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 churchesand 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?
In short: 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.