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.
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.
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