting in victims who feel silenced and are unlikely to bring their cases to church leaders for help. Unfortunately, church leaders, like many people, tend to assume they can tell whether a person accused of a crime is really responsible.
“Research shows over and over again that we can’t tell who’s lying. We all like to think we can, but we’re inevitably wrong,” Langberg said. “There’s a lack of humility to think we would know. We say, ‘I trust so-and-so because I know him.’”
The result of churches hushing up accusations is that victims don’t feel they will be heard if they speak.
“Ultimately, the victim isn’t receiving the care they need, so it doesn’t feel safe due to the church’s historical response,” Easter said. “There are good churches that have a great handle on this, but it’s all too common for [churches] to shame survivors, not take things seriously, and not go through the proper channels to get justice for the victims.”
Churches should take steps immediately to involve authorities outside the church. In many states, churches are required to report abuse. In addition to the legal obligation, involving authorities signals transparency and openness, which are essential messages to send to abuse victims and survivors. Even when a church might not be legally obligated to involve law enforcement—for instance, if an abuse is alleged to have occurred in the past and is beyond the legal statute of limitations—involving law enforcement can send an important message, said Roach.
While few people lie about being abused, churches should avoid passing judgment on a situation immediately. However, churches should always make such situations public by announcing the allegations, involving authorities like police and investigators like those at GRACE, and inviting victims to come forward, said Langberg.
Church leaders’ first response to abuse claims and revelations is particularly important, said Tchividjian, because it sets a tone of trust or distrust in the victim’s story.
“We’re beginning to recognize how prevalent abuse is, and people are beginning to step forward, which are positive signs,” he said. “But we have a long way to go in responding to those disclosures in a way that doesn’t minimize and dehumanize those who have stepped forward—and that doesn’t convey support for and circle the wagons around the leader who has been accused of misconduct.”
4. Admit what you don’t know and acknowledge that abuse happens
According to a LifeWay Research survey, 76 percent of churches have a referral list for professional counselors, 64 percent have money available to assist abuse victims, and about half can refer victims to legal help or to a church member who has experienced domestic violence. However, pastors are also likely to underestimate the likelihood of abuse occurring among church members: Nearly half of the pastors surveyed said they did not know whether anyone in their church had been a domestic violence victim in the past three years.
In reality, it is statistically likely that most churches—even small ones—have members who are abuse victims or survivors. Statistics show that one in four women and one in seven men in the US have been physically abused by an intimate partner. But because churches rarely discuss abuse, many abuse victims stay silent because they feel isolated and out of place, said Easter.
“Rarely do you hear sermons or messages or teachings on abuse,” she said. “When you don’t bring this conversation to the surface, it’s scary for someone who is a survivor to speak up about their experiences.”
When the topic of abuse does come up, it tends to be as something that happens “out there,” leaving abuse victims feeling isolated, Langberg said.
“The church has fooled itself about many things, saying, ‘They’re out there, not in here,’” said Langberg. “I have literally heard pastors say that domestic abuse is not in Christian homes, and I’m thinking, Okay—all these women all these years who have shown me their bruises don’t exist?”
Finally, Langberg noted, it’s all right for church leaders to admit it when they don’t know much about abuse. Acknowledging this can even send an important, positive message to abuse victims and survivors.
“The church needs to be humble enough to say, ‘We don’t do a good job about this, and we don’t know what to do, so we need to learn.’ Hearing that as a victim would be a gift,” she said. “Then, you need to do the learning.”
Ruth Moon is a doctoral candidate in communication at the University of Washington and editor of Response at Seattle Pacific University. This article is adapted and updated from an article that first appeared on ChurchLawAndtax.com.
For additional reading, see these articles and downloadable resources:
- “Creating Sexual Harassment Policies for Church Workplaces”
- “Sexual Misconduct and Church Liability”
- “Church Sued for Supervisor’s Sexual Harassment”
- Sex Offenders in the Church
- Understanding Labor Laws(see especially the “Protect Your Ministry” chapter)
- Reducing the Risk(DVD or online streaming, see especially Video #8: “Responding to an Allegation”)