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4 Questions About Sexual Abuse Your Church is Afraid to Ask

It has been another devastating month for those who love the church.

An investigative grand jury in Pennsylvania unanimously issued an 884-page report detailing more widespread sexual abuse within the Catholic Church and the intentional, systematic cover-up of that abuse.

Although the problem is more pronounced in the Catholic Church, seemingly no group is in the clear.

Whether within a hierarchy like the Catholic Church or an independent church like Willow Creek, accountability is shockingly rare; victims have carried their burdens unaided for sometimes decades.

All this is bad enough in any sector of society, but to know that it has been present within the church, a place of supposed moral example and authority, is calamitous.

With so many perpetrators protected and victims shamed, it may seem out of touch to try to talk about other aspects of this situation when we can’t even seem to get the aftermath right.

Even so, it strikes me that we very seldom ask questions that may help prevent future abuse.

Although punishment is necessary, it is not proving to be enough of a deterrent to allow us to stop there.

Is there more work to be done to understand destructive behavior and prevent it from happening in the first place?

I want to highlight four questions surrounding abuse and misconduct that we are afraid to ask, but that we must ask if we want to address this crisis better.

  1. Why do so many men misbehave?

This first question goes beyond the church, of course. Women have posted hidden camera videos online to show they often can’t even walk down the street without being objectified or belittled.

Among women in the U.S., as many as 81 percent have experienced sexual harassment and one in six has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape, with more experiencing sexual assault of other forms.

There are, of course, male victims of harassment and abuse, but even then, the perpetrators are overwhelmingly male.

Clearly, something is going on with men that few want to talk about. We rightfully seek justice and protection for victims, first and foremost. But are we satisfied doing so without also trying to understand why it’s so prevalent?

CNBC tried to ask such questions of psychologists last year, but the answers given strike me as barely relevant (“protection of occupational territory”) or begging the question (“approval of sexual objectification”).

The 2004 John Jay Report cited supposed causes that are even more unlikely and irrelevant, like “poor seminary training.”

We have trouble asking questions about the underlying cause of destructive sexual behavior, and I think there are several reasons.

One is that it launches us into nebulous or uncomfortable subject areas, like the effects of the church’s long history of repressing and shaming human sexuality.

Another reason is that we, as a culture, seem to have trouble distinguishing between explaining something and excusing something.

People who try to look into root causes of misbehavior are often smeared as trying to justify the behavior. It is crucial that we learn the difference and start trying to understand and explain.

Few ministers go into the church office thinking to themselves, “Today, I’m going to do something that could end my ministry and scar a parishioner forever.”

Destructive behavior often has little to do with a conscious desire to be evil. I believe there is more to understand that could help abate this epidemic.

  1. Why does isolation breed misbehavior?

When Joe Kutter took the reins of the American Baptist Ministers Council as interim director from 2008-12, one of his priorities in working with colleagues was to urge them to avoid isolation.

He often said that while clergy who misbehave come in all shapes and sizes, there is one common thread in all the cases: isolation.

It’s well-documented that clergy tend to be socially isolated, but few want to admit that isolation breeds misbehavior. It is uncomfortable to think about the implications.

It seems to suggest that clergy don’t actually have integrity and follow their worst impulses in private. That’s not quite it, however.

Even people with a calling to vocational ministry can fall victim to hidden desires and sinful impulses, especially because isolation causes us to lose perspective and justify the unjustifiable.

Kevin Walden, ABC-USA associate general secretary for congregational and pastoral effectiveness, once said, “Pastors do not get in trouble because they forget they are pastors, but because they forget they are persons.”

  1. Why are churches – and denominations – so willing to cover up alleged sexual misconduct?

Not in My Church” is an older but poignant video published by the Faith Trust Institute. The video dramatizes the true story of a system dealing with allegations of sexual misconduct. The film does a good job of portraying the factors that feed the pattern of denial and cover-up.

We underestimate how difficult it is for people to accept something as true that they don’t want to believe, even if there’s plenty of evidence.

No one wants to believe that their pastor would commit sexual abuse; therefore, few do believe it when it is alleged.

The film also dramatizes the overwhelmingly strong desire to shield one’s church from public shame.

We underestimate how difficult it is for someone who has invested in their church to expose something that puts that church at risk of declining or closing.

Such forces will be present the next time it happens. We don’t want to entertain the thought that our congregation might respond the same way if it happens in our church, but we must.

Church leaders need to institute clear, written, transparent policies for addressing allegations of abuse.

  1. What does it mean for the church to repent of this?

Things like sex abuse scandals strip the church of any moral high ground it has tried to claim.

We cannot simply move on saying we’ll do better. It’s time for the church to enter its own confessional that it has long set up for others.

A recent article by Bill J. Leonard, professor of divinity emeritus at Wake Forest University’s School of Divinity, explores what it would take to get beyond what he calls the church’s “hesitant penance” to fully and publicly repent for what has happened.

He writes that penance comes with a price, and boldly imagines the church declaring, “Our witness is so broken, our actions so heinous that we can no longer claim to be the arbiters of Christian morality in the public square. As a sign of public repentance, we will tend our own hearts for at least five to 10 years before claiming moral authority in church and society. … We’ve already paid out billions of dollars in settlements, but we’ll mortgage the Body of Christ to the hilt if need be.”

So much damage has been done by trying to stay in hiding. Let us no longer hide from sins already committed, or from the pain and stories of the victims, or from the painful questions and conversations that will lead us back to the narrow path (Matthew 7:14).

Corey Fields

Corey Fields is senior pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Newark, Delaware. His work has included cultivating congregational vision for missional ministry and ecumenical social justice efforts.